First Day of Class — starting off right

How do students comes to us on the first day of class? Yes, I can just about hear you mumbling …

(1) They wonder why they even have to take this class … after all they are a [non-quantitative] major. Why does [psychology, sociology, business, education, etc] need statistics?

(2) They may have had really bad math experiences in the past leading to (a) math anxiety (b) poor math attitudes including a low self efficacy and/or (c) weak math skills.

(3) They have heard lots and lots of stories as to how hard or useless or manipulative statistics can be. We have all heard the quote … and so have they … “There are lies, … , and statistics!”

But the first thing I want to let you know is … instructors of applied statistics may be over estimating the negative thinking of their students. Mills (2004);col1 found that, in general, students attitudes towards statistics tended to be more positive then negative. Now, granted, that could simply be the case at Mill’s school. Yet, it is worth challenging … what do our students really think? How is this impacting their academic success? Is there anything we can do to get them from less adaptive to more adaptive ways of approaching this class?

If you would like to specifically see what attitudes your students have, the Mills (2004) article includes an abstract with a validated and reliable measure of  Survey of Attitudes Toward Statistics (SATS). 

Though I do find that there are some positive attitudes regarding statistics in the students I see, the majority of students are still coming in with negative attitudes and ways of thinking about the class. Almost importantly, my first day of class activities do as much to help the students with positive attitudes as it does for the negative ones.  

In short … I try to start of the first day of my semester differently than any other class students may have experienced.

I often start by asking students to describe what a typical first day of class look like. That is right, I don’t even introduce myself or the class. I walk in and say, “So … what does the first day of class typically look like.” After a few blank stares, and me having to repeat the question. The students start talking.  There are many types of descriptions … for which I then define variability. We often talk about what is the most typical? Students respond by raising their hands (of course, I have to instruct this) High means strongly agree, low means mildly agree or disagree. Moderately high hands mean that you moderately agree. Sitting on one’s hands means you completely disagree (thus everyone has to do something, everyone has to actively participate. The student with his hands on the desk is ask to participate.)

Yes, as we discuss “typical,” I will often tell students my name, hand out the syllabus and tell them to put it away, and briefly describe things like … there will be four exams, as they state that professors tell them about how the class will be graded. So, the students end up getting the “typical” information from me in an atypical manner.

 Then, I ask students’ their personal preferences of the activities they listed, again  having them to respond with their hands.  This activity really helps to focus on the concept of individual differences, which I define. As individual differences is a precursor to sampling error, which will follow weeks from the first day of class, students are already beginning to conceptualize this class.

I then define statistics as a tool to help us to answer questions by making sense of variability, taking into account individual differences of the subjects we are working with.

Yes, I start the class by forcing students to respond verbally and with voting using their hands … From the first minutes of class, students realize that they have to be engaged in this class … there are no other options. From the first minutes of class, they are beginning to understand two of the most critical concepts … variability and individual differences!

So, why start off the class so differently than most? Because, in the event students are not excited about taking an Applied Statistics class, may be down right afraid of this class, and/or think the class is unnecessary, right from the start, they start to recognize this class is unlike any others.   By starting off so differently, I can challenge their preconceived notions regarding classes in general, and statistics in particular.

At this point, I tend to talk to them about what they had heard or how do they feel about statistics, thus making them face their preconceived notions right away. Again, we conduct another hand poll … and I define for them the concepts of data and sample.

This opening exercise involves kinesthetic action, thus, forces student engagement. Moreover, it takes the abstract concept of variability, individual differences, data, and sampling and puts it into a context of something all of your students can understand, the first day of class. It provides students for context in which statistics functions.

I follow this first day of activities up with Assignments and Exercises 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, & 1.4 all requiring students to think about their behavior and attitude for class. Instructors who are using Kiess and Green (2010) as their statistics textbook can access those assignments at

Will one day be enough? Of course not … but it’s always the first step!

As always, I would love to hear from others regarding their first day activities!

Green, B. A., & Sandry, J. D. (2010) Assignments and Exercises for Students for Statistical Concepts for the Behavioral Sciences, 4/E . Boston: Pearson.

Mills, J. D. (2004). Students’ attitudes toward statistics: implications for the future. College Student Journal. 29 Jan, 2011.


Filed under Engaging students, Introduction, Pedagogy, Randomness, Variability

7 responses to “First Day of Class — starting off right

  1. Pingback: Starting the Semester off Right | Statistical Sage Blog

  2. Karl J. Kinkead, PhD

    What great ideas, start your students off “voting” in the first class. I have picked up more ways from this blog about how to get my stats students to interact with the lectures and scenario projects. Another “pointer” is to get pairs of students to try a statistical treatment together as I go through it on the smart board. This method gets students talking about how to do the test together and many seem to loose their inhibitions and ask questions more openly. I must, though, disagree that “most” students have a positive attitude about statistics. Many will develop a positive attitude, but enter with one, nope. As a student progress and see that they can do the work, but most do enter with at least a semi-negative attitude.

  3. Pingback: A review of tips for teaching applied statistics from Statistical Sage | Statistical Sage Blog

  4. Pingback: First Day Policies and Activities | College Math

  5. Annat

    I teach high school… but I love getting some pointers from a stats sage as yourself teaching college 😉

    • Thank you, Annat.

      There are fewer jobs more important than those who teach elementary school and high school. The critical period for brain growth occurs long before students ever step foot into a college classroom.

      Take care,

  6. Reblogged this on Statistical Sage Blog and commented:

    Ah, the first day of the semester is upon us …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s