From the Classroom: Engaging Statistics Students Who (Think They) Hate Math

Frankly speaking, most students don’t want to take math classes. I’m sure most of my students can recall vowing to never take another math class again after their Algebra 2 finals in high school. Imagine their disappointment when they learned that my Social Statistics course was a requirement needed to earn their undergraduate sociology degree.

It’s a hard sell to get students excited about statistics. Statistics instructors are up against a couple barriers. The first is general anti-math sentiment. The second is the fact that our classes are not optional, which can breed resistance before students ever interact with us or the course material. In short, our work is cut out for us.

That said, honing a basic understanding of statistics as well as a critical lens are foundational parts of becoming a student of sociology. So much of our ability to speak about what goes on in society at a macro level is based on an array of statistics and probability techniques like t-tests, ANOVAs, and regressions. Moreover, our students are flooded with statistics every day, even if they don’t realize it. From election polls shown on news channels and websites to random survey findings that go viral on social media, the reporting of statistics is inescapable. It is our responsibility as instructors to help develop our students not only into good sociologists, but also into responsible consumers of all the statistics they will encounter over their lifespans.

The question remains: How does one get students interested in learning statistics, and how does one help students become critical consumers of everyday statistics reporting?

When I teach, I have found that accentuating these three benefits of developing a statistics toolkit helps engage my statistics students.

Highlight how statistics are used in concrete ways

Through my own teaching experience, I have found that highlighting how statistics are used in concrete ways is important for helping students shake the idea that statistics is a “useless” math skill. I do this by creating assignments which ask them to read quantitative studies published by sociologists and report on the basics of the work: What was the research question? What method did the author(s) use? What did the author(s) find? Reading published works help students identify how statistics are used to answer a question and result in a product (i.e., a journal article). 

I also assign a data assignment which calls for students to work with a curated data set to answer assignment questions. They use a statistical software package to upload their data set, run univariate and bivariate analyses, and report their findings. This is a more advanced step in their learning and also helps them see hands-on how one can answer timely questions using numerical data and statistics know-how. I often find that this assignment, while new and challenging, is a favorite among students. 

Point out how often statistics appear in popular media

Another way to engage students is to point out how often they encounter statistics in their everyday lives. This can be done through providing examples of marketing ads, political polls, and so on, that use statistics to promote a message. Through this strategy, I appeal to what I presume is students’ desire to be conscious consumers of the media around them.

To aid in this effort, I assign an extra credit assignment to my statistics class that I adopted from my professor, Dr. Koji Ueno at Florida State University. The assignment’s instructions ask students to identify one article published by the popular press that summarizes or recounts information gleaned from a published scientific study. Students find their popular press articles in outlets such as local news websites and nationally syndicated venues like USA Today. They are then asked to assess the popular press article’s telling of research findings whilst keeping a checklist of criteria in mind, such as whether the article disclosed study funding, revealed information like sample size, and so forth. Through this activity, students test their ability to be critical of reported findings.

Stress the practical benefits of developing statistical skills

Finally, I like to engage students by appealing to their sense of practicality. While they might often find themselves answering the question “What can you do with a degree in sociology?” they might hardly find themselves being asked “What can you do with statistics?”

I am sure to cite well-respected research centers like Pew in class examples to introduce them to potential kinds of work outside of academia for those whose interests lie at the crux of social science and statistics. The textbook I assign also uses data from government entities such as the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, signposting that these are also potential employers for those with a background in statistics. Moreover, I discuss examples of my own work in class from time to time, letting students who are graduate school hopefuls know that an ability to play nicely with statistics is expected of them.

For those of us who teach statistics, it is our responsibility to hone statistics skills in our students–even when they don’t want to learn or are afraid of failure before even opening the textbook. I have found the strategies discussed above helpful in engaging my own students. Moreover, the use of a multi-pronged approach makes it more likely that I’ll engage as many students as possible; different students respond well to different approaches, and I’ve found that in this case three is better than one.

These techniques might especially apply to my statistics courses, but I follow the same guiding principle in other classes as well. By showing students the large role that statistics – or any subject matter – has in their lives and highlighting the practicality of embracing the beast, I get them engaged in the course (beyond just needing to pass my class to graduate).

TehQuin D. Forbes is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. His teaching interests include statistics, research methods, and inequalities.

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