Studying psychology at a German university, the first two years of your curriculum will be almost entirely filled with lectures: students sit in an auditorium, listen to the professor talk for 90 minutes, they take notes, read a book or two, memorize as much of the content of lecture and books as they can, and at the end of the semester they take an exam. There are six to eight lectures per week, adding up to 12 to 14 hours, and there are an equal number of exams, adding up to the same number of hours.
From my experience and from talking to fellow students, I have the impression that we don't learn much in this way. We call it "bulimic learning": eating up huge amounts of information in a short span of time, barfing it up during the exams, and then immediately wiping our minds of it to hurriedly fill it up again for the next test. This feeling of not learning much is not wholly subjective: a large part of the early education is methodological, and the superficial and incomplete understanding of this area becomes painfully apparent once we have to apply it in more practical seminars. Most of us have to look up even basic statistical procedures that we had to know to pass our tests.
Talking to the professors that teach these courses, the replied to my critique of the current system with pointing out that there are a hundred to two hundred students visiting each lecture, and that it would be impossible to teach them in any other manner. I am not convinced of this. Other disciplines, for example in the humanities, manage the same ratio of students per professors only with seminars, none of which have more than 30 students, and completely without lectures.
Science – and I mean all science –, in my opinion, is a practically applied occupation. Even a practitioner of a more theoretical field, like metaphysics or theoretical mathematics, creates new ideas, "experiments" with them, and writes a paper about them. There is no creativity and nothing practical in learning for an exam, while there is no science that you cannot teach in an applied manner, if you are willing to be less normative about what students need to know: let them find their own problems, their own literature, their own ideas, and present them, discuss them, and revise them. Just as they would do as graduated scholars and researchers.
In a review of studies comparing problem-based learning, with learners "actively elaborating their conceptual frameworks", and traditional teaching through lectures, Reynolds (1997) found that problem-based learning "encourages deep rather than shallow strategies of learning", while "students who followed a traditional curriculum ... manifested poorer learning strategies which favoured reproducing information, with less attention to personal comprehension". Additionally, "PBL courses tend to be associated with better attendance and less distress and depression". Results regarding the increase in knowledge appears to be contradictory, however.
I wonder if there is more (and more recent) research on different methods of teaching psychology, or on the relative merits of lecture versus seminar style teaching, in or outside of psychology.
- Reynolds, F. (1997). Studying psychology at degree level: Would problem-based learning enhance students' experience? Studies in Higher Education, 22, 263-275. doi:10.1080/03075079712331380886