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Tools for Education

Aug. 1, 2010
As a hygienist, Pilates instructor, and educator, I play the role of teacher in many different settings.

Match the right tool for your next (patient education) task

by Juli Kagan, RDH, MEd

As a hygienist, Pilates instructor, and educator, I play the role of teacher in many different settings. Over my 14 years of studying and applying adult learning, one important aspect I have discovered is that people learn best when they understand both what and why they need to know something. Simply providing students with information does not necessarily mean they learn; learners must appreciate the significance of the information.

This is an important insight for hygienists because a key part of our role in the dental office is providing patient education. Hygienists must help patients understand the true value of the services or procedures being recommended, not just the details of the procedure. Unfortunately, there is no single method of patient education that will accomplish this for every person. This is why it is vital for the dental team to tailor its educational tools to patients’ individual learning styles.

The VARK Model

To understand which tools work for which types of people, we must consider all of the different routes through which people take in information. There are a number of different models of learning styles, but one of the most common is “VARK,” developed by an educator named Neil Fleming. The learning styles in the VARK model are broken down into four categories: visual, aural/auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic. Fleming’s definitions for each category are:

  • Visual: This preference includes the depiction of information in maps, charts, graphs, diagrams, and other devices that instructors use to represent what could have been presented in words. Contrary to what many may infer from the “visual” title, this category does not include videos or PowerPoint.
  • Aural/auditory: This perceptual mode describes a preference for information that is heard or spoken, such as lectures, tutorials, tapes, and group discussion. It includes talking out loud as well as talking to oneself.
  • Read/write: This preference is for information displayed as words, emphasizing text-based input and output. PowerPoint falls into this category, as its presentations are typically text-based.
  • Kinesthetic: This multimodal learning style refers to the “perceptual preference related to the use of experience and practice (simulated or real).” Tools used include demonstrations, simulations, videos and movies of “real” things, as well as case studies, practice, and applications.

Of course, many patients’ learning styles include not just one, but a combination of these methods. A patient’s VARK style can be determined with a simple 16-item questionnaire, but in the dental setting we are most often left to determine patients’ styles on our own.

Patient education systems such as CAESY from Patterson Dental can be very helpful in reaching patients with different learning styles because they use visual, aural, reading, and kinesthetic tools. In just one video, patients can see a diagram, hear the narration, read key points, and watch a demonstration of a procedure.

If you notice a particular method works effectively for a patient, additional materials tailored for this mode may help drive the information home. For instance, a visual learner will appreciate diagrams or photos, and the CAESY “ShowCase” feature allows you to burn CDs for patients that include images and videos for later viewing. An aural learner, on the other hand, might prefer time to talk things over with the dental team. A patient in the read/write category might favor a more detailed text pamphlet, such as the dental conditions and treatment option handouts offered through CAESY Printables and other patient education systems. Finally, a kinesthetic learner may be interested in actually holding a restoration in his or her hands.

For many hygienists, the true challenge is identifying which method works for each patient, and this is where your individual relationships with patients become very important. I find that patients’ professions or lifestyles can give clues regarding what will be the most effective teaching style. For instance, someone who works as an engineer may have a “give me the facts” learning style that falls into the reading/writing category. Conversely, many women prefer to talk through a potential procedure and ask questions before they “feel” they understand. As a hygienist and Pilates instructor, I am a highly kinesthetic learner, and consequently must sense with my hands. Simple observations such as these can go a long way toward identifying what will cement information into a patient’s mind.

VARK researchers have discerned significant differences between men, who are more kinesthetic, and women, who gravitate toward reading/writing. Students in the performing arts and applied sciences field are often visual learners, while humanities students prefer the read/write method, and science students fall into multiple categories. Applying these insights to your knowledge of patients’ lives can be a great way to identify the right teaching method.

There is only one simple gauge I know of to determine whether a patient fully grasps the education used for a recommended treatment—whether or not he or she buys it. The dental team can know that they have adequately demonstrated the value of a procedure when the patient commits to that procedure. I like to say, “Everything in dentistry is elective, except for pain.” I’m sure many of us have seen patients defer needed treatment because they were not in pain at the time of their visit. However, the right educational tools can help create a treatment’s value in the patient’s mind and translate to acceptance. For many procedures, the dental office has to compete with plasma TVs or vacations in the patient’s budget, so it is imperative to tap into which educational tools can help create value for each person.

It’s a great feeling to see a patient nod and say, “I understand,” or “That makes sense” when something is explained. By using both multimodal patient education tools such as CAESY, and more specific resources such as photos, printed materials, and diagrams, hygienists can play a key role in helping a treatment come to life in a patient’s mind. While it can be a challenge to keep education on the priority list in a busy practice, giving patients individual attention in this area can result in big rewards for both the practice and the patient’s health.

Devoted to life-long learning, dentistry and wellness, as well as physical and mental fitness, Juli Kagan, RDH, MEd, is responsible for the online course, Education for Health Care Professionals (BHSc), plus the ergonomics lectures and clinical instruction in the perio department at Nova Southeastern University. Passionate about Pilates and posture, she is a professional speaker and writer. Juli authored “Mind Your Body: Pilates for the Seated Professional.” Visit her Web site at for speaking engagements for your local society, state association, or private practice.


1. Fleming ND, Mills C, (1992). Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-155.

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