Tag Archives: Introduction

Teaching statistical thinking might have just got easier

6 Aug

Over seventy years ago Samuel Wilkes, the then President of the American Statistical Association, wrote “Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write!”. (Interestingly he was paraphrasing the work of the the British writer HG Wells from 1903 !!). Given the welter of statistics that we are confronted with on a daily basis, it seem s perfectly reasonable to say that that day has arrived, and yet what I see of students entering undergraduate studies suggests that we have a long way to go in developing ‘efficient citizenship’.

My own discipline, psychology, requires students to have detailed knowledge of the statistics of null-hypothesis testing and yet in focusing on an understanding of t-tests, ANOVAs regression etc etc I suspect that more apparently ‘basic’ statistical ideas such as understanding distributions and sampling are often neglected. It has be to said that the fault does not entirely lay with those of us teaching in higher education institutions. Psychology students appear to arrive at university with an aversion to anything the looks like mathematics, that you have to assume is a product of the nature of pre-16 mathematics teaching.

Ive written before about using opinion polling problems as a route into teaching about sampling, but I’ve just come across a little book that seems like a perfect way of getting students to grasp ‘statistical thinking’.

‘How to lie with statistics’ by Darrell Huff is a tiny (124 pages) fifty year old book that contains a huge range of the type of examples that I like to use when teaching, and delivers them in a style that is accessible to modern-day students. It seems to me that this book would make an excellent basis for the first few weeks of any introductory statistics undergraduate course and ought to be compulsory reading to guarantee ‘efficient citizenship’.

Newspaper headlines as an introduction

18 Apr

Getting students to realise that they can think rationally about material that is presented to them can be difficult when the material is from the discipline they are studying. Level 1 students seem to arrive at university pre-programmed to ‘record’ subject-specific information rather than ever ‘question’ it.

I have taken to using newspaper stories as a means of getting students to realise that they are able to question the material that is presented to them. During my first Level 1 lecture of the year I show students a range of newpaper stories and ask them to tell me what might be wrong with them. WIth very little prompting from me students are able to identify problems, even though they might not be able to attach an appropriate ‘label’ to the issue. I’ve set out a few of the examples I use below, but I always encourage students to email me new examples they come across.

I usually start with an obviously daft example to get them in the mood, i.e. this great story from the Daily Mail suggeasting that wine can turn you into a werewolf ! I don’t (usually) have to tell students that werewolves don’t exist, and with little prompting they come up with the idea of single-case studies themselves.

In the summer of 2009 the Daily Express produced a run of stories that provided good material. The front page story on the 5th July was Coffee cures Alzheimers’, and three days later on 8th July the front page story was about a pill that could add 20 years your life-span. A month later, on the 10th August the front page reported eye-drops that will cure blindness

These three stories allow me to start to introduce students to a range of ideas. The first story about coffee and alzheimers is solely work conducted on mice, the second story is frankly just a little odd. It usually provkes a discussion about ‘wouldn’t we have heard about this somewhere else’ and ‘wouldn’t the big cosmetics companies be involved in this’. The final story moves on from just mice as ‘participants’ to rats and then three human participants. The students can usually derive for themselves that the jump from three human participants to ‘WILL cure blindness’ is rather a large one.

At this point at least one student will usually suggest that these stories all seem a bit trivial and not much to do with psychology. However if you ask them to put themselves in the shoes of someone who’s partner is blind, or who’s parents (maybe grandparents) have Alzheimer’s and think about what their reaction would be, they rapidly see the point. This can also lead to a discussion of how enquires about such unproven treatments can tie up NHS GPs time, and allows me to introduce the students to the NHS’s web site addressing such stories.

Lighthearted Introductions to Rational Thinking

17 Apr

One of the great difficulties in encouraging students to begin to think rationally, is that may have to unlearn some of the study strategies that have served them will b efore they arrived in HE.

In particular, it can take a while to get students out of  ‘accumulate and regurgitate’ mode and into ‘questioning’ mode. I have taken to showing a couple of lighthearted Youtube clips in the first of my level 1 lectures that do a much better job of explaining why ‘questioning’ and ‘science’ are important than I would even manage on my own.

The first is a clip from one of Dara O’briain’s stand up routines :

The second video is a TED Talk from Michael Shermer, the editor of ‘Skeptic’ Magazine:


BOth of these videos get across why what you are going to be teaching is important, but more importantly do it in a manner that will engage level 1 students

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