Teaching a service course in statistics
Most students who enrol in an initial course in statistics at university level do so because they have to. I did some research on attitudes to statistics in my entry level quantitative methods course, and fewer than 1% of the students had chosen to be in that course. This is a little demoralising, if you happen to think that statistics is worthwhile and interesting.
Teaching a service course in statistics is one of the great challenges of teaching. A “Service Course” is a course in statistics for students who are majoring in some other subject, such as Marketing or Medicine or Education. For some students it is a terminating course – they will never have to look at a p-value again (they hope). For some students it is the precursor to further applied statistics such as marketing research or biological research. Having said that, statistics for citizens is important and interesting and engaging if taught that way. And we might encourage some students to carry on.
Yet the teachers and textbook writers seem to do their best to remove the joy. Statistics is a difficult subject to understand. Often the way the instructor thinks is at odds with the way the students think and learn. The mathematical nature of the subject is invested with all sorts of emotional baggage.
Here are some of the challenges of teaching a statistics service course.
Limited mathematical ability
It is important to appreciate how limited the mathematical understanding is of some of the students in service courses. In my first year quantitative methods course, I made sure my students knew basic algebra, including rearranging and solving equations. This was all done within a business context. Even elementary algebra was quite a stumbling block to some students, for whom algebra had been a bridge too far at school. There were students in a postgrad course I taught who were not sure which was larger, out of 0.05 and 0.1, and talked about crocodiles with regard to greater than and less than signs. And these were schoolteachers! Another senior maths teacher in that group had been teaching the calculation of confidence intervals, without actually understanding what they were.
The students are not like statisticians. Methods that worked to teach statisticians and mathematicians are unlikely to work for them. I wrote about this in my post about the Golden Rule, and how it applies at a higher level for teaching.
I realised a few years ago that I am not a mathematician. I do not have the ability to think in the abstract that is part of a true mathematician. Operations Research was my thing, because I was good at mathematics, but my understanding was concrete. This has been a surprising gift for me as a teacher, as it has meant that I can understand better what the students find difficult. Formulas do not tell them anything. Calculating by hand does not lead to understanding. It is from this philosophy that I approach the production of my videos. I am particularly pleased with my recent video about confidence intervals, which explains the ideas, with nary a formula in sight, but plenty of memorable images.
One of my more constantly accessed posts is Excel, SPSS, Minitab or R?. This consistent interest indicates that the course of software is a universal problem. People are very quick to say how evil Excel is, and I am under no illusions as to many of the shortcomings. The main point of my post was, however, that it depends on the class you are teaching.
As I have taught mainly business students, I still hold that for them, Excel is ideal. Not so much for the statistical aspects, but because they learn to use Excel. Last Saturday the ideas for today’s posts were just forming in my mind when the phone rang, and despite my realising it was probably a telemarketer (we have caller ID on our phone) I answered it. It was a nice young woman asking me to take part in a short survey about employment opportunities for women in the Christchurch Rebuild. After I’d answered the questions, explaining that I was redundant from the university because of the earthquakes and that I had taught statistics, she realised that I had taught her. (This is a pretty common occurrence for me in our small town-city – even when I buy sushi I am served by ex-students). So I asked her about her experience in my course, and she related how she would never have taken the course, but enjoyed it and passed. I asked about Excel, and she told me that she had never realised what you could do with Excel before, and now still used it. This is not an isolated incident. When students are taught Excel as a tool, they use it as a tool, and continue to do so after the course has ended.
When business students learn using Excel, it has the appearance of relevance. They are aware that spreadsheets are used in business. It doesn’t seem like time wasted. So I stand by my choice to use Excel. However if I were still teaching at University, I would also be using iNZight. And if I taught higher levels I would continue to use SPSS, and learn more about R.
As I said in a previous post Statistics Textbooks suck out all the fun. Very few textbooks do no harm. I wonder if this site could provide a database of statistics texts and reviews. I would be happy to review textbooks and include them here. My favourite elementary textbook is, sadly, out of print. It is called “Taking the Fear out of Data Analysis”, by the fabulously named Adamantis Diamantopoulos and Bodo Schlegelmilch. It takes a practical approach, and has a warm, nurturing style. It lacks exercises. I have used extracts from it over the years. The choice of textbook, like the choice of software, is “horses for courses”, but I think there are some horses that should not be put anywhere near a course. I do wonder how many students use textbooks as anything other than a combination lucky charm and paper weight.
In comparison with the plethora of college texts of varying value, at high-school level the pickings for textbooks are thin. This probably reflects the newness of the teaching of statistics at high-school level. A major problem with textbooks is that they are so quickly out of date, and at school level it is not practical to replace class sets too often.
Perhaps the answer is online resources, which can be updated as needed, and are flexible and give immediate feedback.
I was less than gentle with a new acquaintance in the weekend. When asked about my business, I told him that I make on-line materials to help people teach and learn statistics. He proceeded to relate a story of a misplaced use of a percentage as a reason why he never takes any notice of statistics. I have tired of the “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” jibe and decided not to take it lying down. I explained that the world is a better place because of statistical analysis. Much research, including medical would not be possible in the absence of methods for statistical analysis. An understanding of the concepts of statistics is a vital part of intelligent citizenship, especially in these days of big and ubiquitous data.
I stopped at that point, but have pondered since. What is it that makes people so quick to denigrate the worth of statistics? I suspect it is ignorance and fear. They make themselves feel better about their inadequacies by devaluing the things they lack. Just a thought.
This is not an isolated instance. In fact I was so surprised when a lighthouse keeper said that statistics sounded interesting and wanted to know more, that I didn’t really know what to say next! You can read about that in a previous post. Statistics is an interesting subject – really!
But the students in a service course in statistics may well be in the rather large subset of humanity who have yet to appreciate the worth of the subject. They may even have fear and antipathy towards the subject, as I wrote about previously. Anxiety, fear and antipathy for maths, stats and OR.
People are less likely to learn if they have negative attitudes towards the subject. And when they do learn it may well be “learning to pass” rather than actual learning which is internalised.
Keep the faith! Statistics is an important subject. Keep trying new things. If you never have a bad moment in your teaching, you are not trying enough new things. And when you hear from someone whose life was changed because of your teaching, there is nothing like it!