Why We Teach: Statistics
Why do I need to take Stats? Psychology faculty explain why learning statistics is vital and not as scary as you think! Lauren McDuffie quizzed Professors Alison Baren, Melinda Mattingley and David Waxler about their approach to stats.
LM: What is the general approach to training our students in statistics?
AB: We train students that statistics is the way to solve problems objectively and methodically because statistics is a crucial component of the scientific process. We tackle this in our introductory Statistics for Psychology course. Given that the undergraduate program emphasizes the scientific basis of psychology, it makes sense that statistics is also emphasized in both the required Critical Thinking in Psychology and Conducting Psychological Research courses.
MM: One of our central goals is to train students to be knowledgeable and critical consumers of behavioral research. This is valuable as it allows students to evaluate whether claims are based on sound psychological science and statistical analysis, or not.
DW: One of the goals of the psychology curriculum is for students to learn how to conduct their own statistical analyses. However, another important goal is for students to learn how to interpret the statistical information that is produced by others. This is especially important because, although not all psychology majors go on to conduct their own research, all psychology students do go on to become consumers of statistical information in one way or another. A major goal of our program, therefore, is to help students become confident in their ability to understand and evaluate the statistical information they will encounter.
LM: How do you make statistics in Psychology an approachable topic?
AB: “When will I ever use a t-test again!?” is a thought I’m sure many students of statistics have had. To make the course more approachable I use assignments to establish the importance of relying on data and an empirical approach to answer questions that are relatable to the students.
MM: To make statistics a more approachable topic, I tell students to think of the numbers as telling us a story. It’s our job to figure out what the story is.
DW: The most common fear students have in an introductory class is that they are not “good enough at math” to succeed. One of my goals as a statistics instructor is to convince them that being “good at math” is not a quality that we are born with, but the result of practice. Once they realize this, and that an introductory statistics course does not involve much more than simple algebra, many of these students are surprised at how much they enjoy the course!
LM: What kinds of challenges arise while teaching statistics?
AB: At the start of each semester, I invariably get a handful of students proclaiming that they are “going to fail because they are not good at math”. This is always disheartening because I believe every student can do well if they are willing to work hard. I try to reassure students that this is an introductory course, and while there is math involved, it is mostly basic algebra!
MM: At the end of every semester I ask students what advice they would give to someone taking this course. I have been compiling this advice for several years. I present some of these pieces of advice on the first day of the semester. Students have provided tips such as “don’t underestimate how helpful (and time-consuming) the homework can be” and “statistics is somewhat like a ladder, a bunch of small steps that work with one another to get to the top”. Many students have expressed to me that presenting this advice this does indeed help ease their reservations about this course.
DW: These classes deal a lot with probability and uncertainty. Because probability behaves in counterintuitive ways sometimes, this can be challenging for students at first. Learning statistics, however, gives students new tools for making decisions regarding uncertainty and probability. This, in turn, increases their understanding of how psychological science really works.