Sunday, June 13, 2010

Go Figure

"Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write." H.G.Wells

To teach statistics, it's important to think statistically, of course. But stat teachers also have to be strong motivators, since many of the ideas and rules of statistics are counterintuitive - and, frankly, hard work to understand. To get to these ideas, students need math skills (algebra, decimals and fractions, for example), and these may require reinforcement or refreshing. There is also a lot of language and logic in statistics, which works in this area differently than the way language and logic apply in other arenas. Words like "normal" and "average" don't mean the same thing in a statistics class as they do in students' every day lives, which presents a challenge to the statistics instructor.

Larry Green insists that teaching statistics is easier online than in a face-to-face setting. For example, the use of tables - an intrinsic part of most statistical operations - requires the instructor to tell students to consult a page, look down this column and across that row, and find the proper value. (S)he can only hope that students will follow correctly. In the Confer classroom, everyone is looking at the same table (online) and finding the same value together.

Irene Palacios echoes Larry's comments, adding that it's infinitely easier for her to use the whiteboard tools in Confer to highlight the columns, rows, and values that students need to see in order to work out problems.

Irene Palacios is similarly enthralled by how much better it is to teaching graphing concepts online. In a face-to-face environment, it's difficult to show students different functions in such a way that they can understand what's being differentiated. In her Confer classroom, she can draw over her graphs with different colors in order to emphasize what she's trying to teach. She can annotate in real time to make sure students "see" the functions that are important.

Garfield, Chance, and Snell, in their examination of how technology resources have impacted the teaching of statistics in colleges and universities, list these factors:
  • Improved visualization of statistical concepts and processes. "Students are better able to 'see' the statistical ideas, and teachers are better able to teach to students who are predominantly visual learners."
  • Dynamic representations and analyses. "Discussions or activities may focus on 'what if' questions by changing data values or manipulating graphs and instantly seeing the results."
  • Empowering students as users of statistics. "Students are able to solve real problems and use powerful statistical tools that they may be able to use in other courses or types of work. This allows them to better understand and experience the practice of statistics."
  • Allowing students to do more learning on their own, outside of class, using Web-based or multimedia materials. "This frees the instructor to have fewer lectures during class and to spend more time on data analysis activities and group discussions."
The day may come when face-to-face statistics instructors, who aren't able to incorporate these tools fully or immersively in a brick and mortar classroom, will feel the need to compensate with more dynamic substitutes. Meanwhile, Confer statistics instructors are discovering and documenting effective methods for teaching students to think statistically.
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