Background: Many educational programs incorporate problem-based learning (PBL) to promote students' learning; however, the knowledge structure developed in PBL remains unclear. The aim of this study was to use concept mapping to generate an understanding of the use of PBL in the development of knowledge structures. Methods: Using a quasi-experimental study design, we employed concept mapping to illustrate the effects of PBL by examining the patterns of concepts and differences in the knowledge structures of students taught with and without a PBL approach. Fifty-two occupational therapy undergraduates were involved in the study and were randomly divided into PBL and control groups. The PBL group was given two case scenarios for small group discussion, while the control group continued with ordinary teaching and learning. Students were asked to make concept maps after being taught about knowledge structure. A descriptive analysis of the morphology of concept maps was conducted in order to compare the integration of the students' knowledge structures, and statistical analyses were done to understand the differences between groups. Results: Three categories of concept maps were identified as follows: isolated, departmental, and integrated. The students in the control group constructed more isolated maps, while the students in the PBL group tended toward integrated mapping. Concept Relationships, Hierarchy Levels, and Cross Linkages in the concept maps were significantly greater in the PBL group; however, examples of concept maps did not differ significantly between the two groups. Conclusions: The data indicated that PBL had a strong effect on the acquisition and integration of knowledge. The important properties of PBL, including situational learning, problem spaces, and small group interactions, can help students to acquire more concepts, achieve an integrated knowledge structure, and enhance clinical reasoning.
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