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Are Qualitative Studies of the PBL Tutorial Process Indicated?

Hak, Tony PhD

Letters to the Editor

Dr. Hak is associate professor of methodology, Department of Methodology, Faculteit Bedrijfskunde/Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

In reply: In our essay “Group Process: The Black Box of Studies on Problem-based Learning,”1 Phil Maguire and I promoted the use of qualitative studies of the tutorial process in problem-based learning (PBL). In his letter, Colliver states that there is no need for such studies to determine what makes PBL curricula effective. He claims to have demonstrated in an article in this journal2 that the evidence shows that PBL curricula have no effect, which would make studies of the PBL process superfluous. However, in replies to Colliver's article,3,4 other authors have shown that there is a critical difference between the PBL process and “PBL curricula.” Because many different practices are labelled “PBL curricula,” it is not clear at all what exactly is measured as being effective or ineffective in outcome studies of curricula. It was precisely our point that even though there are prescriptions for how PBL should be done, there is hardly any research or literature to date about actual tutorial processes, which differ considerably among and within curricula. Even if it were to appear that the cognitive outcomes of specific tutorial processes are the same as those of other teaching and learning processes (such as attending lectures), it would still be relevant for educational science to know how such similar outcomes were produced. It should even be considered extremely relevant, given that most studies show that both students and faculty find PBL to be more pleasurable and stimulating than more traditional educational formats. Colliver's letter, therefore, confirms our point that it is pertinent to begin to conduct (qualitative) research on the process by which tutorial groups achieve cognitive outcomes, whatever these outcomes may be.

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1. Hak T, Maguire P. Group process: the black box of studies on problem-based learning. Acad Med. 2000;75:769–72.
2. Colliver JA. Effectiveness of problem-based learning curricula: research and theory. Acad Med. 2000;75:259–66.
3. Norman GR, Schmidt IIG. Effectiveness of problem-based learning curricula: theory, practice and paper darts. Med Educ. 2000;34:721–8.
4. Albanese M. Problem-based learning: why curricula are likely to show little effect on knowledge and clinical skills. Med Educ. 2000;34:729–38.
© 2001 Association of American Medical Colleges