Get access

Does problem-based learning lead to deficiencies in basic science knowledge? An empirical case on anatomy


K J A H Prince MD, Skillslab, University of Maastricht, PO Box 616, 6200 MD Maastricht, Netherlands. Tel.: 00 31 4 3388 1978; Fax: 00 31 4 3361 8612; E-mail:


Introduction  Problem-based learning (PBL) is supposed to enhance the integration of basic and clinical sciences. In a non-integrative curriculum, these disciplines are generally taught in separate courses. Problem-based learning students perceive deficiencies in their knowledge of basic sciences, particularly in important areas such as anatomy. Outcome studies on PBL show controversial results, sometimes indicating that medical students at PBL schools have less knowledge of basic sciences than do their colleagues at more traditional medical schools. We aimed to identify differences between PBL and non-PBL students in perceived and actual levels of knowledge of anatomy.

Methods  Samples of Year 4 students in all eight medical schools in the Netherlands completed a questionnaire on perceived knowledge and took part in a computerised anatomy test consisting of both clinically contextualised items and items without context.

Results  Problem-based learning students were found to have the same perceived level of anatomy knowledge as students at other medical schools. Differences in actual levels of knowledge were found between schools. No significant effects on knowledge levels were found for PBL schools versus non-PBL schools.

Conclusion  The results of this study show that PBL does not result in a lower level of anatomy knowledge than more traditional educational approaches. It remains to be ascertained whether the levels students attain are adequate. Subjects for further study are the desired level of anatomy knowledge at the end of undergraduate medical education and the effectiveness of basic science learning within a clinical context and with repetition over the course of the curriculum.

Get access to the full text of this article