PURPOSE To examine problem-based learning (PBL) students' views on the added value of video cases compared to text-based cases in the pre-clinical phase of undergraduate medical education and on the conditions for productive use of video in tutorial group discussions. METHOD Participants were 2nd-year students who had completed a PBL programme featuring video cases. Three groups of 6-8 randomly selected students participated in focus-group interviews guided by a moderator using a 'questioning route'. The interviews were audiotaped, transcribed and analysed. The summary reports were approved by the students. RESULTS According to the students, the video cases enabled them to create realistic mental pictures of disorders, provided integrated pictures of patients as people, which challenged them to elaborate the cases seriously and were more memorable than text-based cases. Cases that students perceived as fostering the productive use of video were neither too directive nor too complete, tailored to students' prior knowledge, short, varied in design and complementary to other materials. The cases should be viewed in a structured, purposeful manner, with cues, instructions and prompts to focus attention on essential issues. CONCLUSION The video cases were generally perceived as a valuable stimulus for group discussions in PBL. However, productive use depended on specific conditions. Many of the advantages and conditions mentioned are supported by earlier non-empirical claims in the literature or can be explained by theory and empirical studies on symbol systems. Future observational studies should address the effects of specific attributes of video as a medium.