STATISTICS FOR PEOPLE WHO DON'T LIKE STATISTICS
 
Statistically speaking, most college students don't like statistics courses.

"Very few of them come prepared to be really engaged by the material," says Dana Dunn, professor of psychology at Moravian College, of the students who need to learn statistics and research methodology in their pursuit of a major in the behavior sciences. "Research methods and statistics are seen as the dry, dull and frightening parts of the field." What's more, at many colleges—though not necessarily at Moravian—faculty dread teaching statistics classes only slightly less than students dread attending them. "We're a bit unusual in our department in that everyone is expected to share the pleasure—or burden—of teaching the stats courses," says Dana. "At a lot of places, it's routine to give it to the newest hired prof because people don't like teaching it. And when people do teach it, they may not teach it in a way that's particularly engaging."

Students and faculty now have less cause to flee from p values, confidence intervals, and the teaching thereof, thanks to Best Practices for Teaching Statistics and Research Methods in the Behavioral Sciences, newly published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Edited by Dana and two colleagues, the book offers new ideas for teaching these concepts at the collegiate level. "It's designed both for new faculty members and for seasoned veterans," Dana explains. Michelle Schmidt, associate professor of psychology at Moravian, also contributed to the project, co-authoring one of the chapters with Dana and organizing demonstrations, class exercises and other materials included on the CD that accompanies the book.

So what are the best practices for imparting statistics and research concepts to behavioral science students? Some suggested in the book include:

Getting students to do research. "In our department, students generate their own individual research project by the time they finish their statistics courses. Instead of just reading about  how people do research, they actually get a taste of it," Dana says. "That's something that doesn't happen at a lot of schools." The book also has suggestions for guiding students towards projects that are both doable and original. "It's a pleaser to see students come up with creative ideas," says Dana, "But sometimes they do re-invent the wheel."

Staying current. Instructors who haven't looked at a new statistics text for awhile will find some surprises in this one, says Dana. "Teaching of statistics has progressed; it's very different than it used to be. Some people even teach the course without having students learn to do the calculations." Today's students may find it more helpful to gain facility with computer software than raw equations.

Making a thick syllabus. "Students today need to be given much more structure," Dana notes. "We suggest putting as much informational content as possible into the syllabus. Not just what's happening in the class, but source materials and other resources."

The chapter written by Dana and Michelle focuses on teaching students how to write. Like other topics covered in the book, it's a skill with uses that go beyond an academic career. "Many students who take these classes won't go on to graduate school or become psychologists," he says. "But this is knowledge meant to be applicable in other domains. Everyone should be able to communicate clearly. Everyone should be able to understand a table or a figure." And in an age when every news story seems to be accompanied by a supporting statbite, there's a clear advantage to knowing how to read the numbers, he adds. "Everyone should be able to notice when the wool's being pulled over their eyes."