Medical School Curriculum: Subject Based vs. Traditional vs. Problem Based (PBL)

Choosing a medical school is difficult, and factoring in medical school curriculum structure can feel complicated. Here’s a quick guide to help you!

Life is full of decisions. Chocolate or vanilla? Superman vs. Spiderman vs. Iron Man? Mac vs. PC? Guacamole or avocado salsa? Wait—what? Avocado salsa is a thing? I mean really—avocado spread was a bit of a stretch but don’t even get me started with this... Anyway… what was I saying again? Ah yes, ‘tis a tale as old as time, deciding between great options. And, deciding upon attending a medical school with a systems based, PBL, or traditional course based curriculum is no different. In the United States, each institution gets to decide what their medical school curriculum will be - and there are pros and cons to each model. Here we’ll discuss these pros and cons as well as talk about how Sketchy can help you succeed at any!


Medical School Traditional Course Based Curriculum


Just as a disclaimer, traditional does not mean bad or outdated! If you work your hardest (and use great resources like Sketchy!), no matter what your preclinical curriculum structure is, you should be absolutely fine. “Traditional” medical school curriculum tends to be course-based, and students complete each topic prior to moving on to the next area. For example, students may start with anatomy, followed by physiology, then pharmacology, etc. With this type of curriculum, students report being able to really drill down on one topic at a time because they are forced to review the material constantly in order to better understand each subsequent course. Courses in a traditional medical school curriculum also tend to be run by an individual department, typically allowing for intense individualized interactions with professors which some students really love. Disadvantages however can relate to the difficulty of understanding clinical relevance when learning concepts in isolation.

In a nutshell, a traditional based curriculum could be compared to learning about a “dog” a “ball” and a “child.” Whereas its counterpart, systems based curriculum, would be more comparable to learning about a “child throwing a ball to a dog.”


Medical School Systems Based Curriculum

image2So then there’s systems based medical school curriculum, where students cover an organ system as a whole, learning about the anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, etc. specifically as it pertains to each system. This curriculum model is sometimes called an “Integrated Curriculum.” It has the advantage of giving a complete picture of a single organ system before moving on to the next system. Most students enjoy learning about how these different concepts fit together (or integrate), but there is an argument for keeping them separate during initial learning to gain a deeper understanding of each topic then integrating them later on using problem based learning.


Medical School Problem Based Learning (PBL) Curriculum


Problem based learning, our final medical school curriculum model, usually occurs in small groups assigning students an open ended problem (typically a patient case). This kind of learning is very student-centric, as the students themselves work together to come up with their own learning goals. There is often a faculty member facilitating the group, but the teaching is peer-to-peer rather than with the “sage on the stage” approach. This technique is common in the US and Canadian medical school curriculums, and appears to be gaining in popularity around the world. However, it is uncommon for a school to utilize an PBL only curriculum as most students appreciate at least some structure.

In our previous analogy with the child, dog, and ball, a PBL curriculum would ask the students to “go evaluate the scene and report back on what is going on.”


Sketchy’s Got You Covered

image4All in all, no matter if you prefer avocado salsa or spread—I mean, if your medical school curriculum is course based, systems based, or PBL, here at Sketchy we aim to help you succeed! Our preclinical curriculum is organized by course and unit so that topics are easily found, and we also have our newly added “Systems-Based Curriculum Collections” featuring the Cardiac System, Renal System, and Neurologic System! If you have a Sketchy Medical subscription, check them out on your individual landing page under “Collections”!

And, if your medical school is using PBL, don’t forget about our handy search bar function which enables you to search for any content you want to find! The search bar is incredibly helpful when doing practice exams, or if you find yourself getting stuck in one particular area. This functionality will help point out sketches by topic so you can create your own individualized study plan. Best of luck with your studying, and as always, stay Sketchy!

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