Which course?

So you’ve decided you want to study medicine and you want to be a doctor. Next, you have to make another decision. Which type of medical course would be best suited to you?

All courses have the same basic syllabus, controlled by the General Medical Council. But the way the syllabus works tends to be different depending on the type of course each school offers.

Types of course

Not all medicine courses are the same and they can be taught in very different ways. Most schools offer either a problem-based learning (PBL) course, or a traditional lecture-based course.

  • Traditional courses are taught mainly through lectures. In these courses there is a lot of contact time and you are provided with all of the information you need to know for the year.
    • The information you're given in lectures is reinforced by seminars, tutorials, workshops and practicals. The teaching is very separate, and anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and pathology are taught in different teaching blocks.
    • Seminars are there to encourage group discussion and to increase your understanding and learning. For seminars you are normally in groups of between 10 and 20.
    • Tutorials involve going over previously set work in small groups with tutors. Research has shown that those who learn through lectures have a wider and more in-depth knowledge than those on a PBL course. However it has also shown that those who learned through PBL are more likely to retain the information.
  • PBL (problem-based learning) is an alternative method for teaching medicine. As the name suggests, it's a way of learning based around problem-solving. It encourages you to work independently to find out the information you need to know. Most courses use PBL in some form, and PBL courses usually also have lectures so sometimes it can be difficult to classify them!

Integrated courses are currently what the General Medical Council recommends. Any course can be integrated, either PBL or lecture-based. In an integrated course, instead of the teaching being separate, it is taught by system. For example, if you're studying the cardiovascular system, you'll do the anatomy, physiology and pharmacology all together. For this reason, integrated courses can also be called systems-based courses.

What is PBL?

Not all PBL courses are exactly the same, but here's the basic idea:

  • You are placed into small groups within your year group, normally 8-10 people
  • You have a facilitator, who is there to guide you
  • One student in the group acts as chair. The chair leads group discussion and is responsible for group participation and timekeeping
  • One student in the group acts as a scribe and writes down all of the information discussed while still participating

You generally have two PBL sessions per week.

In the first session of each week, you're given two or theee patient cases to discuss. Each case describes a virtual patient and in your group you talk through what you know at the minute and figure out what you need to go away and learn, with the aim being to find out what you don’t know, rather than to solve the case right away! You come up with the learning objectives as a group in relation to the specific case.

In the second session, you talk through what you've found. This will allow you to see how much depth others in the group have gone into and if you missed anything important.

In addition to these PBL sessions, there are also plenaries and workshops to provide you with information. Plenaries are basically lectures, but not as detailed, and they usually just give you a good idea of where to start with your PBL work. They outline some of the things you need to know but you are expected to go away and learn more about it.


The main difference between PBL courses is the role of the facilitator. In some schools, the facilitator will check your learning objectives and, if you have missed one that was set by the curriculum, they will give it to you for you to learn – this is called the guided discovery model. As a group, if you start to talk about things that aren’t relevant the facilitator will try and guide you back on track. This is to make sure that all students are learning the same things.

Other models will let you go away and learn only the objectives that you have come up with. The main flaw of this is that if you miss something you might not find out until you're in the exam!

Pros and cons

Both lecture-based courses and PBL courses have their strengths and weaknesses. What's most important is matching the right course to your personality and learning style. Once you've decided which type of course is right for you, you can start to think about which medical schools attract you most!

Pros of PBL

  • It encourages self-directed learning, which will be required for the future
  • You learn valuable communication skills from working as a team
  • It creates a stimulating work environment
  • You can take charge of your own learning

Cons of PBL

  • How much you enjoy it, and how much you learn, can depend on the group you're in
  • If you can't motivate yourself to do the work, you run into difficulty
  • You may have less knowledge that someone on a lecture-based course

Pros of lecture-based courses

  • Teaching is formal and structured, with everyone getting the same information
  • You end up more informed about what you need to know
  • More information is provided by a lecturer, which can give a greater understanding than reading a textbook

Cons of lecture-based courses

  • It's easy to put off learning stuff until the exams get close
  • Research shows that information you learn is more readily lost this way
  • It can seem repetitive and unexciting sitting in lectures all day
What course type does each university teach?

PBL schools

  • UEA
  • Glasgow
  • HYMS
  • Keele
  • Lancaster
  • Leicester
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester

Integrated traditional schools

  • Bristol
  • Durham
  • King's
  • Leeds
  • Newcastle
  • Nottingham
  • Sheffield
  • UCL

Non-integrated traditional schools

  • Cambridge
  • Imperial
  • Oxford
  • St Andrew's

Please note, this isn't a complete list and might change, so do check!

Teaching at HYMS

You can find out full details of the course at HYMS on our main website: http://www.hyms.ac.uk/undergraduate/medicine-at-hyms/about-our-course

Decision time!
  • Think about how you want to learn. Decide which learning style suits you.
  • Look at universities that fit the description. Be sure to check the entry requirements (GCSEs, AS-levels, A-levels, UKCAT).
  • Have a look round the universities you're interested in.
  • Apply!