Abstract Background The last decade has witnessed a rapid expansion of biomedical knowledge. Despite this, fashions in medical education over the same period have shifted away from factual (didactic) teaching and towards contextual, or problem-based, learning (PBL). This paradigm shift has been justified by studies showing that PBL improves reasoning and communication while being associated with few if any detectable knowledge deficits. Discussion Analysis of the literature indicates that the recent rapid rise of PBL has closely paralleled the timing of the information explosion. The growing dominance of PBL could thus worsen the problems of information management in medical education via several mechanisms: first, by creating the impression that a defined spectrum of core factual knowledge suffices for clinical competence despite ongoing knowledge expansion (quality cost); second, by dissuading teachers from refining the educational utility of didactic modalities (improvement cost); and third, by reducing faculty time for developing reusable resources to impart factual knowledge more efficiently (opportunity cost). Summary These costs of PBL imply a need for strengthening the knowledge base of 21st-century medical graduates. New initiatives towards this end could include the development of more integrated cognitive techniques for facilitating the comprehension of complex data; the design of differentiated medical curricula for producing graduates with defined high-priority skill sets; and the encouragement of more cost-effective faculty teaching activities focused on the prototyping and testing of innovative commercializable educational tools.