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Viewpoint: Leaving the Empty Glass of Problem-Based Learning Behind: New Assumptions and a Revised Model for Case Study in Preclinical Medical Education

Shanley, Paul F. MD

Academic Medicine:
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31803eac4c
Educational Strategies

The popularity of problem-based learning (PBL) reflects medical educators’ recognition that case study can enhance the preclinical medical school curriculum. However, the PBL method itself has features, particularly its reliance on small-group work with tutor–facilitators, that are expensive to implement and that limit the potential educational value of case study. The author systematically analyzes specific aspects of the PBL methodology and concludes that the PBL approach misuses the faculty, tends to compromise the authenticity of cases, and results in an unnecessarily varied and impoverished educational experience for students. Approaches to case study with different assumptions need to be devised. A model is proposed that shifts the goal of case study from development of problem-solving skills to development of ideas that allow meaningful engagement in sophisticated discussions of medicine. In this model, the method shifts from self-directed learning to independent study guided by the expertise of the faculty. One possible approach to case study based on this model is briefly described. It consists of reading published cases from the medical literature, with analysis and discussion of the cases led by faculty experts in large-group format. The approach immerses students in an authentic, state-of-the-art discussion of medicine and is easily incorporated into any curriculum structure at limited cost. The author argues that, contrary to the claims of proponents, the glass is “mostly empty” for PBL and that we can generate the higher-level discussion that case study merits only by moving away from PBL’s extraneous assumptions.

Author Information

Dr. Shanley is professor of pathology, State University of New York Upstate Medical University College of Medicine, Syracuse, New York.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Shanley, SUNY Upstate Medical University, 750 E. Adams Street, Syracuse, NY 13210; telephone: (315) 464-7171; fax: (315) 464-7130; e-mail: (

© 2007 Association of American Medical Colleges