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Problem-based learning in postgraduate dental education: a qualitative evaluation of students’ experience of an orthodontic problem-based postgraduate programme


D. R. Bearn School of Dentistry University of Dundee Dundee, UK Tel: +44 1382 635978 Fax: +44 1382 206321 e-mail:


Introduction:  Problem based learning (PBL) has gained wide acceptance in undergraduate education, but less so in postgraduate education. Qualitative research methodologies can help us gain insight and understanding of the students’ experience in undertaking such programmes.

Aim:  To evaluate the experiences of postgraduate students undertaking a PBL based postgraduate programme.

Methods:  Focus groups and semi-structured interviews were used to investigate students’ experiences. The qualitative data were coded, the codes were grouped into categories and a coding framework developed. From this a construct is proposed to give insight into students’ experiences. The validity of this construct was examined by reviewing the literature.

Results:  Students entered the programme with high expectations, but soon found they had challenges to overcome. They came to realise that they were on a journey, rather than undertaking a sequence of separate individual learning events. PBL led to significant tensions both within the individuals and the group, caused by the conflict between appreciating PBL as a ‘good thing’ and yet finding that `it just doesn’t seem to work’. The fear of failure in a high stakes setting only exacerbated these tensions. The literature review revealed an inconsistent approach to the use of PBL and its evaluation in a postgraduate/continuing medical education setting. However it did provide evidence of similar findings in qualitative studies, supporting the construct developed.

Conclusion:  We have proposed a construct to help in understanding the PBL experience for students undergoing a ‘high stakes’ orthodontic postgraduate programme with a core of PBL.