Difficult concepts in statistics

Recently someone asked: “I don’t suppose you’d like to blog a little on the pedagogical knowledge relevant to statistics teaching, would you? A ‘top five statistics student misconceptions (and what to do about them)’ would be kind of a nice thing to see …”

I wish it were that easy. Here goes:

Things that I have found students find difficult to understand and what I have done about them.


When I taught second year regression we would get students to collect data and fit their own multiple regressions. The interesting thing was that quite often students would collect unrelated data. The columns of the data would not be of the same observations. These students had made it all the way through first year statistics without really understanding about multivariate data.

So from them on when I taught about regression I would specifically begin by talking about observations (or data points) and explain how they were connected. It doesn’t hurt to be explicit. In the NZ curriculum materials for high school students are exercises using data cards which correspond to individuals from a database. This helps students to see that each card, which corresponds to a line of data, is one person or thing. In my video about Levels of measurement, I take the time to show this.

First suggestion is “Don’t assume”.  This applies to so much!

And this is also why it is vital that instructors do at least some of their own marking (grading). High school teachers are going, “Of course”. College professors – you know you ought to! The only way you find out what the students don’t understand, or misunderstand, or replicate by rote from your own notes, is by reading what they write. This is tedious, painful and sometimes funny in a head-banging sort of way, but necessary. I also check the prevalence of answers to multiple choice questions in my on-line materials. If there is a distracter scoring highly it is worthwhile thinking about either the question or the teaching that is leading to incorrect responses.


Well duh! Inference is a really, really difficult concept and is the key to inferential statistics. The basic idea, that we use information from a sample to draw conclusions about the population seems straight-forward. But it isn’t. Students need lots and lots of practice at identifying what is the population and what is the sample in any given situation. This needs to be done with different types of observations, such as people, commercial entities, plants or animals, geographical areas, manufactured products, instances of a physical experiment (Barbie bungee jumping), and times.

Second suggestion is “Practice”. And given the choice between one big practical project and a whole lot of small applied exercises, I would go with the exercises. A big real-life project is great for getting an idea of the big picture, and helping students to learn about the process of statistical analysis. But the problem with one big project is that it is difficult to separate the specific from the general. Context is at the core of any analysis in statistics, and makes every analysis different. Learning occurs through experiencing many different contexts and from them extracting what is general to all analysis, what is common to many analyses and what is specific to that example. The more different examples a student is exposed to, the better opportunity they have for constructing that learning. An earlier post extols the virtues of practice, even drill!


One of the most difficult things is for students to make connections between parts of the curriculum. A traditional statistics course can seem like a toolbox of unrelated but confusingly different techniques. It takes a high level of understanding to link the probability, data and evidence aspects together in a meaningful way. It is good to have exercises that hep students to make these connections. I wrote about this with regard to Operations Research and Statistics. But students need also to be making connections before they get to the end of the course.

The third suggestion is “get students to write”

Get students to write down what is the same and what is different between chi-sq analysis and correlation. Get them to write down how a poisson distribution is similar to and different from a binomial distribution. Get them to write down how bar charts and histograms are similar and different. The reason students must write is that it is in the writing that they become aware of what they know or don’t know. We even teach ourselves things as we write.

Graphs and data

Another type of connection that students have trouble with is that between the data and the graph, and in particular identifying variation and distribution in a histogram or similar. There are many different graphs, that can look quite similar, and students have problems identifying what is going on. The “value graph” which is produced so easily in Excel does nothing to help with these problems. I wrote a full post on the problems of interpreting graphs.

The fourth suggestion is “think hard”. (or borrow)

Teaching statistics is not for wusses. We need to think really hard about what students are finding difficult, and come up with solutions. We need to experiment with different ways of explaining and teaching. One thing that has helped my teaching is the production of my videos. I wish to use both visual and text (verbal) inputs as best as possible to make use of the medium. I have to think of ways of representing concepts visually, that will help both understanding and memory. This is NOT easy, but is extremely rewarding. And if you are not good at thinking up new ideas, borrow other people’s ideas. A good idea collector can be as good as or better than a good creator of ideas.

To think of a fifth suggestion I turned to my favourite book , “The Challenge of Developing Statistical Literacy, Reasoning and Thinking”, edited by Dani Ben-Zvi and Joan Garfield. I feel somewhat inadequate in the suggestions given above. The book abounds with studies that have shown areas of challenge or students and teachers. It is exciting that so many people are taking seriously the development of pedagogical content knowledge regarding the discipline of statistics. Some statisticians would prefer that the general population leave statistics to the experts, but they seem to be in the minority. And of course it depends on what you define “doing statistics” to mean.

But the ship of statistical protectionism has sailed, and it is up to statisticians and statistical educators to do our best to teach statistics in such a way that each student can understand and apply their knowledge confidently, correctly and appropriately.

3 thoughts on “Difficult concepts in statistics

  1. Pingback: Statistics | Pearltrees


  3. Top student misconceptions are also the top misconceptions of all non-trained folk. The first is that if something hasn’t happened for a long time, it is more likely to happen because of the law of averages. The second is that the accuracy of a poll depends on the size of the population – that for instance political polls are no good because you can’t infer the intentions of 200 million US voters from a sample of 2000.

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