SoCal Professors Push To Make College-Level Statistics Less Painful

Professor Ji Son's introductory statistics class at California State University, Los Angeles employs engaging methods and an online textbook to improve the student experience. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

A few weeks ago, LAist published an article about a controversial proposal from California State University that would require an extra year of math for high school students.

One of our readers responded with a suggestion:

"I wish they offered more training in statistics. I had a hard time learning and mastering statistics. I think that CSU should offer intensive training ... it is imperative." — Lionel Mares.

Mares told us he struggled so much with the Social Statistics course he took as an undergrad that he ultimately "had to withdraw from the course."

That made us wonder if other students had similar experiences. We asked you what you remembered about your college statistics class.

It was like opening the floodgates.

"It was so painful," reader Monica Aleman wrote. "The word problems were not the issue for me. The equations killed me."

That turned out to be a common response. And a worrisome one.

As campuses overhaul their introductory math classes, they're relying more on introductory statistics as the courses to offer first year students who do not plan to major in science, math, or technology.

Many statistics classes are born from the math department, and taught by instructors with math degrees. That can be intimidating, and sometimes indecipherable, for non-math majors.

But there's a growing movement among some professors to teach students about relevant statistical concepts before teaching the formulas that vex so many.

WHAT EXACTLY IS STATISTICS?

According to the American Statistical Association, the group that represents professional teachers of statistics, it is "the science of learning from data, and of measuring, controlling and communicating uncertainty."

The most important work is "learning"; notice the association doesn't say statistics is about calculating or working out formulas. "Uncertainty" may be the second most important word. Data has a lot of variations and ways of being interpreted. The study of statistics is an understanding of how to look at data that's important.

Something went wrong if all you remember about your introductory college statistics class are the termsStandard deviation, Mean, Chi-squared test, and T-test.

In 2003, UC Irvine Statistics Professor Jessica Utts has been calling for statistics curriculum reform for decades. She was inspired, in part, by the college experiences of her mother and her sister.

"They had really opposite experiences," she said. "My mother had a wonderful experience because it was taught by someone who knew what that particular group of people needed. Whereas my sister had a horrible experience. It was taught as a formula-based course. Like it was a math course."

Utts later wrote a short paper that laid out her top seven statistics concepts that "educated citizens" should know. The list doesn't include any reference to standard deviation, T-tests or any of the other common statistics terms.

Utts suggests that truly learning statistical concepts helps people come up with better questions, such as, is there a relationship between the data and the conclusions? Are the findings the result of a randomized test or of observing behavior? Spoiler: randomized tests are the gold standard.

A 2005 national report funded by the American Statistical Association recommended infusing introductory college statistics courses to "prioritize understanding of concepts instead of just teaching procedures, and nurture statistical literacy and thinking."

A 2016 follow up report added: "Teach statistics as an investigative process of problem-solving and decision-making, and give students experience with multivariable thinking."

Some of the readers who responded to the LAist inquiry linked the problems they had with statistics class to the teaching approach. As the report notes, if the approach isn't relevant to students' work or day-to-day lives, they're not likely to succeed.

"[I] bought the CLIFF NOTES book with the yellow and black stripes on Statistics and all of a sudden it made sense," said reader David Osburn.

Reformers say statistics instructors should do less lecturing and more projects, group problem solving and discussions, all elements of active learning.

Psychology Professor Ji Son teaches an introductory statistics class at California State University, Los Angeles. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

WHY DO I NEED TO UNDERSTAND THIS?

There's a lot at stake in the effort to overhaul the teaching of statistics.

First, there's the issue of making informed decisions when you're being bombarded by data from so many different sources. Reformers say that when students learn statistical concepts they learn nuance that leads them to see the world differently.

"We want [students] to understand a little bit about what a probability is and what it means to say, 'oh, I think there's an 80 percent probability that I'm right but there's still a 20 percent chance that I'm wrong'," said UCLA Psychology Professor Jim Stigler. "We believe the world will be a better place the more people who can think that way."

FLIPPING THE COURSES AROUND

For two years Stigler and Ji Son, a colleague at the Department of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles have been using an approach to teaching statistics that takes the reforms a step further. They teach statistical concepts weeks before delving into formulas in their introductory statistics classes.

They've laid out the approach in a free, online textbook that includes 1,200 questions for students to answer. It's used by colleagues at CSULA, UCLA, and Pierce College in Los Angeles.

The effort came out of conversations between the two, wondering what to do about students leaving their classes with gaps of knowledge.

"Even the students who got A's, understood very little" Son said. [We know this] because if you ask them any question that deviated a little bit, in an important way, they would get it wrong. Their understanding seemed quite fragile."

Pierce College administrators are relying on Son and Siegler's book as a way to remove a roadblock for first-year students. Four instructors are set to start teaching with the book's methods in the spring semester.

"When they come and explore this new approach, which is all about engagement, little lecture, more activity, more hands on teaching, it's allowing them to interact more and it's more personable, said Eddie Tchertchian, math department chair at Pierce College. "I think that's what's allowing them to make the connection and succeed."