I attended the HEA conference ‘Inspire to Succeed’ in Glasgow in February. I was inspired by Kirsten Jack (member of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Department of Nursing), the keynote speaker who gave a talk on ‘The use of the arts to uncover the human aspects of nursing practice’. She asked her students to write poetry to express their feelings.
I teach dental undergraduates at Cardiff at a time when they transition from a skills laboratory to treat their first patients. Some students cope with this change much better than others. Having listened to Kirsten, I returned to Cardiff and decided to see if I could capture their feelings and thoughts at this important time in their undergraduate careers. Firstly, students were provided with a blank A5 sheet of paper and asked to draw a sketch that expressed their feelings about treating members of the public for the first time. Secondly, they were given a single post-it note and asked to record their biggest fear. Some fabulous and fascinating sketches were returned and the post-it note messages revealed some surprising results.
I am hoping that all students (whether they submitted a sketch or not) will be reassured that they are not alone in having fears about making the transition from a skills laboratory to a clinical setting. The great thing about the art is that its impact is instant. Students look at the pictures and can identify immediately with the emotion expressed. They think, “yes, that’s me! That’s how I feel too.” They have better understanding that their concerns are normal.
I think the study has also helped to remind the teachers of the emotion that can surround first patient contact. We are quite good at teaching the ‘nuts and bolts’ of our subject but as staff we are now so far removed from this time in our own careers that we have forgotten about the anxiety, the uncertainty and the awkwardness we felt when we started out.
Kirsten's comments about the freedom that students have to write and that “even personal reflective pieces are often shoehorned into reflective templates” really resonated with me. It was the reason I asked students to simply write their biggest fear on a post-it note. The responses revealed that many students’ concerns were not about providing the dentistry itself. Instead there were numerous comments about making small talk with patients, anxiety about hurting them, how to handle patient queries and worries about what the patient would think of them. This feedback will help staff provide better support for learners at this challenging time in their undergraduate course.
I shall be presenting this data as a poster at the Association for Dental Education in Europe in August. I would not have engaged with this study had I not heard Kirsten speak.