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Modernizing Statistics Education
Modernizing Statistics Education

People have gathered and studied data for a very long time. Or abilities to observe phenomena, analyze observations, and make inferences based on conclusions drawn from analysis is as essential to everyday decision making as it is to scientific investigation. Recent advances in data visualization and modeling software now make it easier to perform those kinds of tasks with large datasets without a mathematician’s grasp of the techniques and methodologies of higher level statistics. Given the deluge of data we now generate and consume on a daily basis, the arrival of such technologies could not be timelier.

Assistant Professor Jennifer Noll of Portland State University’s Fariborz Maseeh Department of Mathematics and Statistics wants to empower all of her students, not just those majoring in mathematics, to become excellent consumers of statistics and be comfortable working with data in useful ways. Dr. Noll was recently awarded an esteemed Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation for a proposed project with the aim of improving the way statistics are taught in college courses. The award supports junior faculty members who epitomize the integration and teaching and scholarship through research activities. Dr. Noll is one of three faculty members at PSU to have had a proposal accepted. Her project “Transforming College Students’ Statistical Thinking: Data, Technology, and Modeling” aims to develop and study new and improved curricular materials to enhance student learning in the classroom and increase retention of skills after coursework has been completed.

“In the last 30 years the field of statistics has made huge leaps forward in terms of technologies, techniques and even the types of data statisticians work with,” Dr. Noll said. “Meanwhile, the materials we teach with in entry-level stats classes for non-majors have not kept up. Those materials are still important and useful, but are they the best tools to teach students with?”

According to Dr. Noll there is a generation of students entering the classroom that already has some familiarity with technologies that capture data—smartphones, tablets, wearable devices, etc. Many of these students actively engage in sharing information about themselves on a variety of social media and similar platforms.

“As an educator I can see that we’ve reached a point where there is this great opportunity to teach students the power, use, and function of statistics,” Dr. Noll said. “The problem is many students lose interest when we teach them with textbooks and focus too much on procedures and the memorization of formulas, and don’t make use of the technological advances in the field.”

A potential way to keep students interested in developing statistical literacy—the ability to think critically about and act on information—might be to take a modern approach to the statistics curriculum and update the materials and technologies used by learners in the classroom. Such was Dr. Noll’s idea, and to implement it she proposed modifying an innovative program developed at the University of Minnesota and tested at colleges and universities across the country (including by Dr. Noll at PSU). The CATALST (Change Agents for Teaching and Learning Statistics) project developed curricular materials, lesson plans, and corresponding student assessments designed to help learners build essential statistical reasoning and thinking skills and retain those skills long after they had left the class. With the support of the CARREER grant, Dr. Noll will refine the CATALST coursework, make several changes to it based on her prior experience teaching the curriculum, create new learning materials that focus on using data visualization and modeling software to organize, present, and summarize data, and conduct a comprehensive study of how students develop and later retain skills essential to statistical thinking and reasoning.

“When I first heard about the CATALST project, I was excited to try it in one of my classes,” Dr. Noll said. “The modeling software we used to make statistical models really gave the students the chance to explore ideas of statistical inference in ways that were so much more engaging than memorizing and performing procedures in textbooks. Six months after the course, a majority of the students still understood the lessons they had learned in class and many had even used the software in other classes.”

Dr. Noll was impressed with how students responded to the CATALST curriculum and modeling and visualization software. She thought, however, the original materials were too structured. Curious, she let the students create their own models without the aid of lesson plans. She observed as they worked through their own thought processes and used statistical models to answer questions about what the data meant. That alteration to the CATALST curriculum and her subsequent observations were the impetus of Dr. Noll’s CAREER proposal.

“I’m really interested in looking at what can be done with those materials when we remove all the directions and let the students engage with the modeling software. I’m sure there is a lot we can learn about teaching statistics, about the student learning experience, and about how students develop an understanding of modeling statistical problems, visualizing, and representing data in meaningful ways,” Dr. Noll said.

American humorist Mark Twain wrote: “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” Over the next five years, Dr. Noll’s project will address the stubborn fact that current methods and materials used to teach college statistics to non-mathematics majors need to be brought up to date with a modern curriculum and current technology. During that time she expects some 400 students will have the opportunity to participate in the study by taking one of the statistics courses she or her graduate students will teach.

Statistical literacy is an important skill for students in a large number of disciplines, from sociology and psychology to engineering and chemistry. More broadly, it is a skill consumers of data-driven information (and that is many of us these days) should possess. As evidence that a need exists to develop these skills, community colleges and universities are seeing a greater demand for statistics courses and they’re adding programs in response. Dr. Noll’s work may contribute to the value of such courses by forging new materials and methods to help students probe the power of statistics and statistical thinking and introduce contemporary technologies into the classroom that will allow non-mathematics majors to harness and make sense of data in and out of the classroom.