Modernising Dental Education

Melbourne Dental School is in the midst of a curriculum review and redesign that puts students and patients at its centre

“Students come to Melbourne Dental School to get the best education, to be challenged and to graduate with appropriate skills. The new curriculum redesign will ensure that as our students join the clinical workforce, they are skilled, confident and competent and ready to give the best quality care to patients,” says Professor Alastair Sloan, Head of Melbourne Dental School.

Since he arrived at the University in 2020, a key focus for Professor Sloan has been reviewing and reshaping the curriculum to position it as “the leading curriculum in the country”. With the review stage complete, work has now begun on writing the curriculum content that will roll out in 2024.

The review process has been transparent and comprehensive, with input from Melbourne Dental School staff and students. A Student Voice initiative asked current students to identify strengths and weaknesses of the existing curriculum and those insights are being considered as the new curriculum emerges.

Blending education

“There are a number of key areas that we are focusing on. We want to build a blended approach to education so that when students are in the building they are engaged in high-quality, face-to-face time with tutors for case-based learning and this will be combined with engaging online content,” explains Professor Sloan.

“Chalk and talk are no longer the best options for a 21st century dental program. We are recruiting learning designers and education technologists to work with us to create interactive online content that students can actively engage with.”

Insightful assessments

A ‘fit for purpose’ assessment process will also be a key feature of the new curriculum.

“Our aim is to provide content ahead of time so students know what their assessment will be and what it will assess. That needs to be clear and students need to be provided with appropriate feedback that they can reflect on and use to improve their performance down the line,” says Professor Sloan.

“We also want to reduce duplication on assessments and make sure that the right assessments are selected as hurdles. In short, we are doing a root and branch review of assessment so when our students graduate, they are competent, safe and able to reflect.”

Dr Samantha Byrne, MDS Director of Learning and Teaching and Divisional Lead for Education and Innovation, is leading the curriculum review and redesign. She says the new assessment program will adopt an approach that gives students a variety of ways to demonstrate their learning.

“The process of assessment is an opportunity for students to determine where they are at and to set learning goals. It shouldn’t be punitive – it’s more a developmental approach that enables students to develop the behaviour and attitudes they will need as lifelong clinicians. We want an assessment process that helps students demonstrate what they’ve learned and understand how to seek and use feedback,” says Dr Byrne.

Joining forces

The new curriculum will be future-focused, designed to meet the needs of the community and aligned with the Faculty’s Advancing Health 2030 strategic plan. Dr Byrne says there will be a greater focus on ensuring theory and practice sit together for students. Opportunities for Bachelor of Oral Health and Doctor of Dental Surgery students to learn together when appropriate are also being explored.

“Intra-professional education means students develop an understanding of one another’s roles in the dental team. We also want to work towards a program of even more case-based learning, so students apply their knowledge, such as anatomy, dental materials and ethics, across a variety of cases,” says Dr Byrne.

While the new curriculum won’t be put into practice until 2024, Dr Byrne says Melbourne Dental School staff are already reviewing how they teach.

“We are already encouraging our staff to look at their assessment practices and to find more opportunities for students to engage in active learning and to apply their knowledge in the classroom,” adds Dr Byrne.

  • Listening to the student experience

    Linna Tea (BOralHlth 2021)


    Student feedback on how to enhance the Melbourne Dental School curriculum was actively sought. Linna Tea (BOralHlth 2021) met with the curriculum review team to share her insights. She was a student rep during her three-year degree program and explained what she felt the curriculum already did well and where it could be improved.

    “It was a very open discussion around the areas that were effective and the areas of concern. Bringing theory into practice, clinical placements, the application of clinical experience into group discussions and effective feedback are important,” says Ms Tea.

    “Because of COVID, we were a cohort that had to transition towards online learning and navigating that initially was quite difficult. It was a challenge to keep track of the different learning modules but a lot of students also preferred online learning. I’m very optimistic about the new curriculum because the student voice has been considered in changes that are being made.”

  • Improving for the future

    Lucinda Zia (BSc 2016, DDS 2021)

    Lucinda Zia (BSc 2016, DDS 2021) was also a class rep during her time at the Melbourne Dental School and she contributed student perspectives to the curriculum review that will flow through to the redesign.

    “Dental school is a difficult experience – it’s hard work and I think that’s the same in all dental schools. I took part in the curriculum review because I wanted to help change and improve the system for future dental students,” says Dr Zia.

    “The review team asked me what I saw as issues that needed to be addressed and later, during group interviews, they presented possible solutions and asked for students’ thoughts on those. I had a series of meetings with Dr Byrne where we discussed issues and solutions and I remember feeling very positive that we were being listened to and that there was a mandate for change for the better.”

    Dr Zia says the flow of timely communication between students and Melbourne Dental School staff was one area that she flagged for improvement. She also highlighted timetabling issues with clashes and overlaps between the timing of lectures and clinical placements.

    “Assessment feedback was also discussed – you need quality feedback to know where you are going wrong and where you need to place your efforts to improve,” says Dr Zia.

    “I have friends in cohorts below me who say improvements are already being made. There are more staff members that they can go to if they have any issues – there are direct lines now to help get a problem resolved. Communication has been improved too, with weekly emails and a bulletin board for students. I think everyone has been willing to work together on the curriculum review and that has created goodwill and a pathway to make a difference.”

  • Highlighting areas of need

    Professor Sloan says the sweeping curriculum review and the development is focused on modernising dental education to ensure students are up to speed with contemporary practices and can go on to work anywhere.

    “We want to produce graduates who are skilled clinically and academically and who can work in any broad field of dentistry – private practice, the public sector, in hospitals or academia,” he says.

    “Coming out of the pandemic the growth in waiting lists for public sector patients has jumped significantly. We place our students in public clinics as part of their training, predominantly in the final year of their course. They treat patients with significant multiple needs in terms of their oral health and rehabilitation. If we can place students in public clinics for longer, we might tempt some of them to work in a mix of public and private practice, rather than defaulting straight to private practice only.

    “I’m interested in looking at how we can tempt more graduates to work in public practices and also how we can encourage more graduates to work rurally where there is significant need. There are multiple ways in which a curriculum redesign, the experiences a student has through their study, and the mentoring program that is part of their course can influence their career choice down the line.”

  • Reinforcing old and new partnerships

    Professor Sloan is also keen to continue to build strong relationships and partnerships with key stakeholders and allies, such as Dental Health Services Victoria, Royal Children’s Hospital Department of Dentistry, and Melbourne teaching health clinics to identify how they can work together to deliver the best possible education and patient care.

    The recent DentAlliance partnership is an example of the push for greater connections to support the continued professional development of Melbourne Dental School staff and alumni. DentAlliance is a collaboration of four prestigious dental schools, each bringing their world-leading expertise to build professional practice and deliver global insights into contemporary trends in clinical dentistry.

    The Melbourne Dental School, Adams School of Dentistry, King’s College London and the National University of Singapore form DentAlliance, which delivers webinars, face-to-face workshops and live Q&A sessions to help professional development and showcase keynote speakers from the four members’ institutions. Melbourne Dental School professionals will help develop programs that showcase the School’s expertise on everything from digital dentistry to paediatric dentistry.

    The benefits of being part of this leading global collaboration will filter through to students who will in turn benefit from the new insights and information shared by DentAlliance members, says Professor Sloan.

    “In short, the aim of the new curriculum is simple,” he says.

    “I want excellence and innovation to run across everything we do at Melbourne Dental School.”