Authors: Philippa Ashmore 

Publication date:  25 Aug 2007

The Problem-Based Learning Workbook: Medicine and Surgery
Eds Tim French and Terry Wardle
Radcliffe, 2006
£19.95, 243 pages
ISBN: 1 85775 736 X
Rating: ⋆⋆⋆/5

PBL. Like Marmite, these three letters evoke either love or hate in the hearts of medical students and tutors alike. For the record, I hate Marmite and love problem based learning. However you feel, PBL is part of almost all medical courses in the United Kingdom. Despite this, study guides aimed specifically at those undertaking this style of learning are proverbial crumbs from the table of lavishly catered traditional courses. Editors Tim French and Terry Wardle offer this morsel, attempting to satisfy a hunger largely ignored in print. Their workbook accomplishes by its mere existence, but the question is: is it any good? The answer is a reserved, not resounding, yes.

The PBL Workbook is compiled of 30 common clinical scenarios, such as “student with a `hangover,'” with rather focused guiding questions. These are followed by answers, informative teaching notes, reading lists, and web resources. There are no discernible themes to the cases, but there are indexes of topics, and symptoms. Although this makes for cumbersome navigation, it does allow readers the approach they prefer. Students can work individually or in groups, and providing PBL has not forever soured the prospect, consume those all-important study snacks.

Covering the major topics in medicine and surgery is no mean feat, even when you're aiming for a “learn how to learn about medicine” approach. The PBL Workbook makes a valiant attempt, but misses one notable beast entirely—dermatology. This is not a miss that causes me great personal distress, but others will feel its absence more keenly.

On to the practical and aesthetic nit-picking, this is a fairly compact book—lean and light enough to lug around in a bag without causing red-flag back injury, but not small enough to fit in a white coat pocket. It is smooth black on the outside, so for all those obsessives it won't dirty easily. Inside, it is cheap and very blue. Although there are some illustrations, they're black and white, grainy, and often have the look of Microsoft Word about them. Unfortunately there are none of clinical signs, and the x rays may prove more challenging to interpret than necessary because of their poor quality.

As its introduction states, this book is not an “examination crammer.” It is an adjunct to PBL courses, for those already able to work efficiently in this way, and who enjoy doing so. As such it will work best in the tail end, and beyond, of PBL PBL newbies will not be helped by the nature of the guiding questions and are unlikely to want extra cases anyway—they have enough learning objectives to keep them very, very busy. However, once in a clinical setting, when seeing the odd “breathless pensioner,” using this book as a PBL-style guide will be of significant benefit. Providing, of course, you are not confronted by “an estate agent with a rash.”

Philippa Ashmore F1 doctor and PBL tutor

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: