The Course of Reason

Rant: Teaching Styles in Medical and Philosophy Classes

November 2, 2011

As a student of both philosophy and medicine, I see two very different teaching strategies on a daily basis.

My philosophy classes are almost always approached in the same manner: through the readings, I am exposed to a multitude of different perspectives on a single issue. I must then synthesize the arguments and write an original paper that discusses everything I’ve learned and concludes with my own philosophical thoughts, all filtered through a critical lens. These classes stress original, critical thinking, and I don’t think you can argue against the virtue of that.

In my (admittingly rudimentary) medical classes, however, we never read primary sources or discuss the concepts we are learning. The professor shows a powerpoint that basically outlines the textbook for two hours in a 200-person lecture hall. When students are brave enough to speak in class, it’s either a “I once had [insert condition]” woe-is-me story, a useless “Will this be on the test” question, or someone just trying to sound smart. Nobody dares to think critically. Oh god no. That would require too much effort.

It’s a question of epistemology, really

My biggest concern isn’t that my medicine classes don’t provoke me to think critically–I can do that on my own. My qualm is with the way I am evaluated. First, my professors apparently don’t care if I can critically evaluate another’s conclusions, which is disturbing to say the least. Second, the exams become a guessing game, requiring only rote memorization and no real synthesis of new knowledge.

In a philosophy class, I know exactly what is most important in any reading or argument because I also know the counter-argument-that is, I have a point of reference and comparison, and I can argue both sides of the issue if need be. But, when the end goal of my medical classes-the exam-is an unknown, such as a blank Scanton sheet, then I cannot know for sure what is relevant.

And so, preparation for a Scantron exam literally becomes a guessing game. I have no idea what will be on the test, and I can only guess as to what the professor deems to be important enough to make the cut.

Honestly, I haven’t figured out a fool-proof strategy for coping with this unknown. So far, I’ve resorted to reading every paper I can get my hands on through my institution. One in particular that I’ve recently enjoyed: Nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease: The detrimental role of a high carbohydrate diet.

But this can be fixed…

This seems to be such an obvious problem with an obvious solution that I can’t believe I haven’t seen this somewhere before (or maybe I have, and just forgot).

The solution: 80% of the class should be rote memorization and learning, while the remaining 20% should be dedicated to original research, reading of primary sources, and otherwise exploring the medical literature. If this is too difficult in a large lecture setting, then use the lab section that most medical classes have anyway. They could even be peer-reviewed by other students or TAs.

Personally, I think that would work. But feel free to argue against me, this is a topic that I think needs to be addressed.

This post originally appeared on the Skeptical Empiricism blog. 

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About the Author: Ben Sima

Ben Sima's photo

Ben Sima is a student of medicine, art, and philosophy. When he isn't writing for his blog Skeptical Empiricism, he is working on his studies, pursuing entrepreneurial projects, playing Capoeira, rock climbing, weightlifting, or practicing his drawing. 

Ben is the president of the Rochester Institute of Technology Skeptics.


#1 Brian Lynchehaun (Guest) on Wednesday November 02, 2011 at 8:16am

200 person lecture hall?

You're in a 1st/2nd year class?

I had the same experience as yourself in 1st year psych (my Major was Philosophy), but I found that the emphasis shifted heavily once I started taking 3rd year Psych courses.

The first two years in most science disciplines (I'm given to believe) is heavily focuses on absorbing the base material. At the point of 1st year, you're basically literate, but you haven't read enough of *anything* to form a semi-relevant opinion. Sure, in Philosophy, the focus is on the skill-set, but in other sciences the focus is on the skill-set plus base knowledge. At even by 3rd year, many (most?) students haven't achieved that base knowledge.

Arguably, the change that you advocate would accelerate the assimilation of information. I'm inclined to believe that it would, but... The academic world is fighting multiple fights on multiple levels. Students who are taking some bio for an easy 1st year Science credit don't want to have to *understand* those courses to pass, they just want to regurgitate the data. And this wish is in tension with the goal of the University to educate. Which is in tension with the goal of the staff to generate profit. And on and on it goes.

In short: see what your 3rd year courses are like. I'd be surprised if they didn't require critical analysis.




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