Published on 27th July 2017 by lauram

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a relatively modern style of medical education. It is based on working in small groups to form learning objectives based on clinical scenarios. This essentially means making a list of everything you want to learn for a particular topic, and is followed by a period of independent research. This is rounded off with a session of peer-led discussion about the material you have covered. This blog will cover whether you would be a suited to a PBL course.

What does a PBL Course involve?

The idea of PBL can initially seem very strange and daunting, especially to those accustomed to a very school-like style of teaching. However, for people who enjoy a combination of independent study and group work, it can be very freeing, allowing you to really flourish at medical school. This article aims to show you what type of student is suited to PBL, by giving you a small insight into how it works.

How do I know if I’m suited to a PBL Course?

1. Objective Setting

To kick things off, the group reads a scenario and generates a list of learning outcomes based on issues that arise. For example, if the scenario states that a patient has been diagnosed with a chronic disease, you may consider writing objectives about the disease itself, as well as its impact on the patient’s life.

Good objective setting, therefore, requires students who enjoy learning about the bigger picture and are good at thinking outside of the box. Without these two things, it will be more difficult to adequately cover what is expected of you.

2. Independent learning

Once you have created a list of learning objectives, the next challenge is to cover the material. There are usually resources recommended by your medical school, as well as by older students, which should help the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to start.

However, even just sifting through these resources can be tricky. Succeeding in PBL requires an ability to prioritise learning material. This means being organised and flexible. There is no way you will be able to read everything ever written on a particular topic, so you need to see what works best for you. Many people prefer online resources and videos to help their learning, so you must be open-minded.

Although it gives you a lot of freedom, getting through the week’s work in time before the next PBL session can also be very difficult. A great deal of time-management and discipline are required here, and no, these are not just buzzwords for personal statements! They really are vital parts of being a medical student; independent learning, in particular, commands very high levels of these skills.

3. Feedback sessions

These sessions take place around one week later. Some people worry about this part, as they do not trust peer-led teaching. However, you should not be relying on PBL to learn things from scratch; the aim is to consolidate. In fact, if done correctly, peer-led teaching can be very fun and memorable. There are many times I have thought back to PBL discussions in an exam situation and remembered the answer to a question.

Therefore, a PBL course is suited to someone who enjoys the freedom of independent learning combined with the interactivity of group discussion and teaching. It also suits students who enjoy being creative, as creativity can be very usefully channelled into memorable learning aids, and makes you a very popular PBL group member!

PBL courses also suit people who enjoy greater focus on ethics, psychology and sociology as applied to medicine, as more time is spent on these subjects than on traditional courses. If, by contrast, you prefer a more solid foundation of basic sciences, then PBL may not be for you; a PBL course becomes very clinically orientated very early on.

So: will PBL suit you?

As a doctor, you will constantly be learning from your cases and experiences, and PBL is very good at mimicking this style. However, PBL will only work for you if:

  • You are good at thinking outside the box.
  • You are prepared to put the effort into finding and learning the material independently.
  • You enjoy group discussion and peer-led teaching.
  • You like clinically orientated learning.

Studying medicine can be tough, and so it is important to make this journey as smooth as possible by choosing a course that best suits you.

Would you suit a PBL Course? Take the quiz!

Words: Mariam Al-Attar


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