What CE should provide

July 1, 2005
In 2004, I chose a new path in my dental hygiene career. In addition to my writing and speaking roles, I assumed the position of adjunct faculty at a local dental hygiene program.

In 2004, I chose a new path in my dental hygiene career. In addition to my writing and speaking roles, I assumed the position of adjunct faculty at a local dental hygiene program. Simultaneously, mentors encouraged me to purse a master’s degree. I had completed my bachelor’s degree in health science over 20 years ago, so the thought of going back to school with a family and my new work responsibilities was a bit daunting.

Consequently, I investigated a number of programs and decided on a local program that provided a master’s in education while utilizing instructional design, a blend of technology and media to enhance the adult educational experience. It is an online program, but, as with most online educational opportunities, there are some physical components. The first online class began in September 2004, and was a basic introduction to the instructional design process.

Online programs can actually require more effort than physical classes. But I enjoyed this session immensely, and I was hooked. The second required class was a session titled, “Adults as Learners.” This class was actually a “real” class that I attended this past spring. While the first class was very structured, this class and the instructor provided a very interactive and fun learning experience.

As I was reviewing the objectives of the class, I realized that many of the things we discussed would be appropriate to share in a continuing education column. As dental professionals, we are required and motivated to take a variety of continuing education programs. But do these programs treat us as “adults?” How does a speaker or any instructor, prepare to teach a group of adult individuals from a variety of backgrounds and interests, and manage to enhance their overall educational experience? This was the focus of the course and I will hopefully share my own enlightenment, so that you may become a more discriminating consumer of dental hygiene continuing education.

“In general, adults want to make sense of their world, find meaning and be effective in what they value. This is what fuels motivation to learn.”1 As dental professionals, we constantly strive to make sense of the ever evolving science of dentistry and dental hygiene. We attempt to find the meaning and relevance of new research and how it affects our day to day clinical skills. We value the care we provide to our patients. Among others, these particular motivators drive us to seek continuing education programs.

But how can we determine if an educational opportunity has provided us with the information we need as adult learners? There are four basic areas that affect adult motivation to learn. These include establishing inclusion, developing a positive attitude, enhancing meaning, and engendering competence. I believe that in order for a continuing education program to be effective, it must contain these elements. Depending on the length and type of program, all of these factors need to be addressed in some manner. When they are, it is a win-win situation for both participant and lecturer.

To establish inclusion, a continuing education program must allow time for the participants and the speaker to develop a personal connection. All CE programs offer an introduction to the speaker, which basically highlights the speaker’s background and accomplishments. But does the speaker allow for the opposite to happen? Does the speaker ask the audience questions as to who they are and why they are there, or does she/he just dive into their presentation?

In order for effective learning to take place, I hold that both the speaker and audience need to know who they are. This may also involve sharing something of value about the topic from both sides of the aisle, so that the speaker and participants can create a mutual bond for learning. In addition, the learning objectives and course goals should be clearly defined, so that everyone knows what to expect from the program. The speaker should also acknowledge the presence of any different languages or cultures, so that no one feels excluded in any of the discussions.

For a program to create a positive attitude within its participants, the speaker has a number of roles to fill. Initially, there must be an elimination or minimization of any negative influences surrounding the subject. For example, here in Massachusetts, dental hygienists have recently been permitted to administer local anesthesia. However, a hygienist must first undergo an intensive didactic and clinical course, take a computer exam, and then apply for licensure. The didactic and clinical portion is comprised of head and neck anatomy, which must be mastered in order to give injections.

Since many practicing hygienists have long since forgotten the names of the cranial nerves and anatomy lessons from hygiene school, re-learning such a challenging subject may cause negativity. If the program and the instructors acknowledge this and allow for reintegration and acceptance of the learner, a major hurdle in reducing re-learning apprehension can be surmounted, thereby providing the hygienist with a more comfortable learning experience. In addition, another method of augmenting positive attitudes is to allow the expression of individual experiences, concerns and interests. Depending on the length of the continuing education program, this may prove difficult, but somehow these should be included in the overall presentation.

A continuing education program should have meaning for those who participate. We do not learn in a vacuum. Our patients and employers constantly challenge us to demonstrate our clinical skills and professional knowledge. The continuing education presenter must repeatedly encourage the audience to learn, apply, create, and communicate their newly found skills. The information presented in both hands-on courses and lecture presentations must translate into everyday clinical work situations. Through the use of handouts or actual clinical endeavors, the presenter must effectively communicate the information for use on a day to day basis.

The ability of the presenter to develop and engage participants is another important component of enhancing meaning during any learning activity. Are critical questions asked to stimulate engagement and challenge the learners? Is humor used effectively and are case studies or examples used throughout?

The final area that motivates adults to learn is in the area of competence. Upon completing any course of study, whether a two-hour CE program or a semester-long class, adults want to know that they have become competent in a given area. Course evaluations and critical incidence questionnaires evaluate the instructor. These are usually the only evaluations performed during short CE programs. However, longer student/participant evaluations can also be used if a more intense course of study is involved. If student or educator evaluation is used, then several basic criteria should be addressed. Is effective feedback included, are cultural biases removed, are there opportunities for learners to demonstrate new skills using a variety of their strengths and learning styles, is constructive criticism used, are there rewards for effective learning, and is there an effective closure to the learning activity?

Hopefully this column has inspired you to evaluate your next CE program. As the text claims: “when the learning flow between instructor and learner is reciprocal and respectful, it is an inspired dimension of being; not something one practices or performs, but something one enters and lives.”1 Your next CE course should be one that motivates you to greater levels in dental hygiene.


1 Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn by Raymond Wlodkowski, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1999

Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, BS, is currently a faculty member at Mt. Ida College’s dental hygiene program after spending more than 25 years in private practice. She is also pursuing a master’s degree in education in instructional design. A member of several professional dental hygiene associations, Ann-Marie has written numerous articles and provides continuing education programs for dental hygienists and dental team members. She can be reached at [email protected].