Factors affecting pharmacology learning in integrated PBL in diverse medical students: a mixed methods study

BMC Med Educ. 2024 Mar 21;24(1):324. doi: 10.1186/s12909-024-05289-2.


Introduction: Problem-based learning (PBL) was introduced to address passive teaching limitations. However, it is not fully characterised as a teaching modality in pharmacology. The present study investigated the factors affecting pharmacology learning in an integrated PBL-based curriculum in diverse learners.

Methods: Year 1 undergraduate medical students from two cohorts at St. George's University of London and University of Nicosia, participated. Statistical analysis of pharmacology knowledge scores, at the beginning (pre-test) and end of the academic year (post-test), investigated readiness to benefit from PBL based on diverse student characteristics (educational background, age, gender, country of origin, ethnicity, native language, PBL experience). Focus groups/interviews and a survey investigated aspects of integrated PBL impacting learning in depth.

Results: Pre- and post-test scores were positively correlated. Students with biomedical sciences degrees performed better at the pharmacology pre- and post-tests, while post-graduate degree holders performed better only at the pre-test. Effect size was of moderate magnitude. However, progress in learning (post-test performance after controlling for pre-test scores) was unaffected. Qualitative analysis revealed three major themes: 1) PBL as a learning environment; 2) PBL as a learning environment in pharmacology; and 3) PBL as a learning environment and confidence in prescribing. Under theme one, skill development, knowledge acquisition through collaboration and self-directed learning, group dynamics and preferred teaching methods were discussed. Under theme two, contextual learning, depth of knowledge and material correctness were raised. Under theme 3, students expressed variability in prescribing confidence. They perceived that learning could be improved by better integration, further references earlier on, more lectures and PBL facilitators with greater content expertise. The survey findings were consistent with those from focus groups/interviews.

Conclusion: Pharmacology learning in a PBL-based curriculum is facilitated by constructive, collaborative and contextual learning. While baseline pharmacology knowledge may be advantageous, the other aforementioned characteristics studied may not affect readiness to benefit from PBL. However, further instructional scaffolding is needed, for example through further resources, lectures and self-assessment. The results from our study can inform evidence-based curriculum reform to support student learning further. Addressing learning needs could ultimately contribute to reducing medication errors through effective training of future prescribers.

Keywords: Basic science education; Mixed-methods; Personal characteristics/attitudes; Pharmacology; Prescribing; Problem-based-learning.

MeSH terms

  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate* / methods
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Problem-Based Learning
  • Students, Medical*