What is it like to study under a lecture-based curriculum?

As you may be aware if you have read my previous blog post I have just completed year 1 of medicine at Cardiff university, which is a predominantly CBL based course style in the pre-clinical years. So you may now be wondering how on earth I am going to be able to tell you what a lecture based curriculum is like because I haven’t witnessed one, but this is where it gets a little complex.

Most universities for medicine will brand their course structure with a single title such as CBL/PBL/lecture-based, but just because the main style of teaching on the course falls under the 1 method doesn’t mean you will not experience another method also. At Cardiff during the autumn semester of year 1 all medical students undergo a programme of 3 modules named ‘Platform for clinical sciences’ which is not in CBL format, it is in fact a lecture based style of teaching. So for 3 months of my year 1 study I did experience a lecture based course style, and this post is going to be my reflection on that experience as well as guide to what it is really like studying under this type of curriculum.

What does a lecture based curriculum even mean?

I have covered in a previous post the many different types of course structures across the medical schools in the UK. As a brief summary, a lecture based curriculum is exactly what it says on the tin. Medical students will spend the majority of their pre-clinical years learning the pre-clinical sciences through all year lectures, small group tutorials, seminars and lab teachings. This course style requires much less independant study and self inquiry and relies much more on the students engaging and taking in the material delivered to them in these structured classes.


Teaching delivered through lab sessions. 

As stated in my previous post sometimes this course style can mean a lack of patient contact and clinical exposure in pre-clinical years, but for me this was not the case as clinical skills and some very early patient contact sessions were timetabled into our week to help us prepare for clinical practice early on.

My experience of a lecture-based curriculum.

As I only witnessed this method of teaching for 3 months It was like a whirlwind to me, I was new to medical school, freshers was in full swing and I was also having a tough time adjusting to life without my family around me, so I apologise if the details are lacking here.

PCS as it was known by students is the rigorous programme of 3 modules undertaken in autumn term of year 1 at Cardiff medical school. From my understanding its aim seems to be to bring all students from various different backgrounds and education systems together and up to speed as well as give us a very good grounding in the basics (but it didnt seem very basic at the time) of the pre-clinical sciences so we could apply our knowledge and build on it further during case based learning. The 3 module programme was neither systems based nor science based to me, but this may have been because it was very fast paced and we moved from topic to topic very quickly. Each module did have a theme though so it wasn’t all that crazy.

A typical week in the life of a lecture based student can be seen below, I have modified one of my timetables to show you the average contact hours as well as the variety of learning methods encompassed into one week. What may be different to many other courses is that Cardiff cover the majority of the core anatomy teaching within PCS, hence it may seem like we have a lot of anatomy sessions, this may not be the case at other medical schools who do not aim to give students the majority of the core anatomical teaching within a short space of time.


A general overview of a lecture based medical students week.

Above was an average timetable for me during my first term at medical school, if you have counted it clocks up 26 hours of timetabled study which is broken down into lectures (6 hours), anatomy lab (6 hours), physiology labs (3 hours), small group tutorials (9 hours) and clinical skills teaching (2 hours). Obviously this is not at all representative of every lecture based curriculum, especially if your thinking of heading to oxbridge where supervisions are scheduled into the week, but it is a good idea of the kind of things you will be doing if you chose this curriculum style.

What was this like as a learning environment?

From a personal standpoint after a whole year of trying to make it work, lectures just are not the right learning environment for me. I struggle to focus on listening for long periods of time and I find my focus is much greater when I am actively studying. Saying this I found that attending the lectures and recording them as well as listening and trying to take notes made the information much easier to study, but it didn’t necessarily stick the first time. I took much better to the small groups, lab teaching and anatomy teaching. The small group teaching was particularly great because it allowed me to build on the information from lectures and solve the problems surrounding these in smaller groups with close guidance from an academic in this field. I did find that at the end of the day I had to review a lot of the material from lectures and groups to truly understand it all, hence this made the days very long and tiring, but it was worth it when it all finally clicked.

This style of curriculum is incredibly full on, hefty contact hours as well as little time scheduled for independant study meant I was always behind in terms of where I wanted my understanding to be, and I can definetly say this course style did not suit me at all. A lot of information was covered in a very short amount of time and I was always running to catch up.

Looking back on this style of learning now though having been through CBL, it providing me with a great foundation knowledge bank of pre-clinical science and has made my life so much easier in case group as the content we are covering is just building on things we have already covered. Hence in reflection whilst it was such a slog going through the long hours and lack of sleep, it was worth it to have that solid basis for further study.

How do you cope with the workload and full timetable?

I am not going to lie, the timetable and workload I witnessed whilst following this curriculum was very intense, and hence it required a lot of forward thinking and planning.

It is really important to plan out your days with your timetable in mind to be able to review your lecture material and other resources as well as study and frankly for myself just keep up. I found it best to plan my week in advance, giving myself slots for study, review and also FREE TIME! I cannot stress the importance of balance when following this curriculum, it is so easy to end up locked away in your room/library drowning in books, but you need to make time for yourself and know your limits.

Looking back now I approached this term with the wrong mindset of trying to make notes on absolutely everything, and whilst this did benefit me during CBL, it was impossible to keep up with alongside this very full timetable. Hence to cope with the workload of this curriculum I advise you annotate your lectures during the actual lecture and only make brief notes to consolidate things you dont know. This also frees some time up to do things you enjoy as well as study when exams are around the corner.

The workload was very straining, particularly because one single 50 minute lecture would cover a whole chapters worth of information in a textbook, and with multiple of these a week it can often feel slightly suffocating upon review. My best advice here is stop panicking and just try your best to take notes during the lectures and then on the weekend spend a good couple of hours reviewing it all and making sure you understand everything.

Is a lecture based course for me?

Before coming to medical school I thought I would really enjoy a lecture based course, but having experienced it I would have to say I do prefer a more self inquiry based CBL /PBL structure. For me people who enjoy being given information directly to learn rather than having to motivate themselves and search for the information themselves would be more suited to this style of course. Also if you have a deep interest in the pre-clinical sciences then a lecture based course may cover more of this in greater detail, and hence it may appeal to you. My advice as always is check out every single universities course at an open day or via a prospectus before you apply and find out what you like the sound of and what interests you.


This is my experience of a lecture based curriculum. Although it was brief and will differ from other medical schools which adopt this technique throughout their entire curriculum, I hope it was a useful insight into a more traditional course style. It didn’t personally work for me, but hopefully from above you can get a sense of what its like and whether you personally would suit this course style.

Nat x


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