Background: The small group tutorial is a cornerstone of problem-based learning. By implication, the role of the facilitator is of pivotal importance. The present investigation canvassed perceptions of facilitators with differing levels of experience regarding their roles and duties in the tutorial. Methods: In January 2002, one year after problem-based learning implementation at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, facilitators with the following experience were canvassed: trained and about to facilitate, facilitated once only and facilitated more than one six-week theme. Student comments regarding facilitator skills were obtained from a 2001 course survey. Results: While facilitators generally agreed that the three-day training workshop provided sufficient insight into the facilitation process, they become more comfortable with increasing experience. Many facilitators experienced difficulty not providing content expertise. Again, this improved with increasing experience. Most facilitators saw students as colleagues. They agreed that they should be role models, but were less enthusiastic about being mentors. Students were critical of facilitators who were not up to date with curriculum implementation or who appeared disinterested. While facilitator responses suggest that there was considerable intrinsic motivation, this might in fact not be the case. Conclusions: Even if they had facilitated on all six themes, facilitators could still be considered as novices. Faculty support is therefore critical for the first few years of problem-based learning, particularly for those who had facilitated once only. Since student and facilitator expectations in the small group tutorial may differ, roles and duties of facilitators must be explicit for both parties from the outset.