One man gets excited about tiresome teaching

16 April 2012

Mass universities need to place greater emphasis on teaching, says Dr. Malte Persike from the Institute of Psychology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). He has just been awarded the Ars legendi Prize for Excellence in University Teaching from the German Rectors' Conference and the Donors' Association for the Promotion of Sciences and Humanities in Germany – even though he teaches a subject that most of his students dread: Psychological methodology.

When you enter his small office you see a large couch. If you mention it, Dr. Malte Persike laughs it off. "That is indeed the cliché. But psychology today is different to what people think. The couch is just a symbol."

People who decide to study psychology expect they will be working a lot with people. The focus needs to be on therapy, right? But what Persike teaches is psychological methodology. He and his students explore the broad field of statistics and deal with the pitfalls of computer software. "Most students do not realize they have to do this when they start here. They hate my classes. They come here scared and reluctantly."

EUR 50,000 for excellent teaching

Persike wanted to change this – and he succeeded. As a reward for his efforts, he received the Ars legendi Prize for Excellence in University Teaching. The Donors' Association and the German Rectors' Conference award the EUR 50,000 prize once a year. Each year a different faculty is in focus. This year it was social sciences. Persike and Professor Dr. Nina Kölsch-Bunzen from the University of Applied Sciences Esslingen were awarded the prizes for 2012.

"The first thing my parents asked was: 'Can you keep the money?' But that's not what's important to me. What is important is the fact it was my students who recommended me. It was quite an honor." And there is another aspect the psychologist is pleased about: "It used to be the case that professors tended to get the prize as a lifetime award." Persike belongs to an academic circle which universities clumsily refer to as "non-professional teaching staff".

Greater value needs to be placed on teaching

"If you'd spent as much time on research as you've spent on teaching, you'd be a full professor by now," a friend said to him. But teaching is important to Persike. "It is important that greater value is placed on teaching at mass universities – and Mainz is one of them. But I think things are now starting to change, even at our university."

Persike tries to make it as easy as possible for his students to enter the world of psychological methodology. He has learned that students aren't impressed with formulas. What they need are practical examples. "Imagine you have a patient suffering from depression sitting there in front of you. How do you treat that patient? You have various approaches to choose from." Researchers have tried out all of these approaches. "You need to carry out numerous experiments, then you will have the figures that are inputted into the statistics."

Psychologists do not like statistics

A psychologist needs to use statistics to make critical assessments: "Is there statistical support for what we're doing? Is a detail missing? Has somebody used a procedure they should not have done with regard to these data?" But it goes beyond this. Of course a psychologist needs to generate statistics. "Even drawing up an appropriate questionnaire is difficult enough." And you've got to bear in mind: "Statistics are probability forecasts. If ninety-nine percent applies, then one percent is also possible. Probability is not truth. Our statements are not certainties but hypotheses."

Learning with Twitter and YouTube

Persike uses pretty much everything that the digital world has to offer to teach his subject, be it YouTube, Twitter or Facebook. It's not only his lectures that you can find on YouTube: "On YouTube I talk about details I don't have the time to cover in the lectures themselves. For example: How is something done using Excel?" The students can stop the video and repeat the sequence. "Each student can work at their own pace. That's important."

In addition, Persike provides quick and up-to-date information via his Twitter feed, maintains a tutoring network on Facebook, and much more. "Variety of approaches is important. Then everyone can find a way that suits them."

While variety is great, there also needs to be a certain unity. "Our content should not be seen as separate areas but as a bundle." Software, statistics, and research methodology need to melt into a whole.

Will lectures become superfluous?

Students regularly evaluate Persike's teaching. "As soon as I started with YouTube, the evaluations improved over night." But he does not want to rest on his laurels. New ideas are always being integrated into his teaching. "Sometimes I think that lectures will become completely superfluous."

But psychological methodology with its statistics will remain important. It is something budding psychologists should remember. The couch is just a symbol; it's the formulas that count. And Persike is doing his best to prevent students from falling into despair on this account.