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
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    $\begingroup$ Note the "less distress and depression" in my question. A fellow student likened studying psychology to the degrading initiation rites of some primitive cultures and the basic training of the military: you have to suffer through the old men making you want to die, before you can become one of them. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Sep 6 '13 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ Sure seems like there ought to be something...Wish I knew more about educational psychology in general... $\endgroup$ – Nick Stauner Jun 2 '14 at 7:29

There is a large amount of research of research that compares the effectiveness of problem based learning (PBL) with more traditional approaches such as lectures. Most of it stems from medical science education, and attests to the positive consequences of PBL (see the meta-analysis by Walker & Leary, 2009). However, some researchers have questioned how rigorous this research is and others have doubts whether the benefits of PBL are worth its costs - as it can be quite resource demanding (for a starting point into this discussion and literature, see e.g., Pease & Kuhn, 2011).

Furthermore, there seems to be much heterogeneity in the effectiveness of PBL (e.g., Walker & Leary, 2009). Several meta-analyses have been conducted in an effort to explain these differences. A good starting point into the subject may be Strobel and van Barneveld's (2009) meta-review of PBL-meta analyses. Quoting from their abstract:

Problem-based learning (PBL) has been utilized for over 40 years in a variety of different disciplines. Although extensively researched, there is heated debate about the effectiveness of PBL. Several meta-analyses were conducted that provided a synthesis of the effects of PBL in comparison to traditional forms of instruction. This study used a qualitative meta-synthesis approach to compare and contrast the assumptions and findings of the meta-analytical research on the effectiveness of PBL. Findings indicated that PBL was superior when it comes to long-term retention, skill development and satisfaction of students and teachers, while traditional approaches were more effective for short-term retention as measured by standardized board exams.

[emphasis added]

If you are looking for research on PBL in psychology, the journal Teaching in Psychology may be worth a look. The journal is more of an outlet for publications on specific exercises and teaching-related resources ("hands-on-approach"). However, the proposed teaching methods and exercises (which could be often regarded as PBL) are usually compared to traditional approaches in small evaluation studies. Other than that there doesn't seem to be much research that looks into the effectiveness of PBL in psychology on a broader level.


Pease, M. A., & Kuhn, D. (2011). Experimental analysis of the effective components of problem-based learning. Science Education, 95, 57–86. doi:10.1002/sce.20412

Strobel, J. , & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 3(1).

Walker, A. & Leary, H. (2009). A Problem Based Learning Meta Analysis: Differences Across Problem Types, Implementation Types, Disciplines, and Assessment Levels. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), 6-28.

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I completely agree with you that psychology could be taught in much better ways. However, teaching just about any science in the way that you are wanting is a lot harder than you might think. It can't be compared to the humanities.

You are correct that all science is a practice and that you learn to be a practitioner through solving problems and receiving feedback. However, in science there is a massive overhead cost before one can actually work with the material. I got my undergraduate education in psychology by spending 10-20 hours/week in a lab for four years... THEN I was ready for graduate school. The courses were great to get my imagination going, but the lab was an absolute necessity. Learning any science means learning a lot of boring (and I mean REALLY boring) skills, most of which are entirely useless outside the field. Many times we learn a particular skill just to run a single study, then never use it again.

To do a single study in psychology takes a really long time. Participants have to be recruited, computer apps need to be programmed, teams of RAs need to be coordinated and trained, procedures need to be planned and tested and revised and tested..., etc.

To be clear, I'm not saying that the way we teach psychology at the undergraduate level is adequate. What I'm saying is that the optimal way to teach psychology would require a massive (read: expensive) overhaul to the system and ratios of students to professors that are not feasible. I think psychology is taught the way it is because it exposes people to the different topics with the hope that some of the useful information will be retained. For students who really like psychology, the assumption is that they will seek out their own education in psychology by finding a professor to work with. If your concern is just at the conceptual level, then I agree with you and I wish we could do more. However, if your concern is practical and you want an education in psychology, your only real option is to start devoting 40-80 hours per month working on 1-on-1 with a professor (or grad student) on a project.

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  • $\begingroup$ CogSci encourages answers based on facts, references, or specific expertise, and this may (or may not) be a question that calls for specific expertise. The answer is consistent with my own views, but I'm leery of upvoting it because it is essentially unsubstantiated. In other words, I'm not sure someone with a different prior view (e.g., @what) would find this convincing without knowing what your specific expertise is. $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr May 10 '15 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ I understand the problems with my answer from an academic perspective. However, the original question seemed heavily motivated by criticism that psychology hasn't adopted some form of PBL. Whether PBL works for psychology seemed less relevant to the topic compared to why it isn't used. Hopefully nobody puts too much weight on my answer. $\endgroup$ – Jordan May 11 '15 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ I completely understand. Sorry about the curtness. I don't mean to be adversarial, I just often run out of characters. It's a good answer, just not one I would find convincing if I didn't already agree with it (if that makes sense). $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr May 11 '15 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Adversarial and critical aren't necessarily the same thing :). Its clear that your comment was well-intended and it points out that my answer isn't up to empirical standards. Unfortunately, when it comes to the way that academic institutions make decisions and how it impacts something as specific and long-term as teaching students how to conduct a science, we probably just don't have the data to say much with any certainty (as MariaAnt acknowledges above) $\endgroup$ – Jordan May 11 '15 at 20:54

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