This is your guide to problem-based learning (PBL) and what you can expect from PBL lessons at Medical School.

If you’re about to start Medical School you might be anxious about what to expect from your first problem-based learning lesson. These tips from Dr Christopher Nordstrom, co-founder of The Medic Portal.

What To Expect From PBL

Problem-based learning is all about empowering you to learn, so you need to take a lot of responsibility for things like:

  • Defining your learning objectives
  • Independently researching topics
  • Reviewing and refining the learning process

The PBL Process

Most PBL lessons follow a clear process:

  1. You’ll read the case as a group. This is when you should flag any unclear terms that you need to define.
  2. You’ll then define the problem together. To do this, you will probably list all the problems – but make sure you consider biomedical and physio-social issues, too.
  3. The next step is to brainstorm hypotheses and solutions. For this stage, you will need to highlight any associations between problems and map the links.
  4. You’ll then define your learning objectives. This step is when your group flags where there’s missing knowledge, agree on objectives to fill the gap and allocate objectives to team members so that everyone has an area to focus on.
  5. You’ll head off for some self-directed private study. This gives you the opportunity to learn independently and take responsibility for your own objectives.
  6. Then you’ll re-group and present your learnings. This is when you need to really pay attention to your teammates and learn from their research, too.
  7. You’ll then have further discussion of the key points. This is the ideal point to reflect on the process and what you’ve collectively learned.
  8. The final step in the PBL lesson is to review the outcome of the session. This is when you’d talk through whether the process could be improved, how you did your self-directed study and see if you can get any tips from team members.

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Developing Your Transferable Skills

PBL lessons have a big focus on transferable skills, such as:

  • Critical thought
  • Self-directed learning
  • Critical evaluation of literature
  • Teamwork
  • Listening
  • Communication
  • Presenting information

You’ve probably started to develop these skills already, so this should arm you with confidence when you begin the lesson.

Choosing Your Learning Objectives

At the start of the lesson, you should expect to choose your own learning objectives so that you know how to direct your personal study. For example, this could be to simply understand all of the words used in the session – or it could be to remind yourself how a particular area of biology works.

This might seem like a daunting task, but don’t worry because you’ll have a group facilitator there whose job is to make sure the conversation is on the right track. They’ll be there to steer you all, and to help you do things like choosing your own learning objectives.


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Preparing For Self-Directed Study

You’ll be expected to head off and study alone, then bring your learnings to the group when you present the information back to them.

A good plan for self-directed study is to have a single focus for each learning session. For example, if you’re revising a particular area of science, focus only on that and don’t get sidetracked with other learning objectives. This is because we have limited working memory, which means that if we try to cover too many new things at once then we will not learn them as effectively.

You should apply this strategy to not just the content but also the application of your learning. For example, if you have to memorise information then make that the goal of a single study session. Learning how to distil the information and share it during your presentation would be a different study session. You need to make sure you have first mastered the details of what you are learning before you can apply that knowledge to anything more complex.

Finally, remember to interleave your learning, which means regularly revisiting what you have previously learned. Take five minutes to revisit your notes on a separate subject that you’ve mastered, which could be from the previous PBL session or perhaps a different lecture. You could make this more engaging by doing a five-minute refresher on Quizlet, for example. This will keep that memory fresh and prevents the knowledge from decaying.

Other tips for self-directed study include:

  • Make sure you understand the curriculum and what you need to know
  • Use a range of resources, including books, journals and online resources
  • Make sure you take good notes and organise them. Consider a tool like Quizlet that will keep track of your notes and lets you develop useful flashcards for future revision
  • Develop a revision timetable – and stick to it
  • Work on your discipline. Make sure you study regularly and don’t leave it to the last minute
  • Look for study groups, so you can revise with your peers

Preparing For Peer-To-Peer Learning

Presenting what you’ve learnt to the group is a big part of PBL and one that’s incredibly important because it will develop your teaching and presenting skills. If you work on these skills in your early years of Medical School, it’ll come in very handy when you’re a Junior Doctor presenting during ward rounds.

There are countless free resources on presentation technique online. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out this Tedx Talk on the three magic ingredients of powerful presentations – or take a look at flaschards on Quizlet.


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