A Class Of Their Own: Inspiring the next generation of dentists

In this series, NUS News profiles the outstanding educators who have inspired generations of students at the University.

Say you have a decaying wisdom tooth or troublesome root canal – or something more worrying, like an unexplained lump. You visit your trusty dentist, and one of his first steps is to take an X-ray of the region, to better understand the problem.

You would think that it’s the simplest thing on the planet, given that X-rays have been used for more than a hundred years in medicine and dentistry. In fact, it takes a good deal of training to read those skeletal images appearing on films - or nowadays, more often on computer screens. One pilot study, involving 20 dentistry students, showed that only two initially spotted a subtle cyst in the upper jawbone.

In steps to bring them up to mark, NUS Dentistry’s Associate Professor Kelvin Foong led an MOE-funded Programmatic Tertiary Education Research Fund project that utilised eye tracking technology to discern the areas where students tended to focus on when reading X-rays. Real-time feedback was provided and trainee dentists were thus able to more accurately spot problems in the X-rays.

“Without eye tracking, we didn’t know how a student reads X-rays. They either get it right or wrong,” said Assoc Prof Foong.

“Now, with this technology I’m able to tell the student exactly what they have been doing. Maybe they have been scanning an X-ray in a wrong way, or scanning a different region. It’s such a wonderful instructional tool to help dental students know how to read X-rays.”

It is just one of many examples of the conscientious educator using technology and working across disciplines, to improve student outcomes.

He has also worked with the NUS School of Design and Environment to produce 3D-printed silicon models of the human lower jaw for dental students to practice injections on. A bulb lights up if students place the injection right on target on the simulation model, and they can then move on to practise injections on their classmates. That is a vast improvement from the earlier method of doing things when students’ first experience was to directly administer injections on each other.

“The dental students, when they held a needle for the first time, it was very scary. I can tell you, the students were scared stiff,” said Assoc Prof Foong. This innovation means that both the students and their classmates would be more assured and confident.

Other than designing innovative solutions to help future dentists learn better, Assoc Prof Foong excels in teaching. Warmness and calmness may seem to be slightly contrasting qualities but his tall and slim gentleman exudes both in equal measure. You instinctively trust him, as do generations of students who attest to his approachable nature, the care he takes in lesson preparation and delivery, and his impact both within and outside the classroom.

“Assoc Prof Foong conducts his lessons in a very engaging manner,” said Dr Charmaine Kho, who studied orthodontics under him as an undergraduate.

“He sets out his objectives clearly at the start of his lessons, and brings us through each learning point step by step, ensuring that the information is easy to comprehend and follow through… His teaching is also never boring as he is able seek a find balance between words, illustrations, and even humour, and poses questions at appropriate junctures - sometimes to stimulate our thinking, and at other times to consolidate our learning.”

Dr Kho also appreciated Assoc Prof Foong’s end-of-class summary sessions, when he would seek students’ responses in summing up what has been covered: “These nicely conclude the lessons and synthesise the large amount of knowledge imparted.”

For Dr Arthur Lim, who studied orthodontics under Assoc Prof Foong at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the effective lessons were testament of the hours spent in preparation.

“Assoc Prof Foong was always very prepared for his sessions, and delivered them in a very clear and succinct manner.”

Dr Lim added, “He is a great teacher, a wonderful mentor but most importantly, he is a good person, a kind and considerate man. I've learnt many valuable lessons from him but the important lessons of always listening, keeping an open mind and heart are not only important in the practice of Orthodontics, but also life in general.”

It is easy to see why, then, the teaching awards keep flowing for Assoc Prof Foong.

He was won the Excellence in Teaching Award by the Faculty of Dentistry seven times and the university-wide NUS Annual Teaching Excellence Award three times. The prestigious NUS Outstanding Educator Award was conferred in 2018, and he is also a Fellow of the NUS Teaching Academy, which champions teaching and learning at the University.

Assoc Prof Foong is the Discipline Director of Orthodontics and Paediatric Dentistry at the Faculty of Dentistry and the Programme Director of the Orthodontics Residency Programme. He previously served as the Faculty’s Vice-Dean (Academic Affairs), Vice-Dean (Research) and Sub-Dean, for a continuous 15 years from 2001 to 2016.

Beyond the titles and the accolades, he is heartened by the lives he has impacted. As with any skilled dentist, the option of joining private practice was also on the cards before he joined the University in 1994 after completing postgraduate specialty training. In fact, he still sees patients a few times a week at the National University Centre for Oral Health, Singapore.

But his first love has always been teaching. “My primary purpose to join NUS was to teach,” he says simply.

Through the years, that passion remains, whether it is in good old-fashioned mentorship, or innovating with technology to help students learn.


This is the second instalment of a series on outstanding educators at NUS.

Read about Dr Susan Ang Wan-Ling from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, as she shares her experiences teaching English Literature, and her hopes and dreams for students as they move through life.