Teaching Confidence Intervals

If you want your students to understand just two things about confidence intervals, what would they be?

What and what order

When making up a teaching plan for anything it is important to think about whom you are teaching, what it is you want them to learn, and what order will best achieve the most important desired outcomes. In my previous life as a university professor I mostly taught confidence intervals to business students, including MBAs. Currently I produce materials to help teach high school students. When teaching business students, I was aware that many of them had poor mathematics skills, and I did not wish that to get in the way of their understanding. High School students may well be more at home with formulas and calculations, but their understanding of the outside world is limited. Consequently the approaches for these two different students may differ.

Begin with the end in mind

I use the “all of the people, some of the time” principle when deciding on the approach to use in teaching a topic. Some of the students will understand most of the material, but most of the students will only really understand some of the material, at least the first time around. Statistics takes several attempts before you approach fluency. Generally the material students learn will be the material they get taught first, before they start to get lost. Therefore it is good to start with the important material. I wrote a post about this, suggesting starting at the very beginning is not always the best way to go. This is counter-intuitive to mathematics teachers who are often very logical and wish to take the students through from the beginning to the end.

At the start I asked this question – if you want your students to understand just two things about confidence intervals, what would they be?

To me the most important things to learn about confidence intervals are what they are and why they are needed. Learning about the formula is a long way down the list, especially in these days of computers.

The traditional approach to teaching confidence intervals

A traditional approach to teaching confidence intervals is to start with the concept of a sampling distribution, followed by calculating the confidence interval of a mean using the Z distribution. Then the t distribution is introduced. Many of the questions involve calculation by formula. Very little time is spent on what a confidence interval is and why we need them. This is the order used in many textbooks. The Khan Academy video that I reviewed in a previous post does just this.

A different approach to teaching confidence intervals

My approach is as follows:
Start with the idea of a sample and a population, and that we are using a sample to try to find out an unknown value from the population. Show our video about understanding a confidence interval. One comment on this video decried the lack of formulas. I’m not sure what formulas would satisfy the viewer, but as I was explaining what a confidence interval is, not how to get it, I had decided that formulas would not help.

The new New Zealand school curriculum follows a process to get to the use of formal confidence intervals. Previously the assessment was such that a student could pass the confidence interval section by putting values into formulas in a calculator. In the new approach, early high school students are given real data to play with, and are encouraged to suggest conclusions they might be able to draw about the population, based on the sample. Then in Year 12 they start to draw informal confidence intervals, based on the sample.
Then in Year 13, we introduce bootstrapping as an intuitively appealing way to calculate confidence intervals. Students use existing data to draw a conclusion about two medians.
In a more traditional course, you could instead use the normal-based formula for the confidence interval of a mean. We now have a video for that as well.

You could then examine the idea of the sampling distribution and the central limit theorem.

The point is that you start with getting an idea of what a confidence interval is, and then you find out how to find one, and then you start to find out the theory underpinning it. You can think of it as successive refinement. Sometimes when we see photos downloading onto a device, they start off blurry, and then gradually become clearer as we gain more information. This is a way to learn a complex idea, such as confidence intervals. We start with the big picture, and not much detail, and then gradually fill out the details of the how and how come of the calculations.

When do we teach the formulas?

Some teachers believe that the students need to know the formulas in order to understand what is going on. This is probably true for some students, but not all. There are many kinds of understanding, and I prefer a conceptual and graphical approaches. If formulas are introduced at the end of the topic, then the students who like formulas are satisfied, and the others are not alienated. Sometimes it is best to leave the vegetables until last! (This is not a comment on the students!)

For more ideas about teaching confidence intervals see other posts:
Good, bad and wrong videos about confidence intervals
Confidence Intervals: informal, traditional, bootstrap
Why teach resampling

One thought on “Teaching Confidence Intervals

  1. I like the way you teach. I have always felt that four years after students take a class, and have forgotten nearly everything, some of the images and concepts are what remain. These, then, are the bridge for re-learning the math they would need for whatever reason.
    Actually, I tackle almost every topic from both ends at once. On one end are the tiny processes, and on the other end are the big concepts.

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