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Student's ideal - learning without being taught

Businessworld
By Professor  

Today, Psychology is a very popular major across Indian Private Universities, more and more students – even though interested in Psychology from their first year, choose to enroll in a broader program in order to keep their options open.

 

Psychology as a discipline has, throughout the years, struggled to emancipate from philosophy and then restructured itself to create its own scientific identity.  The American Psychological Association states that students graduating from psychology should “Demonstrate proper understanding of main psychological concepts (…), develop ethical and culturally sensitive personal and professional behaviors as well as a scientific reasoning ability and effective research principles’ understanding.” (APA guidelines for the Undergraduate psychology major, 2007). 

 
In India, Psychology has often been taught as a standalone subject: BA Honors in Psychology; BSc in Psychology etc.… but in the last decade more and more institutions (mostly private) have chosen to implement a classical North American degree: The Bachelor (or BA Honors) in Liberal Arts and Humanities. More often than not, those degrees offer several semesters (2 or 3) of foundation courses, covering in a survey manner different disciplines of the Humanities – including but not limited to English Literature, Sociology, Political Science, History, Philosophy, Psychology and so on. Then, the students select their specialty (major) and sometimes a minor (sub-specialty) which they would study in the next semesters.

 
Today, Psychology is a very popular major across Indian Private Universities, more and more students – even though interested in Psychology from their first year, choose to enroll in a broader program in order to keep their options open.

 
The difficulties of teaching psychology in such Programs appear quite early on: how to strike the right balance between being scientific and at the same time fitting in with the “arts and humanities”. 
As part of the scientific side of psychology courses such as Data analysis, quantifying, measuring or using assessment tools, research and experimental methods are often among the least appreciated by students. In fact, when interviewed for the Major applications, many students have a vision of psychology that is limited to therapy, children special education and sometimes, career counseling. 

  
For teachers and institutions implementing subject as “Research Methods” or “Measuring Psychological Characteristics” is a well-known difficulty all over the globe. I personally have experienced it in Canada, in the United States, in France, in Saudi Arabia and now in India. Sometimes the fear is in science and math, at times it reaches a level of “phobia” towards any kind of numbers or numerical data.
How then can one teach? And more importantly how can we as teachers ensure that the students learn?

  
If we look at topics such as research methods or measurement, numbers and statistics are absolutely everywhere. But instead of starting from the spreadsheets and formulas, one could begin with the fundamental logic of the scientific approach and the create a need for the student to figure out the actual formula.

  
The approach we emphasized in the Jindal School of Liber Arts and Humanities is experiential, meaning that students will get the possibility to learn by doing. In the Research Methods in Psychology class, we have decided to apply that idea to the full. Students, during their semester have to make a research proposal, conduct the research and organize a workshop to spread psychological knowledge. To do so, one will ultimately learn about hypothesis formulation, operationalization, sampling, experimental methods and data analysis – but never as an end in itself. All those aspects will only be approached when the students themselves face that need.

   
For example if students ask “How can I study Teenager’s violence?” the instructor will direct his reflection towards operationalization by encouraging him to first define who is a teenager and what is violence. Then, as a definition is not enough, we would consider different ways in which those two could be measured. Once those steps are crossed, the question of theories and hypothesis appear organically.
The student is then encouraged to put together a literature review through logical questions such as “But haven’t other people already checked that? Didn’t some teams already answer this question. No student is genuinely interested in investing his time and energy in to reinvent the wheel. 

   
Questions get discussed as soon as they appear, and even technical aspects such as the proprieties of the Independent variables, dependent variables and other cofounding parameters get studied at the very moment when the students try to figure out how they can actually try to demonstrate and prove the existence of a link between two facts such as being a boy and being more violent. 
The questions, initiated by students and triggered by the instructor are both the motor and the methodology of the experiential learning approach. In a similar way, statistical tests and indices are introduced when their need appears.

   
 “I don’t know what ANOVA is, and I don’t want to know, but can you show me how to figure out if those groups actually are different?” was told to me by one of my past year student.
The much feared moment when statistics make an entry in the course passes almost unaccounted. When, after so much effort, time and energy has been involved and the students have finally collected precious data from less than willing participants, the eagerness with which they wait for the statistical grail appears almost unreal to the instructor.
The result, at the end of the semester, whether they wanted it or not, will be an entry into the world of scientific research, an understanding of its rules and an experience of its difficulties and opportunities. And in feedback sessions with students, after 15 long weeks of research work, the instructor will still hear from some “Well this was fun, but I really hope I will never have to actually take any stat/research methods class”.