Bad Memories Of The Chalk Carving Admission Test

by Dr. Randy Lang

I can still vividly remember when I and over 100 other trembling students sat for the dreaded chalk carving dental admission test at the University of Toronto. It was a stifling hot summer day and we were all marched into a large lab, with no air conditioning, in the basement of the dental school.

A voice then boomed out over a loud speaker telling us to take a seat at one of the lab benches. Before each of us was a piece of chalk, a sharp knife, a ruler and a diagram of a complicated design that we were supposed to carve into the chalk.

Then, for the next couple of hours, we sweated and cursed, and often sobbed, while we attempted to carve our stupid piece of chalk, which was usually in a number of pieces by then.

And while we were struggling, a group of grim-faced instructors in white lab coats would circle each student and carefully examine and grade their chalk-carving attempt.

I clearly remember that my piece of chalk looked like a chipmunk or squirrel had been chewing on it all morning. Next, a chicken took over and pecked at it for another hour. And finally, a big Mack truck just drove it over and crushed it.

When the growling instructors finally came to examine my feeble attempt, they carefully put all of my broken chalk pieces into a neat pile. One of them then asked me if I would ever consider transferring to a plumbing or auto mechanics course at the local community college. I politely replied that I would give it some thought. He smiled and quietly slipped me an application form. I was crushed.

The assessing of basic manual skills has always been one of the most debated issues among the parameters used by dental schools for selecting dental students. Some tests, such as the chalk carving exercise, have been used for many years in the belief that there is a strong correlation between chalk carving and the future clinical competence of a dental school applicant. Unfortunately, studies that have tried to prove this hypothesis have produced only controversial results. Very few have reached any clear conclusions about the test’s ability to predict a student’s future success in dental school or in practice.

So, if our dental schools cannot depend on the chalk carving exercise to help predict the future clinical skill of a dental school applicant, is there any other more valid test that could be used?

Interestingly enough, admission committees at medical schools are also faced with a similar dilemma when choosing applicants for some surgical programs. Again, the question is, “How do you determine which applicants possess the manual skills that will allow them to become talented clinical surgeons?”

In an article titled “The Impact of Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century”, published in the American Archives of Surgery, it was reported that surgical residents, who had a history of playing video games, performed much better in certain surgical techniques than their non-gaming colleagues. Video gaming residents also learned faster, made 37 percent fewer surgical errors and performed the same surgical tasks 24 percent faster than their non-gaming colleagues. Regression analysis also showed that video game skill and past video game experience are significant predictors of skill in many surgical procedures.

So, what can dentistry learn from this study? Possibly that we should throw away all those stressful chalk carving exercises and replace them with video gaming consoles.

Future dental school applicants will be much happier being tested playing Pac Man or Donkey Kong than carving that stupid chalk! OH

Dr. Randy Lang is an orthodontic lecturer at the University of Toronto and past president of the Ontario Association of Orthodontics. He maintains an orthodontic practice in West Toronto and Mississauga, ON. Dr. Lang is also co-chair of Oral Health’s editorial board.