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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Problem-based learning and larger student groups: mutually exclusive or compatible concepts – a pilot study

Martyn P Kingsbury1 and Joanne S Lymn2*

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Educational Development, Imperial College London, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London, UK

2 Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences, University of Nottingham, Queens Medical Centre, Nottingham, UK

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BMC Medical Education 2008, 8:35  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-8-35

Published: 18 June 2008

Abstract

Background

Problem-based learning is recognised as promoting integration of knowledge and fostering a deeper approach to life-long learning, but is associated with significant resource implications. In order to encourage second year undergraduate medical students to integrate their pharmacological knowledge in a professionally relevant clinical context, with limited staff resources, we developed a novel clustered PBL approach. This paper utilises preliminary data from both the facilitator and student viewpoint to determine whether the use of this novel methodology is feasible with large groups of students.

Methods

Students were divided into 16 groups (20–21 students/group) and were allocated a PBL facilitator. Each group was then divided into seven subgroups, or clusters, of 2 or 3 students wh each cluster being allocated a specific case. Each cluster was then provided with more detailed clinical information and studied an individual and distinct case-study. An electronic questionnaire was used to evaluate both student and facilitator perception of this clustered PBL format, with each being asked to rate the content, structure, facilitator effectiveness, and their personal view of the wider learning experience.

Results

Despite initial misgivings, facilitators managed this more complex clustered PBL methodology effectively within the time restraints and reported that they enjoyed the process. They felt that the cases effectively illustrated medical concepts and fitted and reinforced the students' pharmacological knowledge, but were less convinced that the scenario motivated students to use additional resources or stimulated their interest in pharmacology.

Student feedback was broadly similar to that of the facilitators; although they were more positive about the scenario stimulating the use of additional resources and an interest in pharmacology.

Conclusion

This clustered PBL methodology can be successfully used with larger groups of students. The key to success lies with challenging and well situated clinically relevant cases together with enthusiastic facilitators. Facilitator enjoyment of the PBL process may be related to adequate training and previous PBL experience, rather than academic background. The smaller number of facilitators required using this clustered PBL approach allows for facilitators with 'a belief in the philosophy of PBL' to volunteer which would again impact on the success of the process.