What’s PBL Really Like? – Debunking The Myths

What’s PBL really like? This is a question I’ve been asked a good few times so I thought I’d compile all my thoughts into 1 big blog post. Having now completed the first year of med school means I’ve had 17  PBL cases (as well as 2 training cases), I think I’m finally qualified to give you my insight into this framework for learning. Let’s get ready to tell some truths and break some misconceptions!

What were my thoughts on PBL before I started?

Like many of you who are reading this post probably are, I was pretty unsure about PBL at first. I had no doubts that I would definitely find it much more engaging than a solely lecture based course, but the idea of navigating through the whole learning spectrum completely by yourselves somewhat scared me. I expected that you’d quite often find yourself off track and perhaps not covering the correct areas for your learning. And on top of that I’m the type of person who works well independently, so there was the slight worry that learning in a group could potentially be just outside my comfort zone. Of course, I had heard of the most well known potential negatives of a PBL approach: not having a very good group, not having a very good tutor, going off track easily, the possibility of learning the wrong things, not being able to gage the right amount of depth and so on. But how much of this was actually true?

What did I think after my first PBL case?

After my first case, I did like PBL a lot more than I had anticipated I would. I loved being able to control my own learning being able to do things my own way. With PBL you’re not just bunged in endless lectures and passively fed information, instead you’re given a whole block of free time within which you can pretty much learn in whichever way suits you best. This was great for me…but I have to be honest and can’t say that everything was perfect: I had spent the whole week relentlessly working on my case and I still hadn’t managed to finish it – that’s when I first got a glimpse of just how time consuming it could be.

One of the things I realised from the very first case was that although you have to do an insane amount of independent learning, you’re not completely stranded like I initially thought. I thought you’d essentially be left with a case for you to get on with entirely alone, but it’s not like that at all. You’re not taught much at all, that’s true, but you are guided a lot in the sense that there’s always relevant lectures and resources made available for you to help you to navigate through the case. This is often pretty useful in helping you get a good indication of the depth you need to go into as well as the areas you need to be covering.

What do I think now?

Over time, I’ve become more efficient at PBL, I can finish the case in about 3 days and I even managed to get one case done and dusted in 1 day! I still can’t say it doesn’t take a lot of time though, it definitely does, but it’s a lot more manageable than it originally felt. I suppose with anything, over time you learn ways to be able to do it better.

As I’ve gone through more and more cases I can  say that it would be rather difficult to go c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e-l-y off track in PBL. The PBL tutors are very useful and they have the details of exactly what you need to know so do often interject in the middle of the discussion to steer you back on track. At the end of the discussion, our tutor used to also go through the list to ensure our group hadn’t missed any objectives. So essentially if you use your tutor and ask them about any areas you’re not sure about they will often be able to tell you whether it would be something you need to know in-depth or only very briefly. We use a framework here called Need To Know, Good To Know, Nice To Know, so you may often here things categorised like that to help you decide which areas must be learnt first and which aren’t so vital.

I also don’t know why there’s always such a huge focus on the idea that the members of your group will define how effectively you are able to learn from PBL. I personally don’t agree with that at all, especially because in Manchester you don’t split the case amongst the different group members, instead everybody researches all of it (hence why it takes a lot of time). I did have a really nice PBL group, but if the situation was reversed it honestly wouldn’t really have affected my learning much at all. I think the reason for this is because the core of your learning isn’t done in the sessions, that’s what you do independently. In the sessions you validate the areas covered and check that everyone has managed to find similar pieces of information. You also have a closing case lecture after the PBL session which serves the same purpose.

What PBL misconceptions do you need to leave behind?

If there’s anything you take away from this post, make it be to destroy the below preconceived ideas about PBL:

  1. PBL won’t suit you unless you already LOVE group work.
  2. You will not know what to learn AT ALL.
  3. You could end up with a TERRIBLE group and that will be the be all and end all.
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