Problem-Based Learning | Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA

Chatham University

Problem-Based Learning

Chatham University Master of Physician Assistant Studies

Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is the cornerstone of Chatham MPAS students' first year. Here's how it works:

  1. The incoming class is divided into groups of eight or nine students each.
  2. Groups (and their faculty instructor/facilitator) work together for five weeks. Class meets for 3.5 hours, three times each week. (Groups meet together outside of class, too.)
  3. They try to "solve" (diagnose, and provide patient education and treatment recommendations) 5-8 simulated patient cases that are presented by a robust software program called DxR Clinician.
  4. At the end, they take two exams that cover what they might be expected to have covered during those weeks, one of which requires that they work through a clinical reasoning problem similar to a PBL case.
  5. Steps 1-4 repeat five more times. Students might work together in more than one group, but they encounter each instructor only once.

Benefits of PBL

Frequently Asked Questions

+ What is Problem-Based Learning?

Developed by Howard Barrows and associates at McMaster University for medical education, problem-based learning (PBL) has been implemented in a number of health care professional educational programs. Problem-based learning is a rigorous, highly structured teaching methodology which places the student in a position of active responsibility for learning and mastering content. In a group of peers, the student learns new material by confronting and solving problems in the form of a clinical patient case.

+ How is PBL structured at Chatham?

Students work in small groups (8-10 students) in which a faculty member serves as a facilitator. Rather than listening to a lecture on a given topic (teacher-centered learning), students are presented with a patient case which typically integrates previously learned information with a great deal of new content. The group must come to consensus about what they would need to know in order to manage the patient case. They do this by developing "learning issues" or topics which represent questions about the case. Sample learning issues might be: How does a stroke involving the middle cerebral artery stroke typically present? What is the anatomy and function of the lymphatic system? Are the patient's weakness and gait dysfunction related? How? What is the epidemiology of myasthenia gravis? On an individual basis, students then research the topics by using textbooks, review articles, peer-reviewed research, and electronic data bases.

Later in the week, students regroup to discuss their findings and apply them to the patient case at hand. Rather than lecturing, the faculty member facilitates discussion and asks questions to ascertain that students are learning the material to the appropriate breadth and depth required of a physician assistant.

+ How does PBL fit in with the rest of the curriculum?

Chatham University's physician assistant program employs a problem-based learning format in its Essentials for the Physician Assistant. Five to eight carefully crafted cases are the "anchors" around which other content is taught. The curriculum includes extensive laboratory experiences as well as special topic seminars which complement and reinforce content learned in PBL sessions. Other courses at Chatham, including the basic science courses, are taught in a more traditional, lecture-based format.

+ What are the benefits of PBL?


Research indicates that PBL embodies a learning approach that effectively helps students to develop scientific thinking about patients' problems and to acquire both basic science and clinical information in a manner that ensures retention and transfer [of learning] to the real-life task of the clinician. (Barrows) Recent studies indicate that graduates of problem-based health care educational programs perform well (most studies indicate better than students from more traditional educational programs) on board exams and exhibit secure clinical learning and reasoning skills to the betterment of their patients.


Since the acquisition of new material revolves around a patient case, students constantly learn and apply information in the context of solving a patient problem. For example, students might be required to answer the following questions posed by the tutor: based on the pathophysiology of his disease process, what precautions would be important when treating this patient? How would you handle the patient's emotional affect in order to accomplish your treatment? How might the patient's medications influence the outcome of today’s intervention? What tests and measures might be appropriate for the patient given their current status?


As Chatham physician assistant students are learning how to ask questions through the PBL process, they also learn to research the answers. Our students become quite skillful at database searching, critiquing journal articles, and synthesizing information from a variety of sources.


Since group members are dependent on each other for enriching discussion and subsequent learning, each student must participate in PBL sessions, whether by volunteering information, asking questions, seeking clarification, confirming the thoughts of a peer, or relating information to the patient case. Inherent in the PBL process, Chatham students learn how to function as individual members of a team, conferring for the greater good (learning the material/treating the patient).

Students also have an opportunity to evaluate the participation skills of their classmates (preparation, clinical reasoning, quality of learning resources, team skills, respective listening) and themselves, in written and oral formats. This teaches critical reflection and the skills of providing/receiving constructive criticism.

+ Problem-Based Learning Goals


When encountering an unfamiliar problem, the student will be able to build, organize, and articulate the basic science knowledge and concepts which can explain the problem and which can then be employed to resolve the problem.

Clinical Reasoning

The student will demonstrate the ability to use the clinical reasoning process in the investigation and solution of medical problems.

Self-Directed Learning and Self-Assessment

When a student encounters a problem that he or she is unable to explain, the student will be able to design and implement satisfactory learning strategies, monitor the adequacy of personal knowledge and skills, assess the effectiveness of the self-directed learning strategies used, and critically assess the learning resources for adequacy, quality, and credibility.

Professional, Clinical, and Interpersonal Skills

The student will demonstrate:

  1. Appropriate interview and physical examination techniques
  2. Effective interpersonal skills while interacting with patients, peers, faculty and others
  3. Cultural sensitivity

+ Is it true that students “teach themselves” in PBL?

No – it's much more accurate to say that students take an active role in their learning. Each PBL classroom session is facilitated by a Chatham instructor who asks probing questions, keeps the group on track, offers advice from his or her real-world experience, and serves as a resource for making sure students get the most from the PBL experience that they can.

+ Can I sit in on a PBL session to see if it’s for me?

Absolutely! Sign up for a PBL Class Visit here »

+ What if I'm unable to visit to sit in on a PBL session?

Watch the video embedded here to see how PBL is conducted in Chatham's MPAS program.

The Crazy, Intense, Kind of Beatiful World of PBL story cover image

The Crazy, Intense, Kind of Beautiful World of PBL

Read a firsthand account with Problem-Based Learning and learn more of its benefits.

Learn more.

Alumni Testimonials

Alisa Vickeroy, MPAS '15

"I've had many family medicine residents and faculty say "You’re not like other PA's" or "She's a good one." And I strongly believe that is because I was forced out of my comfort zone and given the tools I needed to think independently and work well as a team member. I appreciate all the faculty very much for all you do!"

Lisa Joseph, MPAS '15

"[In] my second rotation doing emergency medicine at Canonsburg General Hospital, I had an awesome experience of suturing a young man's first and second fingers that had lacerations from an accident. I put 13 stitches in altogether, along with performing volar blocks on both fingers before the procedure. I was thrilled because it was tough and I didn't have any prior medical background. You have SO MUCH support at Chatham and some of the best teachers I've ever met. It is an amazing journey, and one that I am so glad I'm on."

Jeff Landon, MPAS '13

"I work at a psychiatric hospital in Utah and I'm the first PA they've had in 15 years. The other day, the rudest/nastiest doctor in the hospital came and found me early in the morning to praise me on my assessments. He said they were the best he's ever seen and that they were way better than the residents. The staff here told me to be proud of that because he has never complimented anyone on anything before. I just wanted to thank you for that because I was definitely not a fan of documenting during school and you taught me to be meticulous."