Answer to "How do we assess in a PBL curriculum?"

If PBL is a whole curriculum approach, then the expected learning outcomes from the various ‘problems’ over a semester, year or longer define the content. PBL should also develop a range of skills, not least the critical thinking skills required to explore the information released in the triggers. Step 6 of the PBL process is the period of self-study during which time learners are expected to search and evaluate sources of information. Assessment should therefore be aligned with the advertised outcomes. Assessment in higher education, irrespective of the curriculum, still, however, focusses largely on content as a measurable outcome. But, as Schlett and colleagues’ (2010) research involving graduates’ perceptions of what was required in the workplace has shown, medical knowledge ranked lower compared with other competencies such as independent working, practical medical skills and teamwork. Thus, focussing on more authentic assessment tasks such as identifying problems, generating hypotheses, finding and summarising information might be more useful in preparing students with the adaptive expertise that is required for professional practice (Mylopoulos et al., 2016). PBL done properly can achieve these outcomes and it is these outcomes which should be included in assessment.


Opinions are, however, divided about another form of ‘assessment’ in PBL, i.e. that of learners in the small group by their facilitator. Criteria might include participation, generating hypotheses, etc. Assigning a grade to a student’s performance in PBL might lead to exactly that – performance to be seen and heard, perhaps as the expense of others in the group. The team work expected in PBL is meant to foster collaboration not competition and so summative assessment during the small group work of PBL needs to be questioned. In addition, if the facilitator who should also be a cognitive coach and mentor is also an assessor, there is a potential conflict. The relationship between the facilitator and individual students is important and is based on trust. Being an assessor will compromise this relationship. What happens in the PBL tutorial (i.e. group productivity and facilitation) is therefore important and should not be taken for granted or left to chance. We should also not lose sight of the value of self, peer and facilitator feedback as formative assessment. There is, however, much that still needs to be researched in terms of effective feedback in the context of the PBL tutorial.


MYOLOPOULOS, M. BRYDES, R. WOODS, N.N., MANZONE, J., and SCHWARTZ, D.L. (2016). Preparation for future learning: a missing competency in health professions education? (Med Educ. 50:115-123).

SCHLETT, C.L., DOLL, H., DHAMEN et al. (2010). Job requirements compared to medical school education: differences between graduates from problem-based learning and conventional curricula. (BMC Med Educ. 10(1).