Problem Based Learning: Med School Lessons

There are as many ways to learn as there are learners in the world. Though several tried and true techniques are emulated or replicated by students worldwide, and while certain curricula or professors require certain areas of focus and/or methodologies when it comes to learning, the method (or rather, combination of methods) that best help a student learn varies from student to student. The time it takes for students to grasp certain concepts varies; their preferred study techniques vary; the content itself varies; and the difficulty of the content varies from person to person.

For medical students, what they’re learning has a direct impact on the lives of others – their future patients. Thus, it is particularly important that medical students learn not only the foundational sciences, but how to properly care for a patient.

Before medical students even step foot in a hospital for their first rotations, they all have to build up a solid foundation. It is one thing to memorize human anatomy or which drugs treat which issues, but it is another to be able to apply that knowledge to real-world situations and to improvise when a patient doesn’t respond in a standard way. Though exams such as the USMLE® or COMLEX-USA® seek to test students on standardized patient care, there is always room for variation. One important element of both of these examinations, as well as on licensing exams from around the world, is related directly to patient care and patient interactions. It is for this part of medical studies (and future practice) that one particular learning approach is very well-suited: problem-based learning.

What is problem-based learning?

Problem-based learning, or PBL, is a learning and teaching method which approaches information first from a problem. Rather than simply teaching what the students need to know and subsequently hoping that they can translate this information into practice, problem-based learning starts with a question (or in this situation, most likely a clinical case). In a traditional classroom setting, students are then encouraged to consider the potential outcomes, then proceed with the course as usual (with the question in the back of their minds or as part of the course “road map”) to learn information related to the case, and end the class period by answering the question. Alternatively, the question could be assigned as homework in advance of the next course, so that students have a chance to work on it on their own and later contribute to a class discussion.

How does problem-based learning relate to studying?

Problem-based learning isn’t just reserved for classroom use: students can also utilize PBL on their own time, in order to review concepts learned in classes or through their own reading/studying. On examinations such as the USMLE or COMLEX, students are tested on multiple choice questions centered around patient vignettes. Students can use a Qbank like a study guide via problem-based learning. How? It’s simple:

  • Start a Qbank practice test on your preferred learning platform
  • Do the test as a test (even if you get the answers wrong, keep going)
  • Take a short break and prepare yourself for a few hours of focus
  • Spend 2-3 hours reviewing your Qbank questions (both correctly and incorrectly answered questions), noting which concepts you didn’t fully understand or didn’t pick up on for answering the questions and reviewing them as well
  • Make a list of questions you still have about the content – perhaps a study buddy, tutor, or professor can help clarify these points for you
  • Make a list of content you need to review in your next study session

Instead of just studying information without context, you’re studying the concepts you need to know as they relate to real-world situations you might someday encounter as a practicing physician.

Why use problem-based learning in your studies?

In elementary school, or for standardized tests, you might have learned that it is important to read the question first before reading through a text so you know what content or information you need to find to answer the question. Using problem-based learning for medical school isn’t all that different – of course, you’ll need a solid foundation of medical knowledge first, but then you can get started applying that knowledge.

Using a Qbank to study, not just prepare for exams, is one way to use PBL in your individual studies. Another way to bring problem-based learning into your study routine is to create your own questions as you’re learning material. As you learn and study (especially newer) material, write down quiz questions that you might think would be asked to test said material. When you’re reviewing later, you’ll already have a set of questions prepared to test your knowledge or at least focus your review.

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As everyone studies differently, problem-based learning might not be your favorite study technique. But as you continue your career in medicine, you’ll come to find that problem-based learning is the basis for much of patient care. Starting now with PBL will only help you when the time comes to trade in the simulation for a real patient with a problem you must solve.