What is PBL? – Medical School teaching styles explained

What is PBL? – Medical School teaching styles explained

PBL - problem based learning
PBL - problem based learning
Colette Tolley
2nd-year Medical Student at University of Oxford
July 12, 2021

Problem Based Learning and traditional style medical courses 

It can be difficult to understand the differences between PBL and traditional courses, and it can be hard to know what is right for you as a learner. Choosing which university to attend and the style of the course is a very important decision. 

You will be studying on this course for the next 5/6 years of your life, so you want to enjoy it, learn in a style that suits you and train to be the best doctor you can be. 

After reading this article, my advice is that you should take some time to look at all the universities that you’re interested in. Use prospectuses and universities websites and student accounts of studying on different courses (such as those found on YouTube and student websites). 

Make sure you understand the different course structures and how each university has a different take on this. Find out the parts of each course you like the sound of and those you don’t. After this, you will be able to have a rough idea of the kind of course, you would like to study, so then you just have to find the universities whose courses match this.

Medical Schools Teaching Styles

  • PBL stands for problem based learning
  • PBL courses are more self-directed and more patient focussed
  • You still have lectures on PBL courses
  • PBL courses are great for highly motivated ‘self-starting’ students
  • Traditional courses are based on theoretical knowledge
  • Traditional courses aren’t case focussed
  • Traditional courses are great for students wanting a scientific background and wanting to do Masters or PhD
  • Traditional courses are a good choice if you don’t want patient contact right away
  • Medical schools can (and some do) offer courses that combine PBL and traditional ways of teaching

PBL meaning

PBL stands for problem based learning, so as the name suggests, it is based on problem-solving. One example of a PBL style course is the University of Manchester’s course. 

PBL Medicine courses

On a PBL style course, the focus is on working in small groups and on peer-to-peer learningThere is a large emphasis placed on discovering things for yourself, so learning is much more self-directed. Many problem based learning courses also place more importance on learning about interacting with patients, so there may be teaching sessions every week dedicated to this.

It’s a good idea to check the university website and prospectus in detail when it advertises a PBL style course. This is because some will deliver a completely PBL based course, but some will PBL style learning and teaching styles combined with other techniques. 

Do you still have lectures on a PBL course?

Yes. As a student on a problem based learning course, you will still have lectures and other teaching sessions, but these will not cover all the material that you will need to learn in a week. 

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A week on a PBL course

In terms of the format, at the beginning of the week, in your learning group, you will be presented with a patient case story. You will read through and brainstorm through the case together and create a list of questions. These questions are then used to create a learning agenda of things to read up about and learn during the week. 

After this session is complete, you can then go off by yourself to research and read up on all the topics on the learning agenda. Some of your questions in your learning agenda will be covered in teaching sessions, such as in lectures and anatomy dissections. 

At the end of the week, your group will come back together to go through the learning agenda. In this session, you will discuss what you have learned and go over anything people didn’t understand. 

Sometimes you might need to create a few extra learning points people need to go over individually before starting the next new case if you think you missed things out from your learning agenda. 

Usually, a facilitator is present for these group sessions. They are not there to lead the session or to explain all things in the case to you. They keep the group on track and make sure that in the closing session, you covered everything you should have.

Who are PBL Medicine courses good for?

Problem based learning style courses are good for people who like teamwork and are also comfortable with self-directed learning. It is really good to build your teamwork skills, as they will be very important in your future career.

Self-directed learning is good for several reasons. It allows you to work when and where suits you and to work using resources that you prefer. It also teaches you discipline and can help you with your motivation. Both of these are again important for your future career. 

However, if you know you usually need more structure and can procrastinate, PBL might not be so good for you. The course does rely a lot on self-motivation and discipline. 

The style of teaching is about problem-solving, so you move from case to case each week. This means you don’t get the same level of structured, organised scientific grounding and depth of scientific knowledge that you might get on a different, more traditional style course. If you want this scientific basis for your medical course, problem based learning might not be for you.

PBL Medical schools in the UK

PBL courses and courses that offer aspects of PBL teaching

Barts (Queen Mary)

East Anglia


Hull and York





What is a traditional style medical course?

Your timetable will be mainly filled with lectures and tutorials during the first 2 or 3 years of study on a traditional style medical course. After these first few years, you will be on clinical placements in hospitals and in GPs. Some universities will also have full body dissections or an intercalated BSc.

Unlike PBL courses, traditional courses aren’t structured in a case-based manner. There is an emphasis on having a good grounding in scientific theory, and the course will be divided up into obvious separate parts such as physiology, anatomy, biochemistry and pharmacology. 

As a student on this course, you will have lots of essays to write and a full timetable of teaching every day, with very little self-directed learning.

What are the positives and negatives of a traditional style medical course?

Traditional style courses are good if you like learning a lot about how the body normally works (physiology) and the scientific background behind illnesses (pathology). If you are less sure about going straight into clinical placements and meeting patients, a traditional course delays this and, again, also means you have a very strong scientific grounding before you start placements. 

Suppose you are considering a career in medical academia or are wanting to do further studies such as a Masters or PhD. A traditional course sets you up well for this. You learn how to write up essays and research to a high standard which is essential for PhD studies.

However, you do have much less patient contact than a PBL course. If you want to do medicine for the patient interaction and are excited to be in the clinical environment, you will get much less of this (potentially not any until you have already done 3 years of the course) on a traditional-style course. 

You are not always taught as much around communication with patients and clinical skills on a traditional course, so you could feel disadvantaged when you first get into a clinical setting.

Final thoughts

Remember that most courses will have pre-clinical and clinical years, and often the format of teaching will change from how it is in the preclinical years to something different in the clinical years. As much as problem based learning is gaining popularity, it isn’t suited to everyone. Traditional style medical courses offer a great alternative for these people.


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