Embedding research in problem-based learning: opportunities and challenges

Martin Veysey, Hull York Medical School, University of York



Since inception, Hull York Medical School has used problem-based learning as the
key modality for teaching first and second year undergraduate medical students.
This analytical approach lends itself to enquiry and research, but the opportunity to embed research-led teaching within PBL has been variably successful. Is PBL a good way to strengthen the links between teaching and research? And if so, how can course designers maximize this opportunity, while addressing the challenges it presents?

Structure of workshop

Using an interactive workshop format facilitated by both academics and students,
participants will be presented with the concept of, and the opportunities that exist in, a PBL curriculum with embedded links to research, that enables researchers to be actively involved in students’ learning. The participants will be asked to discuss whether these opportunities have been realized, in their experience, and to consider the challenges that exist. Possible solutions to the challenges will be explored, allowing participants to take away solutions to ensure their curricula are strengthened by this research-teaching nexus.

Intended outcomes

At the end of the workshop, participants will have benefited from the experience of the presenters, and their fellow attendees, and be able to take home key lessons to their programmes for implementation. They will have a set of priorities that will assist them in optimizing the experience for students and will strengthen the links between the researchers and educators within their respective departments.

Chair’s Report

Workshop Panopto video recording (University of York login required)

This session posed the core questions as to:

  • how opportunities for research can be embedded into PBL;
  • how the latter can strengthen links between educators and researchers; and
  • what research-based learning opportunities PBL offers students, and tutors/departments.

PBL is about developing relevant skills and attitudes to promote learning both at University and as lifelong learners. All students have a role in PBL sessions, whether as chair, scribe or group member. Students work from a trigger – data, patient cases, a paper, a photo – to follow a 7 step process (commonly attributed to Maastricht):

  • Clarify terms
  • Identify key problems
  • Brainstorm possible explanations
  • Form possible hypotheses and solutions
  • Identify learning objectives
  • Self directed study
  • Discussion and elaboration of learning

PBL should work as a pedagogy because it is self-directed, collaborative, constructive, contextualized.

Evidence from HYMS about how PBL works:

  • PBL graduates perform as well or better at PG exams and find it more enjoyable and nurturing
  • Tutors enjoy teaching PBL
  • PBL appears to improve critical thinking and enhance deep learning
  • Some evidence that PBL graduates are better communicators and more patient-centred

However, there is a tension between PBL and traditional assessment:

Most assessment is on cognitive outcomes – e.g., what do you know – whereas PBL achieves meta-cognitive outcomes – e.g., knowing what you don’t know, what you need to know, and how to find it

Consideration therefore needs to be given as to how assessment can better reflect PBL outcomes.

On researchers as facilitators in PBL:

What might be the differences if PBL is clinician-facilitated rather than researcher-facilitated?

Researchers tend to focus on the underpinning science – clinicians tend to focus more on the process and outputs.

Specific clinical cases are used for PBL in HYMS rather than consideration of more generic conditions, (e.g., breathlessness) – this drives outcomes more towards patient outcomes rather than discuss of broader medical concepts

Researcher engagement can be a challenge – getting them involved in what may be viewed as a more involved pedagogy than traditional teaching

On opportunities offered by PBL for research based learning:

What opportunities could PBL provide in terms of research-based learning and related skills and attributes for students, and tutors/departments?

For students:

  • improving research skills;
  • developing curiosity;
  • providing practical training in and experience of research methods from day one, year one;
  • motivation to develop research through the direct involvement in research required by PBL;
  • independence;
  • responsibility and ability to identify their own learning gaps;
  • critical, constructive thinking and engagement;
  • literature searching;
  • skills to evaluate data and information;
  • developing hypotheses; and
  • skills in presenting results.

For tutors and departments:

  • provides flexibility in teaching opportunities – as don’t need to be direct expert in field to facilitate PBL;
  • apply own practice as researchers to guide/give feedback to students on their developing research skills;
  • marketing the pedagogy and its potential positive outcomes/applications;
  • more adaptable in terms of module design – change problems, rather than materials;
  • ability to provide “fixed resource” sessions – where students ask questions of a lecturer rather than the latter delivering a lecture;
  • developing triggers (problems) based on their research expertise;
  • identify those students who you might want to engage in research projects;
  • ability to engage with external stakeholders in designing PBL and PBL problems; and
  • increases in student satisfaction.

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