Medical School Application Guide

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Course Structures

By Rebekkah Morris 10 months ago 803 Views No comments

Whilst most students would be happy to have a place at any medical school, it is important to consider which course structures may be best suited to your learning style.

With medical schools using a vast array of acronyms and buzzwords to describe their courses it can be easy to get confused.

Generally, there are two aspects to consider:

  • Teaching method – from lecture-based programmes on one end of the spectrum, to problem-based learning on the other.
  • Course structure – this can be subject based with learning split into anatomy, physiology etc. as is the case in traditional courses or systems based with learning structured around body systems. It can also be integrated (with basic sciences and clinical Medicine taught together) or have a pre-clinical/clinical divide.

Below are explanations of some of the common types of course , these are;

  • Traditional
  • Problem-based learning (PBL)
  • Systems-based learning/integrated

However, it is important to remember that even within these groups there is huge variation in course structure – so make sure to look through the specific medical school pages for more information on individual programmes.

Other factors that impact on course structure include the opportunity to intercalate, as well as location – with some programmes involving relocating during clinical years.


In traditional courses, students spend the first 2 or 3 ‘pre-clinical’ years focusing on the underlying basic medical sciences with lecture based learning. In the subsequent 3 ‘clinical years’ students focus on the clinical aspects of medicine with supervised hospital placements supported by lectures.

Traditional courses offer a rigorous biomedical science base of knowledge that can be built upon with clinical medicine in the latter years of the course. This style of programme is ideal for students who like didactic teaching, and are interested in the academic side of Medicine as well as clinical Medicine.

Medical schools that offer a traditional course structure include: Cambridge and Oxford.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

In PBL, learning is structured around a series of patient cases. Working in small groups, students identify what they already know and what they need to know about the key issues of the case. These questions are then covered in lectures, workshops, and in self-directed learning.

For example, during the neurology module, the first case might be that of paralysis following trauma in a motorbike accident. The case would be discussed in small group sessions and there would be lectures, workshops, self-study modules and independent assignments, focused on the important issues in this case, such as neuroanatomy, pain-control and the neurological examination. The way these modules are structured differs from place to place, but in each case there is a significant focus on group learning and self-directed study. Case-based learning is similar to PBL but slightly more guided.

Case-based learning is similar to PBL but slightly more guided.

Medical schools offering a fully PBL based course include: Plymouth, Exeter, Liverpool, Lancaster and Norwich.

Integrated/Systems-Based Learning

In systems-based learning teaching is based on body systems such as the respiratory system with the relevant anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology etc. all considered together. Many medical courses will also describe their course as integrated which means that the basic biomedical sciences are taught in the context of clinical Medicine.

Medical schools offering an integrated course include: UCL, King's College London, Queen's University and Swansea.

Below is a summary of the types of courses offered at UK medical schools. For more detailed descriptions of each course have a look at the sections on specific medical schools.

Medical school Course type
Bart’s and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry Combination of systems-based learning and PBL
Brighton and Sussex Medical School Integrated systems-based
Cardiff University Integrated case-based learning
Hull York Medical School Integrated course with PBL
Imperial College Integrated course with PBL
Keele University Integrated course with PBL
King’s College London Integrated course
Lancaster University PBL
Newcastle University Integrated case-based learning
Norwich Medical School PBL
Plymouth University PBL
Queens University Belfast Integrated systems-based
St Georges Integrated, lecture based in years 1-2, PBL from year 3
Swansea University Integrated course
University of Nottingham Traditional
University of Sheffield Integrated course
University College London (UCL) Integrated course
University of Aberdeen Systems-based
University of Birmingham Integrated course
University of Bristol Integrated case-based learning
University of Cambridge Traditional
University of Dundee Integrated course
University of Durham Integrated case-based
University of Edinburgh PBL
University of Exeter PBL
University of Glasgow PBL
University of Leeds Integrated
University of Leicester Integrated
University of Liverpool PBL
University of Manchester PBL
University of Oxford Traditional
University of Southampton Integrated
University of St Andrews Integrated
University of Warwick Case-based learning