The first few minutes matter: Intellectually engaging students

As educators in statistics, what do we hope for the most?

I would say we are most interested in our students learning and understanding how to use and interpret statistics.

Yet, what percentage of your students are actually interested in learning about statistics on the first day of class?

I have taught close to 100 doctoral students and close to 2000 undergraduate students. I have had no more than 3 doctoral students interested in learning statistics and certainly not more than 20 undergraduates. Thus, between 1 and 3 percent of the students who enter my classes desire to learn about statistics. In talking with my colleagues, this is not uncommon. That means a lot of students are not interested in learning statistics.

Yet, how do we get students to learn … we must get them intellectually engaged.

Several of my previous posts have focused on getting students intellectually engaged, you can find a listing of those posts here:

Yet, few things are more important than the first few minutes of class. This is the time that you set the stage for the learning that will take place during the rest of the class.

James Lang, a professor and writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education has provided an overview with how to get students intellectually engaged within the first 5 minutes of class.

This source provides similar information on how to begin a class in a manner that engages students.

Both sets of recommendations are all great ones.

I want to add one more … the power of the story.

There is something about a narrative, that is a story about a person, that captivates students. Beginning class with a story about a real person can be very engaging for students. Truth be told, in statistics just about any narrative can be turned into a statistical example.

As an example: if you want to demonstrate the differences between an independent variable and a subject variable, a story about a person with Autism or Depression can help, versus the difference between the anger level of a person in a cool or hot environment.

If you were preparing to teach about correlation coefficient, you can tell a story about person growing up in a war torn area. Then discussion constructs that such a person has to endure … lack of food and medical care, fear for one’s life, witnessing death and destruction, stress. How does growing up in such an environment impact a person’s life expectancy? The narrative and the questions the narrative spawn can yield great in class examples as you explain how a correlation works, what can be interpreted from the results, and what can’t be.

Stories are a great way to grab a students’ attention in a non-threatening way. You can bring your students into the class in a matter of two or three minutes with a good story. And in statistics … you can slide them right into the concepts in a non-threatening manner.

Where can you get stories for class?

No matter what you do to get your students intellectually engaged, those first few minutes are important to help assure students get the most out of class. Which technique should you use? I would recommend the one you have the most fun with on a given day!

(For more information please see: Narrative Pedagogy: Life History and Learning, by Goodson and Gill, 2011).





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