First-year tips: Didactics, pre-clinic, clinic

Congratulations on making it into dental school! Take a moment to soak it all in because soon enough it’ll be time to get down to work. Dental school will certainly be an adjustment compared to your undergraduate studies but entering it with the right strategies and mindset can make school much easier. Here’s what worked well for me and my fellow students during our first year.

Active recall is your friend
Active recall is a recent trend in education, but evidence shows that trying to remember information is a more effective way to learn than reviewing. Flashcards, practice testing, and quizzing yourself with friends are all methods of active learning that can help you quickly learn the large amount of information dental school will throw at you. The flashcard app Anki is a popular choice among dental students. Anki is highly customizable with a built-in algorithm to maximize a user’s retention of facts. Quizlet is also an effective option, especially because of its friendly user interface.

Passive learning, such as reviewing slides, writing notes and highlighting, has its uses. Sometimes flashcards can feel like a long series of unrelated facts. In those times, passive learning can be helpful to obtain the bigger picture. You may find a combination of active and passive learning is effective. Ultimately, keeping active learning a mainstay of your studying can make the workload of dental school manageable.

Practice early, practice often
Certain dental schools call them competencies, others call them practicals. The idea remains the same: you have two hours to complete a pair of procedures. These can be the most nerve-wracking experiences of your pre-clinical years, though there is no need to get discouraged. Learning dentistry is like learning any other skill; you need to practice. However, it also matters how you practice. If you ever played an instrument, you know what this is like. You struggle for hours with a piece, but after a good night’s sleep and a bit more practice, everything suddenly comes together like magic.

Psychomotor skills develop most effectively through these cycles of rest and practice. Therefore, try to practice in the lab even when there isn’t a competency coming up. Avoid getting frustrated by your mistakes as each mistake is a step toward success. By practicing regularly over the long term, you are allowing connections in your brain to form that are related to that activity. It’s more effective to practice once or twice a week for a month rather than experience marathon practice sessions the week before a competency. Get in the lab, potentiate those neurons and you may find exam day is just like any other day.

Dental school is a lot of work, but there are steps you can take to make it easier. Approach the workload with an open mind. Active learning and consistent practice are methods worth trying. Ultimately, everyone learns differently. Don’t be afraid to try new things until you find a routine that works for you.

~ Neil A. Patel, Detroit Mercy ‘25

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