Exploring the efficacy of replacing linear paper-based patient cases in problem-based learning with dynamic web-based virtual patients: Randomized controlled trial

Terry Poulton, Rachel H. Ellaway, Jonathan Round, Trupti Jivram, Sheetal Kavia, Sean Hilton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

23 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Problem-based learning (PBL) is well established in medical education and beyond, and continues to be developed and explored. Challenges include how to connect the somewhat abstract nature of classroom-based PBL with clinical practice and how to maintain learner engagement in the process of PBL over time. Objective: A study was conducted to investigate the efficacy of decision-PBL (D-PBL), a variant form of PBL that replaces linear PBL cases with virtual patients. These Web-based interactive cases provided learners with a series of patient management pathways. Learners were encouraged to consider and discuss courses of action, take their chosen management pathway, and experience the consequences of their decisions. A Web-based application was essential to allow scenarios to respond dynamically to learners' decisions, to deliver the scenarios to multiple PBL classrooms in the same timeframe, and to record centrally the paths taken by the PBL groups. Methods: A randomized controlled trial in crossover design was run involving all learners (N=81) in the second year of the graduate entry stream for the undergraduate medicine program at St George's University of London. Learners were randomized to study groups; half engaged in a D-PBL activity whereas the other half had a traditional linear PBL activity on the same subject material. Groups alternated D-PBL and linear PBL over the semester. The measure was mean cohort performance on specific face-to-face exam questions at the end of the semester. Results: D-PBL groups performed better than linear PBL groups on questions related to D-PBL with the difference being statistically significant for all questions. Differences between the exam performances of the 2 groups were not statistically significant for the questions not related to D-PBL. The effect sizes for D-PBL-related questions were large and positive (>0.6) except for 1 question that showed a medium positive effect size. The effect sizes for questions not related to D-PBL were all small (≥0.3) with a mix of positive and negative values. Conclusions: The efficacy of D-PBL was indicated by improved exam performance for learners who had D-PBL compared to those who had linear PBL. This suggests that the use of D-PBL leads to better midterm learning outcomes than linear PBL, at least for learners with prior experience with linear PBL. On the basis of tutor and student feedback, St George's University of London and the University of Nicosia, Cyprus have replaced paper PBL cases for midstage undergraduate teaching with D-PBL virtual patients, and 6 more institutions in the ePBLnet partnership will be implementing D-PBL in Autumn 2015.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere240
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2014


  • Curriculum
  • Decision making
  • Education
  • Medical
  • Problem-based learning
  • Virtual patients

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