Intended for healthcare professionals

Clinical Review ABC of learning and teaching in medicine

Problem based learning

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 08 February 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:328
  1. Diana F Wood

    Problem based learning is used in many medical schools in the United Kingdom and worldwide. This article describes this method of learning and teaching in small groups and explains why it has had an important impact on medical education.

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    The group learning process: acquiring desirable learning skills

    What is problem based learning?

    In problem based learning (PBL) students use “triggers” from the problem case or scenario to define their own learning objectives. Subsequently they do independent, self directed study before returning to the group to discuss and refine their acquired knowledge. Thus, PBL is not about problem solving per se, but rather it uses appropriate problems to increase knowledge and understanding. The process is clearly defined, and the several variations that exist all follow a similar series of steps.

    Generic skills and attitudes

    • Teamwork

    • Chairing a group

    • Listening

    • Recording

    • Cooperation

    • Respect for colleagues' views

    • Critical evaluation of literature

    • Self directed learning and use of resources

    • Presentation skills

    Group learning facilitates not only the acquisition of knowledge but also several other desirable attributes, such as communication skills, teamwork, problem solving, independent responsibility for learning, sharing information, and respect for others. PBL can therefore be thought of as a small group teaching method that combines the acquisition of knowledge with the development of generic skills and attitudes. Presentation of clinical material as the stimulus for learning enables students to understand the relevance of underlying scientific knowledge and principles in clinical practice.

    However, when PBL is introduced into a curriculum, several other issues for curriculum design and implementation need to be tackled. PBL is generally introduced in the context of a defined core curriculum and integration of basic and clinical sciences. It has implications for staffing and learning resources and demands a different approach to timetabling, workload, and assessment. PBL is often used to deliver core material in non-clinical parts of the …

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