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Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

Dysfunctional problem-based learning curricula: resolving the problem

William K Lim

Author Affiliations

Department of Paraclinical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Lot 77, KTLD Section 22, Jalan Tun Zaidi Adruce, Kuching, Sarawak, 93150, Malaysia

BMC Medical Education 2012, 12:89  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-12-89

Published: 25 September 2012

Abstract

Background

Problem-based learning (PBL) has become the most significant innovation in medical education of the past 40 years. In contrast to exam-centered, lecture-based conventional curricula, PBL is a comprehensive curricular strategy that fosters student-centred learning and the skills desired in physicians. The rapid spread of PBL has produced many variants. One of the most common is 'hybrid PBL' where conventional teaching methods are implemented alongside PBL. This paper contends that the mixing of these two opposing educational philosophies can undermine PBL and nullify its positive benefits. Schools using hybrid PBL and lacking medical education expertise may end up with a dysfunctional curriculum worse off than the traditional approach.

Discussion

For hybrid PBL schools with a dysfunctional curriculum, standard PBL is a cost-feasible option that confers the benefits of the PBL approach. This paper describes the signs of a dysfunctional PBL curriculum to aid hybrid PBL schools in recognising curricular breakdown. Next it discusses alternative curricular strategies and costs associated with PBL. It then details the four critical factors for successful conversion to standard PBL: dealing with staff resistance, understanding the role of lectures, adequate time for preparation and support from the administrative leadership.

Summary

Hybrid PBL curricula without oversight by staff with medical education expertise can degenerate into dysfunctional curricula inferior even to the traditional approach from which PBL emerged. Such schools should inspect their curriculum periodically for signs of dysfunction to enable timely corrective action. A decision to convert fully to standard PBL is cost feasible but will require time, expertise and commitment which is only sustainable with supportive leadership.