Why people hate statistics

This summer/Christmas break it has been my pleasure to help a young woman who is struggling with statistics, and it has prompted me to ask people who teach postgraduate statistical methods – WTF are you doing?

Louise (name changed) is a bright, hard-working young woman, who has finished an undergraduate degree at a prestigious university and is now doing a Masters degree at a different prestigious university, which is a long way from where I live and will remain nameless. I have been working through her lecture slides, past and future and attempting to develop in her some confidence that she will survive the remainder of the course, and that statistics is in fact fathomable.

Incomprehensible courses alienating research students

After each session with Louise I have come away shaking my head and wondering what this lecturer is up to. I wonder if he/she really understands statistics or is just passing on their own confusion. And the very sad thing is that I KNOW that there are hundreds of lecturers in hundreds of similar courses around the world teaching in much the same way and alienating thousands of students every year.

And they need to stop.

Here is the approach: You have approximately eight weeks, made up of four hour sessions, in which to teach your masters students everything they could possibly need to know about statistics. So you tell them everything! You use technical terms with little explanation, and you give no indication of what is important and what is background. You dive right in with no clear purpose, and you expect them to keep up.

Choosing your level

Frequently Louise would ask me to explain something and I would pause to think. I was trying to work out how deep to go. It is like when a child asks where babies come from. They may want the full details, but they may not, and you need to decide what level of answer is most appropriate. Anyone who has seen our popular YouTube videos will be aware that I encourage conceptual understanding at best, and the equivalent of a statistics drivers licence at worst. When you have eight weeks to learn everything there is to know about statistics, up to and including multiple regression, logistic regression, GLM, factor analysis, non-parametric methods and more, I believe the most you can hope for is to be able to get the computer to run the test, and then make intelligent conclusions about the output.

There was nothing in the course about data collection, data cleaning, the concept of inference or the relationship between the model and reality. My experience is that data cleaning is one of the most challenging parts of analysis, especially for novice researchers.

Use learning objectives

And maybe one of the worst problems with Louise’s course was that there were no specific learning objectives. One of my most popular posts is on the need for learning objectives. Now I am not proposing that we slavishly tell students in each class what it is they are to learn, as that can be tedious and remove the fun from more discovery style learning. What I am saying is that it is only fair to tell the students what they are supposed to be learning. This helps them to know what in the lecture is important, and what is background. They need to know whether they need to have a passing understanding of a test, or if they need to be able to run one, or if they need to know the underlying mathematics.

Take for example, the t-test. There are many ways that the t-statistic can be used, so simply referring to a test as a t-test is misleading before you even start. And starting your teaching with the statistic is not helpful. We need to start with the need! I would call it a test for the difference of two means from two groups. And I would just talk about the t statistic in passing. I would give examples of output from various scenarios, some of which reject the null, some of which don’t and maybe even one that has a p-value of 0.049 so we can talk about that. In each case we would look at how the context affects the implications of the test result. In my learning objectives I would say: Students will be able to interpret the output of a test for the difference of two means, putting the result in context. And possibly, Students will be able to identify ways in which a test for the difference of two means violates the assumptions of a t-test. Now that wasn’t hard was it?

Like driving a car

Louise likes to understand where things come from, so we did go through an overview of how various distributions have been found to model different aspects of the world well – starting with the normal distribution, and with a quick jaunt into the Central Limit Theorem. I used my Dragonistics data cards, which were invented for teaching primary school, but actually work surprisingly well at all levels! I can’t claim that Louise understands the use of the t distribution, but I hope she now believes in it. I gave her the analogy of learning to drive – that we don’t need to know what is happening under the bonnet to be a safe driver. In fact safe driving depends more on paying attention to the road conditions and human behaviour.

Assumptions

Louise tells me that her lecturer emphasises assumptions – that the students need to examine them all, every time they look at or perform a statistical test. Now I have no problems with this later on, but students need to have some idea of where they are going and why, before being told what luggage they can and can’t take. And my experience is that assumptions are always violated. Always. As George Box put it – “All models are wrong and some models are useful.”

It did not help that the lecturer seemed a little confused about the assumption of normality. I am not one to point the finger, as this is a tricky assumption, as the Andy Field textbook pointed out. For example, we do not require the independent variables in a multiple regression to be normally distributed as the lecturer specified. This is not even possible if we are including dummy variables. What we do need to watch out for is that the residuals are approximately modelled by a normal distribution, and if not, that we do something about it.

You may have gathered that my approach to statistics is practical rather than idealistic. Why get all hot and bothered about whether you should do a parametric or non-parametric test, when the computer package does both with ease, and you just need to check if there is any difference in the result. (I can hear some purists hyperventilating at this point!) My experience is that the results seldom differ.

What post-graduate statistical methods courses should focus on

Instructors need to concentrate on the big ideas of statistics – what is inference, why we need data, how a sample is collected matters, and the relationship between a model and the reality it is modelling. I would include the concept of correlation, and its problematic link to causation. I would talk about the difference between statistical significance and usefulness, and evidence and strength of a relationship. And I would teach students how to find the right fishing lessons! If a student is critiquing a paper that uses logistical regression, that is the time they need to read up enough about logistical regression to be able to understand what they are reading.They cannot possibly learn a useful amount about all the tests or methods that they may encounter one day.

If research students are going to be doing their own research, they need more than a one semester fly-by of techniques, and would be best to get advice from a statistician BEFORE they collect the data.

Final word

So here is my take-home message:

Stop making graduate statistical methods courses so outrageously difficult by cramming them full of advanced techniques and concepts. Instead help students to understand what statistics is about, and how powerful and wonderful it can be to find out more about the world through data.

Your word

Am I right or is my preaching of the devil? Please add your comments below.