Rant: Teaching Styles in Medical and Philosophy Classes

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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.

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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.

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