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Course and teaching types at medical school

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Under the overall supervision of the GMC, which sets standards for undergraduate medical education, every university, medical faculty and medical school has its own syllabus and regulations for the course of study in medicine.

Follow our bloggers on the road to medical school, and get a first hand account of getting into medicine.

Each course is different and uses different methods of teaching, so it's important to think carefully about the kind of course that would suit you and your learning style.

Before applying to a medical school, get a copy of their syllabus and the type of course they provide, to make sure the style of teaching and course structure is a good fit for you. 

There are generally six approaches to the training provided at medical school:

  • a traditional pre-clinical and clinical course
  • an integrated/systems based course
  • problem based learning (PBL)
  • case based learning (CBL)
  • enquiry based learning (EBL)
  • multi or inter-professional learning course

Read on to get an idea of how the courses compare and what type of study you will undertake with each approach.

  • Traditional pre-clinical and clinical courses

    For the traditional courses, students begin their training with two years of 'pre-clinical' work, involving study of the basic medical sciences. This is followed by the 'clinical' course, of approximately three years, during which they work in hospital wards under the supervision of consultants.

    Throughout the final three years they also attend lectures on all aspects of medical practice. This is a subject based course of lectures, where, for example, you would undertake anatomy, physiology, biochemistry etc., all as completely separate courses.

    This type of teaching tends to have the traditional pre-clinical/clinical break after third year with almost all teaching lecture based.

    Medical schools in the UK that offer this style of course include Oxford and Cambridge.

  • Integrated/systems based courses

    Integrated courses which the majority of medical schools have now implemented, integrate what was previously learnt at the pre-clinical and clinical stages, to provide a seamless course. Teaching methods can include problem-based learning (PBL) and practical clinical skills.

    Integrated courses are the GMC's recommended approach to medicine; instead of teaching anatomy and physiology etc. as separate courses, the idea is to join them into systems (also known as the systems based approach) where you will take a bodily system, such as the circulatory system and consider the anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, pathology of it all at once.

    The new integrated approach also encourages early patient contact and self-directed learning. Much of the teaching has a basis in lectures, supplemented with tutorials and your own self-directed work.

    However, there have been many interpretations of how this new integrated approach can be implemented, one of the big 'different interpretations' was pioneered by Manchester and is what we refer to as Problem Based Learning (PBL).

    There are subtle, theoretical differences between learning styles of integrated learning course provided at medical schools; Problem Based Learning (PBL), Enquiry Based Learning (EBL) and Case Based Learning (CBL), but in most cases the lines between each of these are significantly blurred.

  • Problem based learning (PBL)

    PBL is a very patient-oriented approach and students can expect to see patients right from the beginning of their course.

    Students are given medical cases to resolve and learn from, guided by group work with a tutor as well as self-directed learning. Group work, on top of academic and clinical learning, helps students develop communication, teamwork and problem solving skills, personal responsibility and respect for others.

    PBL is an 'open inquiry' approach where facilitators play a minimal role and do not guide the discussion. There are now very few medical schools in the UK using a pure PBL approach to curriculum delivery. Generally there is a more blended approach with more interaction from facilitators and the provision of lectures and seminars etc. to support the individuals learning.

    Medical schools in the UK that offer this style of course include Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Queen Mary, Peninsula, Sheffield, Keele, Hull and York, Barts and East Anglia.

  • Case based learning (CBL)

    Case based learning uses virtual 'trigger' cases to stimulate interest in a particular area of the curriculum. Working in small groups over a short period, a case is used to think about the knowledge and skills needed and why these might be useful.

    CBL is backed up and reinforced by a variety of interlinked learning opportunities including seminars, life sciences resources, lectures, dissection, clinical skills practice, small group learning, individual study and patient-focused learning out in the community. It is very similar to PBL.

    Small groups are led by tutors with training and expertise not just in the subject and content of the learning module but also in the skills and processes involved in facilitating this type of learning. Each case is used to combine [integrate] learning from all these sources and the two week period is topped off with a wrap-up session where students review what they have learnt and understand how it will apply to their future practice.

    Medical schools in the UK that offer this style of course include Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow (throughout phase three from September to February of third year).

  • Enquiry based learning (EBL)

    Enquiry-based learning starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios—rather than simply presenting established facts or portraying a smooth path to knowledge. The process is often assisted by a facilitator.

    You, the student, are in charge of your own learning and at the centre of the learning experience. The emphasis is very much on you learning rather than the teacher (or lecturer) teaching. Students will identify and research issues and questions to develop their knowledge or solutions.

    Enquiry-based learning is very similar to and includes problem-based learning. It is generally used in small scale investigations and projects, as well as research.

    Medical schools in the UK that offer this style of course include Birmingham

  • Multi or inter-professional learning

    There are also medical schools which focus on multi or inter-professional learning. Multi professional learning methods involve two or more professions learning the same content side by side.

    Inter-professional learning focuses on not only the subject matter, but also on the way in which practitioners work together.

    It may include aspects on developing respect for other professions, appreciation of different ways of working, trust and communication skills in working with other professions, and the strengths of a diverse workforce.

  • Extended medical degrees

    Several medical schools run a six year course, which includes a one year foundation/pre-clinical course before the undergraduate medical career.

    These courses aims to better prepare applicants for undergraduate medical education. They are often designed for those with a good academic record but with no, or limited experience, of laboratory based science and have not previously studied chemistry.

    These courses also facilitate a career in medicine for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    Learn more about applying as a graduate, mature aged or foundation student  to medical school

    See more information on widening participation into medicine and whether you may be eligible for assistance.