Your thoughts on PBL...

Hi my nontrad friends,

I posted a question on SDN asking whether there are allopathic schools that offer PBL. One of the things that I had noticed was that osteopathic schools seem to use this curriculum and because there aren’t as many DO schools, one can check to see who does and who doesn’t.

Well, other than a couple of responses, many were just so negative about this curriculum. Now, I don’t know if it is because I am an “old premed,” but I am totally enthused about this curriculum. It seems to integrate all the different areas of medicine. Sitting in a lecture hall for hours on end actually would put me to sleep if I didn’t have an engaging instructor.

What are your thoughts, especially being nontrads? Also, while I understand that SIU in Illinois has an intensive (100%) PBL, I would love to know if there are other schools that have PBL.


Krisss, I know that the Univ. of Missouri - Columbia uses a PBL program. It is different from some in that you still have some organized classroom work as well. . . and for myself, that would have been very helpful. I know they have lecture in med micro and pharmacology. I think those are the main two. And those can be very helpful when it comes to boards.

Anyway, check around and don’t be afraid to call the admissions offices of schools and inquire.

Thanks, Linda.

It’s also nice and refreshing to get mature response to this inquiry than what I received on SDN when I posed this question.

I’m, of course, not opposed to some lectures and actually appreciate them at times when it comes to directing information…I’m just really psyched about PBL.


I think that PBL done well can be a wonderful teaching/learning method. However, I think an awful lot of what is called PBL out there is poorly designed/thought out. Personally, I hated PBL when we had to do it in grad school. The biggest problem in a lot of PBL situations is that your grade (and sometimes how much you learn) is based on the work of the group. As much as we all would like to think that in grad/professional school everyone in your group would want to excel, that is not always the case. Even at this higher level, there are always those that are happy with doing the bare minimum to get by.

My school actually had three curriculum options up until a few years ago - PBL, Lecture and Discussion, and Independent Study. I talked to a student who was in the last PBL class. She said she loved it and felt that she learned a lot, but that there were a lot of flaws with how the program was designed and run that allowed people who were less than ethical to cheat extensively.

When doing research on a PBL school, talk to the students as much as possible. Do they feel that the curriculum at their school is well designed and that it contributes to their learning? Or do they feel like they are teaching themselves and the PBL sessions are a waste of time.

Again, in theory, I think PBL has a lot of potential. In practice, though, I think its not done well very often.

Emergency, you definitely have raised a lot of good points. I totally agree with you that it does require a lot of thought by schools if they are offering this curriculum. Those schools that have added PBL just for the marketing edge will definitely have a less positive outcome.

Once it comes time for me to apply and interview, I will definitely speak with students that are currently in medical school.

When it comes to interviewing, I think that traditional students see it being interviewed, while nontrads will most likely have a little bit more give and take. Meaning that we will answer the interviewers questions, but will probably have questions of our own about the university. This is probably because entering medical as a nontrad means you have more loose ends to take care of before making a major life change like this. Traditional students are pretty much going from one four-year school setting to another.

Boy, I got off subject, didn’t I. Sorry!

A few tidbits, for what it’s worth:

At WVSOM they want you to prove to them that you can hack PBL; they don’t just willy-nilly put people into it as they do at LECOM-Bradenton, which is a comprehensive PBL program. They believe this healthy skepticism helps to filter out the people who would benefit more from the traditional lecture-based approach. The following is a snippet from my write-up of my WVSOM interview experience:

Following the interview, Annette suggested I go sit in on a PBL class because I had expressed interest in the PBL track. I was led to the main building and dropped off at a small conference room where I observed an ongoing meeting of five first year students and two professors. The PBL groups are supposed to have seven students and apparently two were out sick.

The whiteboards had lots of information about what they were discussing, broken down into a bunch of categories: pathology, histology, physiology, genetics, clinical, cardiology, ethics, etc. The clinical case they had been given was something to do with hyperlipidemia (heightened lipids in the bloodstream), I gathered, and there were lots of notes about statins, EKGs, genetics, etc., on the board. The students were discussing various learning projects surrounding this condition; they talked a lot about genetics, with the professors suggesting some source materials and also quizzing them on various points along the way. I didn’t hear a whole lot of information being tossed around, but on the other hand these are first years in their third or fourth month of medical school and still getting the hang of PBL.

At the end, one of the professors on his way out said to me, “What do you think?” Unprepared, I said something like “It’s pretty cool!” With a grave face, he asked me whether I like to study on my own, am I the independent type. I replied that I do “a little of each”, and he then said, “SBL” and walked away. He was telling me that I would be better off doing systems based learning, i.e. traditional lecture format, rather than problem based learning. I feel however that given my software and history background, I would be better off in an environment where I am more free to pursue a flexible path. This school allows only about 40 students to enter PBL; the other 160 do the traditional lecture track. You need to persuade them (and yourself) that you can hack the PBL pathway, because after a couple of weeks you can’t switch to the other track. The students were very friendly and asked me if I had any questions. They told me that nontrads tend to thrive in PBL.

By contrast, and I recall that you are interested in Bradenton, the LECOM program is mainly PBL. Anatomy and OMM are lab courses so cannot be PBL. The students there told me they would not want to return to lecture-based learning after sipping from the PBL cup. They feel responsible for their own learning process. However, as you probably are aware, Bradenton is a work in progress; the pass rate on the first COMLEX this school took was below average, in the 80s percentagewise. They were planning to rejigger the curriculum to fix this. At our interview, the dean made a strong argument in favor of PBL as a more natural approach for physicians in training. He stressed his interest in meeting regularly with students to understand how the system is working. My impression is that they are committed to constantly improving their school.

Personally, I’m quite sold on PBL; it’s basically what I’ve done for 15 years as a software developer. Unfortunately, my school is not big on PBL but they are, like others, gradually tiptoe-ing into PBL by adding one or two courses at a time. Good luck!

I am quite aware of the curriculum at LECOM-B. I actually live in B’ton and have had the opportunity to speak with students in their first and second year. It is 100% PBL although they will have some lectures interspersed. Considering that i’m looking at at least two years before I enter medical school, should LECOM-B still be a school I wish to pursue, I’m sure that it will have a more proven track record. One of the things I have learned is that now first years get some more guidance in regards to doing some prep work in pharmacology and in another area (possibly pathology), as these were areas that were shown to have some lag in those upper classmen who where the pilot classes.

Right now, I have the advantage of time since I still have to complete O. Chem and Physics, as well as my undergraduate degree. I’ve ample time to do research to find out what schools would best suit me. That is one of the benefits of being a nontrad, you are more in tune to what works and doesn’t work.

From my research just last night, I found about 10 allopathic schools tht offer PBL and other innovative curriculum programs.


I sat in on a PBL class and didn’t care for it. Everyone came with all the diseases they had researched and presented them. I wasn’t impressed. One of the theories is you will remember more about a thing if you research it. However only one person researched the correct one because it fell into their pile.

Give me OSU’s independent program. I’m happier with a book, CD, DVD, video…basically give me a book and some time alone and I’ve got it.

I have issue with many professors who view PBL as the end all, be all. Just like SBL isn’t the end all be all neither is PBL. Maybe I sat in on the wrong day or with the wrong group…but when other students were on their way home the PBL’s still were in their little room trying to figure things out.

In theory PBL is awesome but I’ve sat on 2 sessions at 2 different schools and blaaaaaaaahh. Maybe it’s because I just don’t do well with groups. Cramps my style…they is just too slow…

Great point that I forgot, Crooz. We also have to do some PBL occasionally as part of our non-ISP coursework. I completely agree with you that while you do learn about what you research, your knowledge base on the topics that you (or your group) did NOT research is weak. There is too much info in medical school to learn everything via PBL, imo.

We recently had a visit from a WVSOM representative who spent a few minutes talking up the PBL option in her presentation. She said there is a sort of application process (an essay and an interview with the person in charge of PBL). I thought it looked really attractive since this is how I like to learn anyhow (even when I’m taking a highly structured class). Being spoon-fed information doesn’t really do me a lot of good. If I have to really dig around for information, it tends to stay with me a lot longer. I suppose the volume of information one can find in a few days might be smaller and more loosely connected than information presented in a lecture. I can imagine advantages and disadvantages to both tracks. PBL sounds like a lot of work compared to SBL. Right now, my only concern is getting in somewhere… :wink:


I can’t see adding to the workload of a med school curriculum. Spoon feed me baby!

My school has a curriculum advertised as PBL, although it is really regular tutorials and small groups in combination with lectures, which I think is how many schools actually do this. (A few are only PBL.) I chose my school over another closer to home in large part because I couldn’t imagine sitting in lectures all day.

My school, like some other schools with similar approaches, has taken the sensible step of making these first two years pass/fail. Also it is rare that your evaluation is based on anything other than your own work. The tutorial leader is going to be able to see what you are bringing to the group vs other people.

The approach demands that you be a self-motivated learner. (This is harder than it sounds. Turns out I’m self-motivated as long as I’m interested in what I’m learning, and when that wasn’t true I really had to struggle to keep up with my classmates.) More importantly, it demands that you understand (and can tolerate) the idea that medicine is not primarily about the memorization and recitation of facts, but more about the use of established knowledge as a tool within a process of critical thinking.

The advantage of a well-taught PBL process is that by working through a case you start thinking in terms of differentials very early. Although in my first tutorials I wanted to jump up and down and say, “Ooh! Ooh! I know! the answer is–CANCER!” I was soon cured of this unfortunate beginner’s error. (And not only because I was always wrong.) The answer is actually a set of questions–i.e., by the end of a PBL curriculum you should have a lot of practice thinking at each stage of a clinical case what questions you need to ask, rather than settling down on a diagnosis too soon. Good lecturers can inspire this way of thinking too, but PBL has it built more into its DNA.

Unfortunately some PBL curricula are better than others even within a school; when a case is designed to be about finding an answer (ah-ha! alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency! of course), rather than asking a series of questions, then you might as well be sitting in a lecture getting someone to just tell you the answer. But more of the time I think there is at least some benefit to having to go through this thinking process again and again and to have to do it in front of people so that you are acutely aware of where you need to improve.


My school is also PBL mixed with lectures and some small group work. However, our school prides itself on upholding the long tradition of grading students, and handing out course rankings in the hallway at the end of each module, hee hee! If there is one thing I could change, this might be it. In the end we have an honors/pass/fail system, but every single component of the curriculum gets graded numerically. Where this really hurts is on quizzes. We have endless quizzes. They are really more like exams. When I interviewed here I thought the experience was going to be this kind of touchy-feely-interpersona lly-supportive environment due to there being so much PBL, but it’s not. PBL is something we have to get done ON TOP of the exams and other stuff. We also have a very time consuming “humanities” type class which recently has gotten totally out of control, again making PBL seem like a chore sometimes. I’m just saying, other things have a way of taking over and making it hard to really get the most out of PBL.

Anyway, I’m a second year now, and I’m finally starting to get somewhat more out of PBL. PBL forces me to read Harrison’s (a giant tome of internal medicine), from which I am learning more than I have EVER learned from lectures or the accompanying notes. Last year I would say I did not like PBL much because it was always dominated by one or two students. It’s the same now, but I know my fellow students a lot better and feel like I can deal with their quirks a little better. (I feel no reservations at throwing erasers or other things at them now.) I would say that among my classmates, the ones who do best in PBL are the ones who do their work systematically and on time, and have no hang-ups about what people think about them in a group. It has pretty little to do with whether you prefer concepts to memorization (because you still have to memorize!).

I guess what I am getting at is that whether PBL works for you depends on a lot of things besides PBL. Don’t just go for a PBL based curriculum because you think of yourself as a “motivated self starter” type. I was that way before med school, but the environment I was in was different. These days, if I ONLY had to concentrate on PBL, and if medical schools were filled only with sensitive, supportive and affirming individuals who wanted AND knew HOW to help one another, I think I would thrive within PBL. However there is so much else to consider. I would advise trying to get the full picture of each school as best you can!

UTMB in Galveston is an entirely PBL based curriculum. I finished it in 2005. I’m sort of ambivalent about it to tell the truth.

I really liked the freedom it had and the limited classroom time but feel I probably was at a disadvantage when it came to Step I. By the time Step II came around I was pretty much where everyone else was. The benefit was that in third year, I think we were much better at being able to quickly find reference information and incorporate it into practice (as much as a third year practices anything other than H&Ps).

If you’re looking for an allopathic program with PBL, give Galveston a look. University of Texas Medical Branch

Take care,


Here’s the deal on PBL. The theory is good, the practice is unbelieveably variable. Remember that everyone takes the same standardized tests at the end of Year 2 and the end of year 3 whether you are in an M.D. or D.O. school. University of Hawaii has a PBL curriculum also. Just be aware of who they choose for the PBL - usually it is either the smartest kids in the class or the weakest kids in the class (no offense to anyone) - PBL has lots more hands on, lots more early introduction to clinical, more early interaction with faculty. BUT lots more independent looking stuff up and reporting back. So, if you miss the point, you just wasted a whole chunk of time. In some schools, it is also done because the class size is too big for the traditional lecture halls, so in order to add more seats, they have to do an alternative curriculum. Check that out too.

It sounds like it should be a great teaching style, but in reality there are fewer holes in the curriculum with the traditional two years of basic science and two years of clinical. Beware of the schools that don’t have core clerkships or that teach for a specific reason - rural family practices, for example - you will not be competitive with your traditional med school peers, and you still have to take step 3 or comlex level 3 to get a license. And no, I don’t think you should do anything just for the test, but even hair stylists need licenses - should the medical profession not be held to some kind of standard, too?

Well, after looking at a few schools, I’m looking for programs that actually have a mix versus 100% either way.

I appreciate all of your responses though!

Are there any schools that are 100% PBL? I thought they were all mixed.

By report, the UC Berkeley/UCSF Joint Medical Program, a small program which runs its pre-clinical portion in Berkeley, was more or less 100% PBL as of a couple of years ago. They describe it like this…


What is PBL?


Problem Based Learning.