What does it mean to understand statistics?

It is possible to get a passing grade in a statistics paper by putting numbers into formulas and words into memorised phrases. In fact I suspect that this is a popular way for students to make their way through a required and often unwanted subject.

Most teachers of statistics would say that they would like students to understand what they are doing. This was a common sentiment expressed by participants in the excellent MOOC, Teaching statistics through data investigations (which is currently running again in January to May 2016.)


This makes me wonder what it means for students to understand statistics. There are many levels to understanding things. The concept of understanding has many nuances. If a person understands English, it means that they can use English with proficiency. If they are native speakers they may have little understanding of how grammar works, but they can still speak with correct grammar. We talk about understanding how a car works. I have no idea how a car works, apart from some idea that it requires petrol and the pistons go really, really fast. I can name parts of a car engine, such as distributor and drive shaft. But that doesn’t stop me from driving a car.

Understanding statistics

I propose that when we talk about teaching students to understand statistics, we want our students to know why they are doing something, and have an idea of how it works. Students also need to be fluent in the language of statistics. I would not expect any student of an introductory or high school statistics class to be able to explain how least squares regression works in terms of matrix algebra, but I would expect them to have an idea that the fitted line in a bivariate plot is a model that minimises the squared error terms. I’m not sure anyone needs to know why “degrees of freedom” are called that – or even really what degrees of freedom do. These days computer packages look after degrees of freedom for us. We DO need to understand what a p-value is, and what it is telling us. For many people it is not necessary to know how a p-value is calculated.

Ways to teach statistics

There are several approaches to teaching statistics. The approach needs to be tailored to the students and the context of the course. I prefer a hands-on, conceptual approach rather than a mathematical one. In current literature and practice there is a push for learning through investigations, often based around the statistical inquiry cycle. The problem with one long project is that students don’t get opportunities to apply principles in different situations, in such a way that will help in transfer of learning to other situations. There are some people who still teach statistics through the mathematical formulas, but I fear they are missing out on the opportunity to help students really enjoy statistics.

I do not propose to have all the answers, but we did discover one way to help students learn, alongside other methods. This approach is to use a short video, followed by a ten question true/false quiz. The quiz serves to reinforce and elaborate on concepts taught in the video, challenge students’ misconceptions, and help students be more familiar with the vocabulary and terminology of statistics. The quizzes we develop have multiple questions that randomise to give students the opportunity to try multiple times which seems to help understanding.

This short and entertaining video gives an illustration of how you can use videos and quizzes to help students learn difficult concepts.

And here is a link to a listing of all our videos and how you can get access to them. Statistics Learning Centre Videos

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2 thoughts on “What does it mean to understand statistics?

  1. Pingback: Stat Articles/Blogs | Pearltrees

  2. Pingback: What does it mean to understand statistics? | R...

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