In spite of numerous curricular innovations, the problems medical students encounter in making the transition from theoretical training to clinical training remain unresolved and the problem has received scant attention in the literature. We performed a qualitative study to explore students' perceptions and attitudes regarding this transition in undergraduate medical training. Twenty fifth-year students of the Maastricht Medical School participated in focus group discussions about the transition from the preclinical phase to the clinical phase of the curriculum. All focus group discussions were videotaped, literally transcribed and qualitatively analysed using content analysis. The results suggest that students have difficulty in bridging the gap between the theoretical and clinical phase of the curriculum. The problems they experience arise largely from professional socialisation processes. However, students also find it difficult to apply theoretical knowledge in clinical practice. Students find contacts with real patients highly motivating. In the clinical phase their learning changes from passive acquisition of knowledge to more active learning.
Since the problem-based learning approach is supposed to enhance application of basic science concepts to clinical problems, it is surprising that students experience difficulties in applying their knowledge in practice. To facilitate the transition from theory to practice in the Maastricht Medical School some curricular changes could be introduced, such as early patient contacts to motivate students and help them learn usable knowledge. Furthermore, the advantages of a problem-based preclinical curriculum to student learning should be fully exploited. Finally, the assessment system must be congruent with the educational programme, because examinations have a powerful effect on student learning.