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Science Shows How Students Can Stop Sweating Statistics

The thought of taking a statistics course strikes fear into their hearts of many psychology students, but it’s an increasingly unavoidable burden.  A survey of over 300 University psychology programs in North America found that 98% of them required their students to take at least one or two statistics courses for degree completion.

Students generally point to statistics courses as being the most anxiety-inducing courses in their degree program. In a recent Perspectives on Psychological Science article, Peter Chew and Denise Dillon reviewed the current state of statistics anxiety research and outlined several ways instructors can help reduce students’ anxieties.

Although statistics anxiety has often been confused or conflated with math anxiety, researchers have managed to identify several factors which seem to play a role in its development. Aspects of the statistics course itself seem to influence student’s level of anxiety; students taking accelerated courses and online courses experience more anxiety than those in normally paced, in-person courses.

Personalities also influence their anxiety levels. Students who have difficulty dealing with uncertainty or ambiguity (two things often experienced when tackling a tricky statistics problem), or who have a tendency to worry, may be more likely exhibit statistics anxiety. Students who procrastinate, have a lower reading ability, or have poorer learning strategies have also been found to report higher levels of angst. Studies examining gender-, age-, or ethnicity-based differences in statistics anxiety have produced mixed findings, indicating the need for more research in this area.

The more one worries about statistics curriculum, the more of a struggle it is to even pass a statistics course.

So what can statistics instructors do to help their students manage their fears? Pointing to the current literature, the authors recommend that instructors:

Reduce the focus on mathematics in statistics courses.

How can you reduce the amount of math in statistics? By reducing the amount of hand calculations students are required to perform. Although learning to calculate statistical computations by hand can help students learn the background underlying the statistic, making students perform these types of computations may also cause them to experience mathematics anxiety in addition to statistics anxiety – compounding the problem. According to the authors, the large number of widely available statistical software programs make manual computations unnecessary. Instructors should instead focus on teaching the assumptions behind the different tests and teaching the appropriate situations for using each test.

Structure the class schedule in a way that discourages procrastination.

Students are going to procrastinate — it’s a given. But since procrastination is linked to statistics anxiety, instructors should try to discourage it. Giving weekly quizzes, for example, is one way instructors can encourage students to keep up with their readings. The authors suggest instructors consider giving students credit for participation rather than correct answers, as a way of encouraging them to study consistently and to engage with the material.

Allow students to ask questions anonymously.

In addition to having anxiety over the material itself, students are often afraid to ask their instructors for help. Giving students an anonymous forum for asking questions is one way to encourage them to seek assistance. Instructors can then answer student’s questions in an online forum or in class.

Integrate humor the statistics course.

Using humor can help student’s engage with the material and make learning statistics a bit more fun. Instructors could use a cartoon to demonstrate the importance of clearly labeling the axes of graphs, or play a jingle that provides information about p-values. But use only topic relevant material and make sure the material is gender- and culture-sensitive.

Exhibit anxiety reducing behaviors in class.

Students can pick up on the anxieties of their instructors, so teachers should appear composed and confident when teaching their course.

The authors also suggest instructors exhibit immediacy behaviors – behaviors that bring the instructor and students closer in perceived distance. Calling students by name or moving around the classroom while teaching may help reduce student’s anxiety.

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Oh dear. Don’t you know that a statistician is one who prefers true doubts to false certainties.? “It ain’t the things we know that harm us it’s the things we know that ain’t so.” A major part of any statistics course should be correcting the false notions of causality and inference that many students have. This is a painful process that will make them uncertain but that’s the point.

Further on Stephen’s comment, I have found when I use ways to focus on representing uncertainty without math (e.g. physical and simulation models) that actually increases anxiety.

1. Math can be a distraction/escape from appreciating the uncertainty.
2. Math anxiety and abstract thinking anxiety are conflated.
3. Undoing the false notion that statistics can make things certain is distressing.

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