The small group in problem-based learning: More than a cognitive 'learning' experience for first-year medical students in a diverse population

Michelle McLean*, Jacqueline M. Van Wyk, Edith M. Peters-Futre, Susan B. Higgins-Opitz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


In problem-based learning (PBL) curricula, first-year students need to adapt to a new learning environment and an unfamiliar new pedagogy. The small-group tutorial potentially offers a learning environment where students can become self-directed learners, collaborating with other group members to achieve individual and group learning goals. At the end of the first six-week theme in a relatively new PBL curriculum, new medical students were canvassed about coping with PBL (self-directed learning; content; time management; resources) and the value of the small-group tutorial, the latter of which is currently being reported. Almost 84% of students (n=178) responded. The benefits of participating in small groups were categorized into three domains - cognitive, affective and social - as identified from student responses. Results were analysed in terms of gender and prior educational experience (secondary school vs. prior tertiary educational experience). For almost 94% of students, the small-group tutorial provided a conducive learning environment that influenced their personal development (i.e. tolerance, patience) and socialization into the faculty. Significantly more males indicated that they had developed social skills, while more school-leavers (matriculants) than mature students felt more receptive to the views of others. More mature students claimed to have made friends. Irrespective of some conflicting opinions in the literature, the present results suggest that the PBL tutorial may be important in facilitating student socialization into a new and unfamiliar academic environment, particularly when the pedagogy differs markedly from their past educational experiences. Through interacting with fellow students from diverse origins who hold different views in the intimate setting of the small group, students felt that they had not only increased their knowledge but had also developed personally and socially. It is proposed that the small group may be useful for integrating a diverse population of students into a new academic environment.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMedical Teacher
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2006
Externally publishedYes


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