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Reflective/inquiry learning focuses on the practical aspects of learning rather than teaching. It requires reflection on what you are doing now, what you see and hear around you and what you want to accomplish in the future. Asking questions is the inquiry aspect. Self-reflection is central to this approach to learning, which is based on the Socratic method of asking questions and developing understanding.

As a clinician, think about your life, your work and your career. Do you have a job or a career? Ask yourself what is your oral health philosophy. What are you doing to achieve oral health for your patients and how is it working? What is the state of oral health in your country today? What else can be done or change to achieve the goal of oral health?

Reflective/inquiry learning is open ended. It begins with an idea that you develop. The research process is the developmental process of following through the idea, observing the results and continually checking whether it is in line with what you wish to happen. Seen in this way, reflective/inquiry learning is a form of self-evaluation. It is used in other professions for appraisal, mentoring and self-assessment.

A useful way to think about reflective/inquiry learning is that it is a strategy to help you live in a way that you are comfortable with. It helps you live out the things you believe in, and it enables you to give good reasons every step of the way.

Think about something in your life that you learned and never forgot. Chances are it wasn’t something you learned in school, but rather something you learned on your own from personal life experience. It’s often something requiring your active participation and not something you heard about or read about. Think about riding a bicycle. You can read about it and you watch others do it, but you don’t really learn to ride a bike until you get on and do it. You’ll take a few tumbles until you adjust your weight and get the feel of the bike. You probably didn’t stop after each fall and rationalise why it happened. More likely, you just tried out new strategies until you succeeded. Once you learn to ride a bike, it’s something you never forget. Thus the old saying, “it’s like riding a bike”.

This is the basic action principle underpinning reflective/inquiry learning. It involves identifying a problematic issue, imagining a possible solution, trying it out, evaluating it (did it work?), and changing practice in the light of that evaluation. This is basically life experience plus basic problem solving.

The OHU Project needed for completion of the BS Degree requirements focuses on what you want to achieve in your current work setting. You undertake informal reflective/inquiry learning already as part of your clinical practice whenever you test out a new product or procedure. The difference here is undertaking this project in a more formal way and documenting the steps along the way.


Reflective/inquiry learning for the OHU project begins with the question, “How do I improve my success preventing dental disease?” This is quite different from traditional education or training. Traditionally an expert offers advice in a lecture format. The OHU perspective is that dental hygienists/therapists have already achieved a high level of education, have valuable experience and are highly capable of learning for themselves. OHU provides the support structure to help you recognize what you already know, and generate new knowledge applicable to your current work setting. This occurs through interaction with other BS Degree students who are equally interested in moving their careers ahead and preventing dental disease.

Reflective/inquiry learning means that you evaluate your current approach to prevention. Checking along the way to see if what you are doing is actually working. Are you really preventing dental disease or are you simply going through the motions learned in DH/Therapy School? Self-evaluation shows your willingness to accept responsibility for your own thinking, treatment planning, actions and outcomes. Reflective/inquiry learning allows you to direct your own learning and develop a reflective evaluation of your patient care on a continuing basis in practice. Incremental learning in a BS Degree program and later a Master’s Degree program builds on previous learning, developing and transforming past treatment approaches into new more effective concepts. Reflective/inquiry learning offers a new focus that enables RDH/Therapists to celebrate their learning together. Traditionally, appraisal or evaluation was the responsibility of an employer/dentist who made judgements about the professionalism and competence of his/her team. Using reflection and inquiry, self-evaluation becomes a natural part of professional patient care and career development.

The basic steps in reflective/inquiry learning related to the degree project:

  • Review of current preventive approaches Analysis of your career
  • Identification of a prevention focused project
  • Development of a business plan
  • Implementation of the plan
  • Evaluation of the outcomes
  • Modification as needed
  • Review and evaluate the modified approach
  • Write up the project for your Portfolio

Two processes are at work: your systematic actions as you work your way through these steps, and your learning. Your actions embody your learning, and your learning is informed by your reflections on your actions. Therefore, when you come to write the report of your project, describe not only the project you undertook, but also the learning involved and your reflections on the project. The report shows the process you have gone through in order to achieve a better understanding of yourself, so that you can continue developing your profession and your clinical patient care.

This reflective/inquiry learning process can lead to new projects within your DH/Therapy department, as new ideas emerge. New goals are set and new projects are undertaken. Imagine a series of steps in developing your DH/Therapy department within your current work setting. Setting goals, evaluating outcomes and readjusting are essential to advancing both your current employment position and your career. Rather than a neat, linear path, many RDH/Therapists follow s a zigzag’ or ‘spiral’ process of continual review and re-adjustment to achieve their goals. Without goals, reflection and inquiry, we continue to do the same things over again without appreciable forward momentum.

Reflective/inquiry learning begins with values and goals. Using reflection, look at what drives your life and work; be clear about what you are doing and why you are doing it. You might need to spend time clarifying for yourself the values and commitments you hold and goals you want to achieve. This is a good starting point for this educational process.

Questions you may want to reflect on:

  • What aspect of prevention am I most interested in?
  • Why is this aspect of prevention of interest to me?
  • What can I do to implement change in my current work setting?
  • What will I do? Am I where I thought I’d be at this point in my career?
  • What do I want to be doing one year from now? Five years from now?

Improving the clinical outcomes of your practice requires you to learn to do things in new ways. It is a process of reflection and inquiry. This is true whether you are just beginning your career, have been at it for many years or are retired. Learning is for life, not just at university or while working.

In traditional education, the emphasis is on teaching or training, not on learning. The assumption is that the teacher/trainer/professor knows the answers and passes them on to you, and then supervises you to make sure you are applying them correctly. This teaching model is widespread and unquestioned. Reflective/inquiry learning focuses on the learner, not the teacher. With this new approach, it is assumed that you already know a great deal through education and clinical practice. Many of you will benefit more from a facilitator, critical colleague or mentor who will listen to your ideas, challenge them, help you to find alternatives and implement change, rather than a didactic teacher. This approach to learning opens the mentor to learning as well. Mentors are not expected to have answers to your workplace-based questions; it is a dialogue of equals. Reflective/inquiry learning helps you to grow professionally by providing you skills you require to continually develop and grow your own professional knowledge. Learning is a lifelong process.