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Open Access Research article

Integrated problem-based learning in the neuroscience curriculum – the SUNY Downstate experience

Brian Trappler

Author Affiliations

SUNY Downstate, Kingsboro Psychiatric Center, 681 Clarkson Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11203, USA

BMC Medical Education 2006, 6:47  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-6-47

Published: 18 September 2006

Abstract

Background

This paper reports the author's initial experience as Block Director in converting a Conventional Curriculum into a problem-based learning model (PBL) for teaching Psychopathology. As part of a wide initiative in curriculum reform, Psychopathology, which was a six-week course in the second-year medical school curriculum, became integrated into a combined Neuroscience block. The study compares curriculum conversion at State University of New York (SUNY), Downstate, with the experiences at other medical centres that have instituted similar curricula reform.

Methods

Student satisfaction with the Conventional and PBL components of the Neuroscience curriculum was compared using questionnaires and formal discussions between faculty and a body of elected students. The PBL experience in Psychopathology was also compared with that of the rest of the Neuroscience Block, which used large student groups and expert facilitators, while the Psychopathology track was limited to small groups using mentors differing widely in levels of expertise.

Results

Students appeared to indicate a preference toward conventional lectures and large PBL groups using expert facilitators in contrast to small group mentors who were not experts. Small PBL groups with expert mentors in the Psychopathology track were also rated favorably.

Conclusion

The study reviews the advantages and pitfalls of the PBL system when applied to a Neuroscience curriculum on early career development. At SUNY, conversion from a Conventional model to a PBL model diverged from that proposed by Howard S. Barrows where student groups define the learning objectives and problem-solving strategies. In our model, the learning objectives were faculty-driven. The critical issue for the students appeared to be the level of faculty expertise rather than group size. Expert mentors were rated more favorably by students in fulfilling the philosophical objectives of PBL.

The author, by citing the experience at other major Medical Faculties, makes a cautious attempt to address the challenges involved in the conversion of a Psychopathology curriculum into a PBL dominated format.