Interesting Data to Use in Applied Statistics

 There are plenty of ways to use results from a study in the teaching of applied statistics. This study from the Chronicle of Higher Ed reviews data that most of us probably knew to be true.

(1) Students are more focused on the financial benefit of attending college, &

(2) students are reporting more emotional health problems.

This data is coming from a 45 year longitudinal study. Truthfully … these kind of studies annoy me. It gives the non-psychological scientist the idea that all you have to do is write a few questions, give it to people, and calculate percentages and … bam you’re using data. So, you may wonder, why I selected this one to talk about as something to use in an applied statistics class.

Firstly, we need to keep an insight into our students’ motivation. Sure, I wish students were merely interested in stretching their brains for the betterment of learning, and a few are like that. But students, and especially their parents, are more likely to wonder … how is this “investment” in college going to “pay off.” By pay off, they literally mean monetarily. The best way to use this kind of information is to help students recognize, having skills in applied statistics could open doors for them in their future careers. There are countless stories about the need for applied statisticians. In fact, my son’s high school administrators never ask me about anything … but they have asked me about the trends in statistics. They see it. Statistical skills means jobs after college. Well, if that’s what students and their parents want, then we have a carrot beyond carrots to help motivate them to learn the material, and learn it well.

The second piece of information from this report worth attending to is … students are coming to us with higher levels of emotional health issues. Sure, I might teach statistics in a psychology department, but like most of you … I am not a counselor (and never wanted to be). However, I certainly see that various levels of psychological disorders interfere with students’ success in my class. The “big three” are:

  1. Students’ belief that they simply cannot master this material, so, irrationally, they behave in a manner that assures they fail.
  2. Depression.
  3. Anxiety, including test and math anxiety.

Using research in psychology, I actually spend the first week providing students with background information in statistics without ever looking at a number. Take a look at Chapter 1 in Kiess and Green(2010) Statistical Concepts for the Behavioral Sciences. You will see that students are introduced to Carol Dweck’s concepts of Implicit Views of Intelligence and the cognitive developmental topic of metacognition, and Ericson’s concept of Deliberate Practice. And, as we learn the initial terms of applied statistics, we use studies from these various areas as models, while the students gain insight into how their psychological well being could benefit or interfere with their learning in this class. We end with research on study skills. I am reviewing this a bit briefly here, as it has been discussed in more depth in prior blogs (a list of which can be found here ).

Now … just in case students aren’t ready to trust in themselves, I tell them … fake it till you make it … and just do what I say. This last statement tends to get about 20% of the class to at least start to behave properly (e.g., attend class, do homework, etc.) Once they get a taste of a good test grade, they tend to take off. As for depression … as I stated before, I’m not a counseling psychologist. What I do know is that very few students who are suffering deep depression are able to learn applied statistics. However, depressive symptoms don’t last forever. Thus, if a student misses too much class, or particularly critical concepts like sampling distribution and standard error, and they have a documented health/mental health issue that kept them from class, I just provide an incomplete. I know … you may have been hoping for something more exciting or creative. But in the end … it is our job to help our students to master the material. Anyone who can get accepted into my university can pass my class with the right amount of effort. However, sometimes it might take a couple of semesters to do so. Mild levels of anxiety are the third emotional health issue I see in the classroom. I actually tell students how to decrease that anxiety … and it typically involves nice fragrances (e.g., lavender, tea, chocolate chip cookies … students pick), flavorful “comfort foods” (e.g., cup of homemade soup, scones, chocolate chip cookie), and pleasant sounds (Saxophone jazz, Baroque, or uplifting music), and flash cards of symbols and formulas. This semester, I have a group of students from my research methods class studying this to see if it works with our students. Telling students they have control over their math or test anxiety seems to be enough to help them garner control, and a chocolate chip cookie, with a cup of milk, listening to one’s favorite classical guitar CD , while reviewing flash cards seems like something that at least won’t hurt! I can’t even imagine what it would be like to teach at a place where the students had no stress, came from families where they always felt loved, believed in themselves, and were naturally motivated to learn for the sake of learning … but, gee, if I had the power of wishing, I suppose I would go with world peace and elimination of hunger/thirst … we can wish all we want. But as applied statistics professors, we have the power to shape the way our students think about statistics and to shape their behavior.

Looking at data from your freshmen class or that of other studies is a great way to gain insight on how to best meet the needs of our students, and maybe, just maybe … they will have the tools to figure out how to eliminate hunger/thirst, and secure world peace … and if not, at least they will have the marketable skills to provide food/shelter/etc. for their family, and that’s not such a bad place to start.



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2 responses to “Interesting Data to Use in Applied Statistics

  1. Karl J. Kinkead, PhD

    What a great post. I teach research, business, and quality control statistics to undergrads and doctoral students. I have a doctorate in research statistics and have used business and quality control statistics during an earlier life in manufacturing. I’m curious as to what constitutes “Applied Statistics.” Is it primarily descriptive statistics, or is there hypothesis testing of parametric and nonparametric data using t-Tests, ANOVA, Mann-Whitney, Kruskal-Wallis, Spearman Rank, etc.?

    I’d really like to hear from anyone with knowledge in this area, if you have time, one prof to another?

    Karl Kinkead

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