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What is problem-based learning?

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Problem-based learning (PBL) is a self-directed, student centred way of learning which aims to put your knowledge into practice. It’s different from traditional learning in the sense that you will be presented with a real-life scenario which you need to piece together and work through in order to find a solution and answer complex clinical questions.

PBL isn’t just about learning and retaining information, it’s how you use this information to solve a specific problem. PBL also allows you to develop key soft skills such as teamwork, time management and leadership, which you’ll need to excel as a doctor.

Students sitting at table during PBL session

What’s involved in a PBL session?

A PBL session will consist of a small group of around 12 students and a tutor. You’ll stay within the same group for at least the first year of study.

In your groups, you’ll be presented with a real-world problem or scenario, you’ll have to work together to find a solution and answer clinical questions. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle; you’ll have to use your skills and knowledge to piece together bits of information from all subject areas on the course. You’ll then be able to draw upon your skills to figure out how this all fits together, enabling you to see the big picture of a patient’s case and form a solution.

The tutor in the session acts as the facilitator, they aren’t necessarily there to teach, but to oversee and guide the PBL session. The tutor will assist in helping students understand what they need to do and help them to move forward with solving the problem.

The first task in the session is to decide who is taking on which role. You will regularly rotate roles, giving everyone the opportunity to have a go at each one. The roles are:

  • Chair: This is the person who takes charge of the session and leads the group through the problem-solving process. The chair will encourage everyone to participate in the task as well as using time management skills to ensure the task is completed in a timely manner.
  • Scribe: The scribe keeps a record of everything that is discussed within the session. They help to order the group's thoughts and keep track of the resources used within the session.
  • Group members: The remaining group members within the PBL session. Everyone, including the chair and the scribe, will take part in the session to share ideas, listen to one another and ask questions.

How is PBL integrated into the curriculum?

Our medicine programme uses a spiral curriculum which progresses in complexity year on year. As well as spending time getting to grips with anatomy and learning in a lecture style environment, you’ll also go on clinical placements within local hospitals and community settings. PBL aims to bridge that gap between the classroom and placements by putting you in a controlled environment. The PBL session will give you the time you need to understand and get to grips with common medical scenarios before you are potentially placed in that situation in the real world. As PBL is part of a spiral curriculum, you will be expected to draw from many different areas of medicine at any one time.

How will PBL help me in my career?

The aim of PBL is to equip you with the skills you need to become a good doctor. It isn’t just about the science but also about how you would apply your knowledge to real situations. The sessions help you to think rationally and learn from any mistakes you may make.

One of the most important takeaways from PBL is to learn how to work with and, perhaps more importantly, learn from your peers. PBL is all about being collaborative, working with people with different strengths and learning how to work together to share your knowledge and expertise. Understanding how to work well with others and building on your communication skills is imperative when it comes to working in the multi functioning environment that is medicine.

Group of students in PBL session

Take a look at what our students and staff have to say about PBL:

"PBL is a great way for medical students to piece together a whole picture of a patient, much like they would be presented with in a GP surgery or hospital department. Students are engaged in solving a real-world problem and answering complex questions every week in their PBL groups. Learning with each other about how a disease might present, which biological systems are involved, likely treatments that would be given, as well as how the patient is affected in their everyday lives as a result. It is amazing to see how much the students learn during the week, and they demonstrate their new knowledge and skills by presenting to their group. It is also a lot of fun!" – Jo Dunnett, senior lecturer


“I would definitely recommend the University of Sunderland. The staff are very knowledgeable and approachable, and I like that the University offers Problem-Based Learning (PBL) rather than just lectures. Initially PBL can feel daunting but I feel it has helped improve my confidence and I actually learn better this way. I could not imagine myself studying medicine at any other university.” – Laura Giles, medicine student


“I liked the Problem-Based Learning course structure at the University of Sunderland and felt it would suit the way I learn best. It requires independent learning and research skills but is monitored by a supervisor to ensure that you are gaining the correct level of understanding for each topic.” – Jenni Ward, medicine student

Published: 7 March 2022