Answer to "Who should be PBL tutors and what is the difference between a tutor and a facilitator?

In the original conception of PBL (pre-clinical phase of graduate-entry medicine), the tutor was a non-content expert clinician but a process expert and metacognitive coach. As a process expert, he or she would have a deep understanding and commitment to the educational underpinnings of PBL, ensuring that learners work through the various steps. The ‘non-expert’ status was to prevent the tutor from falling back on old teaching reflexes by providing mini-lectures during PBL tutorials.


For a range of reasons, ‘facilitator’ (of learning) now probably has more appeal than ‘tutor’. In an undergraduate PBL curriculum, many students start university directly from school and so may not be accustomed to taking responsibility for their own learning. Many may also be away from home for the first time. PBL facilitators thus need to be more than process experts. They also need to be  mentors and coaches, creating a safe and collaborative environment and helping learners transition and adjust to a different way of learning. As facilitators are at the coal-face of learning with a small number of students and as PBL groups stay together for several weeks or months, they can identify learners who may be in difficulty academically, personally and professionally. With the increasing diversity of students now studying in PBL programs, being socially and cognitively congruent guides is becoming increasingly important part of the role of the PBL facilitator.  


Much has been written about the PBL facilitator and content expertise, with research suggesting that the ideal facilitator should be both a process and a content expert. In reality, however, with cohorts in excess of 200 students, it is highly unlikely that in a cardiovascular block, for example, 20+ content experts will be available to facilitate.  Today, facilitators are drawn largely from individuals who are full-time and sometimes part-time faculty members from a range of professional backgrounds, i.e. doctors, medical scientists, psychologists as well as other health professionals. The imperative amidst this facilitator diversity is a thorough understanding of the processes underpinning learning in PBL rather than specific content expertise. This thus necessitates well-structured PBL case guides with clear instructions for facilitators plus regular case briefings by experts to ensure that facilitators are on the same page in terms of the intended learning outcomes.



MCLEAN, M. (2003). What can we learn from facilitator and student perceptions of facilitation skills and roles in the first year of a problem-based learning curriculum? (BMC Med Educ. 3:9).

MCLEAN, M, and ARRIGONI, C. (2016). How we capitalised on casual PBL facilitators’ expertise and experience to add value to our medical curriculum. (Med Teach. 38(3):246-249.).

NEVILLE, A.J. (1999). The problem-based learning tutor: Teacher? Facilitator? Evaluator? (Med Teach. 21(4):393-401.

WILLIAMS, J.C., and PALTRIDGE, D.J. (2017). What we think we know about the tutor in problem-based learning. (Health Prof Educ. 3:26-31).