How to Approach Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an active teaching style in which students are at the centre of their own learning. Organised in a series of sessions, students learn about a topic through the experience of solving 'problems' they encounter in a scenario (known as triggers). Read on to find out what they are all about!

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Problem-based learning (PBL) is a style of active teaching where students are placed at the centre of their own learning. Arranged in a series of sessions, students learn about a subject through the experience of solving ‘problems’ which they find in a scenario (known as triggers).

Most medical schools will utilise PBL in some format although certain ones base their curriculum around it and teach entirely using problem-based techniques.

The basic structure of PBL is as follows:

  • Small groups, with one student nominated as the chairperson and another as the scribe, are presented with a case-based scenario in the presence of an academic facilitator who will help guide the session.
  • The group reads through the scenario and identifies things that they know and what they do not know.
  • Through identifying the problems trigger in the scenario and the gaps in their knowledge base – students form learning objectives to address these.
  • Groups will then go away for a period of time, usually a week, where you gather the information you need to answer those learning objectives which you have formed.
  • Groups will then meet and discuss what they have found and present to both your colleagues and facilitator.

With only a list of recommended resources and a list of learning objectives, PBL can at first seem like a daunting teaching method. Here are a few tips to help you approach PBL:

  • Get organised: Write down which day you are going to do each objective and allow yourself time to indulge in your hobbies. Be specific with what you are going to learn. If you are doing a module about the kidneys, don’t just write down ‘do kidneys’ → be specific! For example, you could break objectives down into their anatomy one day and their physiology the next.This gives you a clearer aim for the day.
  • Motivate yourself: This can be a hard one. PBL is reliant on you, the student, motivating yourself in order to meet your objectives. Make a list of specific jobs for you to do that day and cross them off as you do them. Once you have completed a certain amount, reward yourself with some downtime. If you find yourself getting distracted, try a browser extension such as ‘StayFocused’ to prevent you from procrastinating for too long.
  • Plan deliberate down-time → remember to enjoy yourself! PBL can be more fun than attending lectures everyday but remember to plan some time just for yourself. The temptation with PBL is to keep on working but the reality is, there is always more to learn. But remember, you need the knowledge to pass to the next year of medical school and not perform neurosurgery!
  • Learn how you learn: Spend time to find out how you work most effectively and efficiently. Draw upon methods you used at either A level or a previous degree and adapt them to PBL. You will most likely be teaching yourself for the majority now on! Though difficult at first, PBL starts off the process of lifelong learning, a skill all doctors must have.
  • Don’t focus on the working pattern of your colleagues: If you work better in the evening, work then. Everyone is different and as long as you cover what you need to cover then you shouldn’t worry when others are working.

Getting used to so many new things; colleagues, tutors, place, teaching methods and textbooks, will take time, so don’t get downhearted if everything doesn’t click straight away, your medical school gave you an offer for a reason!


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