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— updated 1998-10-10

Chinese herbology education, questions you should ask about curriculum quality

Questions you should ask about educational methods, homework, and instructor experience before enrolling in Chinese herbology programs at TCM schools or colleges. Making the right choice will determine the difference between receiving a gold-embossed paper and becoming an effective herbalist.

Copyright ©1995 by RMH-Publications Trust; all rights reserved.

Many beginning students of herbology ask us what type of certificate they will receive, what professional titles are awarded, etc. (RMHI offers a certificate of completion to those who complete all requirements of the professional Chinese herbology curriculum.) Since herbalists in the U.S. and many other countries do not require licenses to help others improve their health with herbs (see "The right to practice herbology, legal history and basis"), a far more important question should be "How well does the curriculum prepare one to become an effective herbalist?" As most of our course participants are physicians and health professionals already, they are more concerned about acquiring practical clinical skills than accumulating yet more pieces of paper. The following specific questions should help you plan your herbology education.

How much homework is required for each course, especially the core courses of TCM herbology?

Many schools attempt to minimize the amount of written homework problems, because they are time-consuming to grade, and instructors have to be paid for their time. In addition, some state and national accrediting boards do not take into account estimated homework time in awarding course units, because they are difficult to estimate and document, instead merely counting the number of hours spent sitting in the classroom. However, any curriculum that avoids significant homework cannot be considered a serious academic program. Continual feedback from an instructor who corrects errors in thinking on homework problems is a time-tested method for ensuring understanding and competence.

Is the course homework meaningful and relevant to learning how to solve real clinical problems, or is it make-work?

Students currently enrolled in the program may not be as good judges of program quality as former graduates who have started practicing. These latter individuals will know whether their education was relevant or not, since they will be able to measure it by the percentage of clients they have been able to help!

Do the instructors engage students in active thinking or do they emphasize mere ability to memorize lists of information without intellectual context?

Memorization is an important practical requirement, but is useless if not accompanied by an understanding of what the information means and how it is applied clinically. A significant percentage of TCM school graduates focus on memorizing properties of hundreds of herbs to pass multiple-choice exams, yet become frustrated by their inability to use this information to create successful herbal formulas.

Do instructors require students to do supervised and independent case study write-ups?

If so, do the instructors provide detailed feedback and correct specific errors? Or is much of the clinical training spent passively observing the instructor-clinician? Passive learning is not nearly as effective as constant feedback and correction of students' mistakes. To learn TCM pulse palpation technique and interpretation of tongue appearance, it is crucial that the instructor offer immediate and detailed feedback; one simply cannot learn these techniques by listening to lectures or passively watching someone else do it.

Are consulting services from instructors available following graduation?

Such services ease the transition from the closely supervised academic setting to fully independent practice. Often clinical techniques may seem easy when performed under the watchful eyes of an experienced instructor. Phone consultations and on-going assistance during the first year of practice can help the novice herbalist handle difficult cases and consolidate skills previously learned under supervision.

Does the school offer essential preparation in the legal, ethical, and business aspects of operating an herbal consultation practice?

If so, is the course offered by an academic theoretician or by someone who has been in the trenches of clinical practice? One's perspective changes drastically when faced with the practical problems in the real world. Academics and scholars, regardless of how well meaning, have mostly been protected from the shocks that may occasionally affect practicing herbalists, such as the assault by federal agents on the offices of Jonathan Wright, MD, in Washington state. How many schools prepare novice herbalists to understand current medical politics and to protect themselves from such assaults on their freedom?


To learn more about what should be included in a quality TCM herbology education, read "Modest proposals for improving traditional Chinese herbal education".

If you are interested in a career as a clinical herbalist, see RMHI's Traditional Chinese Herbal Sciences program for health professionals.