If the goal of problem-based learning (PBL) is to teach students
to be independent, self-directed, lifelong learners, then
peer-facilitated PBL groups may be a logical outgrowth of a PBL
curriculum. The University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of
Dentistry is testing this theory and finding that its students are
indeed capable of a high level of self-directed learning.
With more than a decade of experience using a PBL curriculum,
UBC embarked on a Dental PBL Case Renewal and Lecture Integration
Project under the leadership of Dr. Leandra Best, UBC's Years 1 and
2 D.M.D. Curriculum Coordinator, and Dr. Nancy Black, DENT 430
& 440 (years 3 and 4) General Dentistry Coordinator. In 2009, in
the midst of their work, they seized the opportunity to take part
in a pilot project in collaboration with the medical school to
study the effectiveness of dental students peer-facilitating their
"While UBC values its PBL tutors and does provide them with
standardized training and support, it's unrealistic to think
subjectivity can be eliminated in tutors' assessments," says Dr.
Best, "It is also difficult to achieve consistency in the tutors'
approaches to the PBL process. Taking tutors out of the facilitative
role makes students fully responsible for their own learning. It
also puts the onus of assessing and monitoring themselves and their
peers squarely on their shoulders, honing an essential skill for
their future practice."
The peer-facilitated PBL pilot that concluded in May produced
promising results. The second-year students who took part responded
positively to the experience, and on standardized assessments they
performed the same as or outperformed their peers in
Last year, UBC's pioneering educators introduced PBL into the
admissions arena with the encouragement of their Dean, Dr. Charles
Shuler, who came to Vancouver in 2007 from the University of
Southern California School of Dentistry, one of the first U.S.
dental schools to adopt the PBL pedagogy.
"We want to select students who will blossom in this learning
environment," says Dr. Best, "so we introduced a two-day Open House
for applicants. They meet faculty, talk to students, tour the
facility, and receive an initial orientation to PBL and the
school's curriculum. On the second day, in addition to a personal
interview, they are observed and assessed in a PBL tutorial group
as they work through a case. Now, the successful applicants arrive
in the fall well informed about PBL."
In reflecting upon
her extensive involvement with PBL, Dr. Best concludes, "I've been
inspired by what I see in our students. It's a joy to see their
growth, and the independence and motivation they exhibit."