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Campus Spotlight: University of British Columbia

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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 PBL groups.

"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 tutor-facilitated groups.

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."


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