I chose to be a statistician because it helps me interpret the world in an organized manner. Statistics brings to mind endless number crunching, which is actually a very small part of the discipline. Statistics is about making decisions in the face of uncertainty, which is a major part of everyday life. Is there anyone who would not want this skill? To my continual amazement, yes–the students I teach each semester. You see, statistics is required for their courses of study. The challenge I face is to temper my enthusiasm for my field with the reality of my classroom.
My audience. As young adults, my students are works in progress. Their brains have enormous potential, but they are unstructured with respect to my discipline. I cannot misinterpret their indifference for the topic as an inability to learn. In addition they are usually content to know that something is true, not how something is used. Finally, they tend to segregate school knowledge from real life.
My students are not younger, mini-versions of me. Times change. When I attended college, I was motivated to learn by grades, parents, and some degree of curiosity. In contrast, my students tend to expect education to be the work of the teacher. They have a passive approach to learning.
Motivation. My goal as a teacher is to persuade my students to initiate their own internal learning process. My challenge is how to motivate them to learn. Given that statistics is making decisions based on uncertain information, then the methods and mechanisms for making the best possible decision are the substance of statistics. First they need to learn the fundamentals. Next they need to learn how to apply them in real life situations. How can I do this most effectively?
Effective teaching has two parts: exposition of content and motivation of students to learn. To succeed in both areas I need to remember that the activity that counts is what is happening in the student’s head, not mine. According to philosopher and educator John Dewey, students “don’t learn what we tell them, they learn what they do.” This statement drives my teaching style. I vary my approach to the material to try to get students to do something in addition to listening.
In the classroom. To learn statistics students must learn some fundamentals first, and then apply them. I present the basics in “interrupted lectures.” After talking for 15 minutes, I give pairs of students problems using the principle I just discussed. By doing that the emphasis shifts from my brain to theirs, where the learning will take place. Next, we discuss their solutions and continue with the application. I use the think-pair-share technique to engage students in the material. I also use hands-on demonstrations of principles by students so they can “feel” the problem rather than just hearing it. By using such student-centered techniques, I try to help students assume personal responsibility to “learn how” instead of “learn that.”
Learning a topic like statistics takes practice. I use in-class problems, weekly homework, and short quizzes to provide repetition in the basics and applications, and I provide prompt feedback. I use monthly exams to gauge learning.
The future. On the first day of class I ask students two questions: why are you taking this course, and what do you know about statistics. The students change from semester to semester, of course, but their answers are always the same: It’s required, and it’s b-o-r-i-n-g. I do not need to look further for a challenge.
My response to this reality is to emphasize student-centered active learning techniques. I try to remember that their performance is the issue, not mine. If they are going to incorporate the thought processes used in my discipline, I must look for new ways to motivate them to learn and apply their knowledge into their lives.
• Naomi Schmidt, Economics and International Business