University is a huge step-up from college/school in many respects.

One of the key challenges is adapting to the new style of teaching and being able to manage your own learning.

At school, we get spoon-fed a lot

There are teachers and our parents/guardians to encourage us to study and do our homework. We get a helping hand when it comes to finding out about the opportunities available to us and how we can get to them.

But then we become an ‘adult’

And get thrown into a totally new environment with lots of challenges and distractions, it is not so easy to keep on top of the academic side of university!

Caught Napping: Sometimes I can’t hack 4 hours of back-to-back lectures we have on Wednesday mornings. I had to take advantage of the precious few minutes between lectures to sneak in an extra dream.

Not limited to dental school is the fact that there is a hell of a lot to learn; at university we sit through hundreds of hours of lectures and are expected to know most of what is spoken in them and on the lecture slides to be able to pass our exams. And pretty much all of the time, what we are hearing is totally new information so it’s not always that easy to stay focussed and keep up!

The first year is definitely the biggest transition and fortunately there are plenty of channels of support to help facilitate each individuals evolution into a functioning undergraduate student.

One of those support channels is PASS!

And this post is going to be all about PASS, something I am very grateful exists at Queen Mary University of London (QM) where I am a student.

I’ve mentioned this in many other posts so I’m sure most of the readers will already know this:

I’m currently a second year dental student training at The Royal London Dental Institute, which itself is part of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (commonly referred to as ‘Barts’). And the mothership is QM; Barts is a part of QM.

QM = Queen Mary University of London

I think I made that ^^ seem more complicated than it is…


So far in this post I’ve been skirting around the topic without actually telling you what PASS is all about but I’m sure you can figure out the rough idea of it based on the name.

Sorry, I have a habit of waffling when I write…

PASS stands for “Peer Assisted Study Support”

It is a really helpful initiative not limited to the dental school but actually is used in many other (but not all) QM university departments.

PASS is a self help, undergraduate peer mentoring scheme

I believe PASS has been specifically implemented within courses that perhaps would benefit from extra academic support systems.

I’m not sure if PASS or something similar to it is used in many other universities in the UK but I wouldn’t be surprised because it is so simple and so helpful! What I do know is that it came from the US originally, where they call it SI: Supplemental Instruction and it has crossed over many borders and the framework for SI is used in higher education centres worldwide!

I believe here in the UK, only two other universities Manchester and UCL (University College London) have a similar scheme but call it PAL: Peer Assisted Learning.

PASS: What Actually Happens?

In the dental school our system for PASS basically involves 4 sessions in the academic year which are evenly spaced out and delivered on Wednesday afternoons. We do it on Wednesdays as they are almost always free from any scheduled lecture-based or clinical teaching meaning it’s a convenient time for the students (except for those who are involved with a university sports team who usually have matches at this time!)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are three PASS Student Organisers for dentistry, they are three 3rd year dental students who were PASS Mentors when in their second year. The organisers set up a private Facebook page that includes all the first year dental students, myself and all the other PASS Mentors as well as the three organisers.

Ula and Mostafa: Two of the three PASS organisers, they are 3rd year dental students and were PASS mentors when 2nd year students. 

During the induction week, the 1st year students received a brief introductory talk about PASS delivered by the three organisers who explained what it was. The first years are encouraged to communicate with the PASS mentors via the FB group and a week or so before the session is scheduled, they are invited to request specific topics that have been taught to them that they want us to simplify and help them learn.

Between us, the PASS mentors then agree on a requested topic each and then we all do our own preparation and research, ultimately creating a presentation deck that we can deliver to the students during the session.

To give you an idea of what kind of things the first year dental students are learning that we covered, here are the topics we were asked to cover in the first couple of sessions:

Session #1

  • Enzyme Kinetics
  • Autonomic Nervous System
  • Drugs and the Sympathetic/Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
  • Glucose Transport and Glycolysis
  • Blood Brain Barrier
  • Cartilage and Bone
  • pH and Buffers

Session #2

  • Asthma (physiology and pharmacology)
  • Control of Ventilation
  • Calcium Homeostasis
  • Brainstem
  • Translation and Protein Synthesis
  • Somatosensory Pathways
  • Blood Supply to the Head and Neck
  • Development of the Face, Palate and Neck
  • Endocrine Processes
  • Glycogen Metabolism

The PASS sessions last for 2-3 hours and the mentors take turns to teach a specific topic. We aim to make the sessions interactive, so encourage participation from the audience of firs year students and ask them questions at the end related to the topic to get them thinking!

This year I have been one of the PASS student mentors and there are ~12 of us in total (all 2nd year dental students). After we finished our first year exams all the students in my year group received an email which basically just said: if any of you are interested in becoming a PASS mentor and tutoring the next cohort of first year dental students then fill out this application form to be considered.

When we were selected as mentors, we had to do some formal training before we started in our roles and this was joint with the other PASS schemes at the university – i.e. we were trained together with mentors for other courses (eg. English Literature).

Muffins at PASS Training Day baby! Free food wins me over every time.
PASS: Why Did I Want To Get Involved?

The generic answer, boring answer you are expecting from me here is actually the answer I have: I wanted to get involved and be a PASS mentor because I found it really useful when I was in first year and so wanted to offer the same help I was kindly given through.

The thing that makes PASS so relatable with genuine value is that it is:

 For by students, By students

We get TOLD the information in a lecture, it’s usually delivered by someone who works at the university, who is usually a very clever individual who knows a hell of a lot, but they are not always necessarily the best at teaching, so the amount that a student will learn in a lecture is minimal.

There’s a huge difference between telling someone something and teaching them something.

I’m currently reading a great book that I highly recommend written by Stephen R. Covey called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.


This prophecy is such a beautiful tagline I’d like to associate with PASS, because that’s exactly what it’s all about.

Another reason why I got involved is that I also really love teaching – it’s such a rewarding thing to do! Before I joined dental school, and before I had even seriously considered dentistry, I thought about pursuing teaching formally. I applied to Teach First and got invited to a recruitment day but by the time it came around to that, I had decided dentistry was for me and so never went through with it.

Although I didn’t choose the full-time teaching career path, I know that there is great potential opportunity for me to teach in some respect as a part of my future as a dental professional; either at a dental school as one of the clinical tutors or perhaps on a further training dental development course. I know the opportunities will be available to me and I am fairly certain that I do want to teach!

Happy Ali 😀

PASS has also been a great way to get to know more of the dental students at my university from the cohort after mine; it can be too easy to get sucked into the narrow tunnel, remaining focussed on what you need to do that you don’t socialise with the hundreds of other students in other year groups, doing the same course as you, with the same passion as you.

What Skills have I Developed by being a PASS Mentor?

There’s no doubt about it, PASS has allowed me to enhance many of the core soft skills that any individual in any profession must continuously develop through their lifetime. I could list them here but they’re all so generic that I won’t. But it’s true!

I have become more confident with presentation skills and also my skills in developing effective presentations (creating visually effective Powerpoint docs).

Public speaking is something I love and always want to improve.

Simplifying Complex Concepts and Teaching these to others is an under appreciated skill and one that I’ve continued to work on through PASS.

Managing my workload to ensure I don’t let my time investment I make into PASS affect other equally/more important things I need to get done.


At PASS sessions, first year dental students are given the opportunity to explore their problems with PASS mentors (second year dental students) in a friendly, informal environment, to help them settle in to university life, the school/department/institute and their studies.


* Remembering what it was like in your first year

* Being supportive and encouraging to first-years attending your sessions

* Willingness to try and be patient and clear when running sessions and talking to your mentees

* Reliability – keep to dates you have agreed with your student organiser and check emails regularly

* Readiness to communicate and work with your student organisers, fellow mentors and, where appropriate, other students and staff in QMUL/Barts and the London involved in the scheme


The PASS mentors including myself are by no means experts on the topics we teach, far from it in fact, but we have confidence that we know enough to be able to assist the first years to get a better understanding of the given topic.

I had to give a talk on the brainstem, which for anyone who has studied it in a neurophysiological sense will know just how complicated it is! Not only that a lot about the brainstem remains a mystery even to neurophysiologists who spend their lives researching it! It was not easy to prepare my presentation let alone to deliver it but I spent a lot of time revising my notes from first year and I am very glad I took it on as my own understanding and knowledge of the brainstem has improved as a result.

TRYING to teach the uber complicated topic that is the Brainstem. Neurophysiology is a module in our first year, it’s not all about teeth! 🙂

The present PASS system for us remains limited to second years teaching first years. But I want to encourage our university to realise it’s usefulness and extend this great initiative a step further so we also have PASS sessions where third years teach second years. It needs to happen. I will do my best to make it happen.


Do you have a similar thing to PASS at your dental school? I’d be interested to find out if there are similar initiatives at other schools and especially curious to find out how they operate to compare.

But if you’re a dentals student reading this and think its a good idea but not yet implemented at your school, then why not be the person to take the initiative and make it happen! Trust me it will help you and many others!!

Thanks for reading 🙂