June 20, 2011

The Statistics Myth and Mystery

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Have you heard that Statistics is the toughest course? Are you concerned that you’ll never pass it because you’re not good at math? Students are often very afraid of the Statistics course, yet it is the math course of choice for social science majors.

I teach the dreaded Stat course and would like to share with you some wisdom from my students and my experience. There are a few keys to unlocking the mystery of the Stat course and shattering its myths. While any one of these keys may help, all of them used together will support your success in the course and in later social science courses or work. File:Afraid Words.JPG

First, stop telling yourself that you’ll fail the course or that you’re bad at math. Divert that worrisome energy into something more proactive such as, “I’ll try a few different ways to get this statistics stuff,” or at least turn the negative voice off!

Second, open your mind to logical thinking and what is sometimes called lateral thinking. Have you ever quizzed yourself with logic puzzles? Here are a few:

  1. You are driving a bus. Four people get on, three people get off, then eight people get on and ten people get off, then six people get on and two more people get off. What color were the bus driver's eyes?
  2. Why is it against the law for a man living in North Carolina to be buried in South Carolina?
  3. If you are in a race, what place are you in if you take over the person who is in second place?
  4. A farmer has 17 sheep and all but 9 die. How many are left?
  5. Mike is a butcher. He is 5'10" tall. What does he weigh?
  6. How much dirt is there in a hole that is 3 ft deep, and 6 inches in diameter?
  7. There are 10 white socks and 10 black socks in your sock drawer. How many socks do you have to take out before you have a matching pair of socks?
  8. How long would it take 100 storks to catch 100 frogs when 5 storks need 5 minutes to catch 5 frogs?
  9. A farmer combined 2 compost heaps with 3 others. How many compost heaps does he have?

Familiarizing yourself with games like this can help you think a bit more logically and creatively, and that will help make statistical processes more understandable. The more you do these kind of puzzles, the better you get at realizing how you can solve them. (Look online for more to play with!) 

Learning to think more creatively and logically is the basis of critical thinking, which is a skill that a college education is supposed to develop. (Answers to these questions are at the end of the blog – but don’t cheat! Try to figure them out before you look to confirm your answers!)

Third, notice the statistics that surround you in your daily life. You already know more statistics than you may realize. Have you ever calculated your Grade Point Average (GPA)? Have you ever left a tip when dining at a restaurant (I hope so, for your server’s sake – they work really hard!) Have you ever bought an item on sale and realized how much you really saved? Have you ever calculated a batting average? If you’ve done any of these things, you’ve already got some knowledge of statistical reasoning and techniques.

Fourth, do something statistical as often as possible. Read a statistics book or some published research. Check out the fine print and references in your textbooks. Try to figure out how the authors analyzed their data and which tests they used. Talk to your professors about their research and find out why they did their particular analyses. Some of what you find won’t make much sense until you get more educated about it but you’ll soon realize what you know and what you don’t know. Once you realize what you don’t know you’ll know what to look up.File:Annual Average Temperature Map.jpg

Fifth, create some data for yourself. Count up how many items of clothing you have and where they were manufactured. Log how much you’re paying for transportation or food each month. Potential data is all around you, all you have to do is document it so that over time you have enough to analyze.

Once you’re in a Stat class, or understand enough from the reading you’ll be doing, you can practice with this data. Make a frequency distribution; calculate mean and standard deviation; make a graph of the trends over time. Interpret what you create so that you can learn something about the patterns in your life.

Sixth, do these activities with other people. Study groups provide opportunities to talk things through and to express out loud what you’re thinking before you even know you’re thinking it. Writing works the same way; so even emailing study group colleagues can be useful. The more senses you use when studying, the better you will learn so, yes, read those books, but also talk, and write about what you’re reading and thinking. Before you know it, you’ll walk into your stat class, ready to learn more information about how to makes sense of the patterns in society!

What other data might you be able to create based on your life?

(Answers: 1. Whatever color your eyes are because you’re driving the bus. 2. Because he’s still living. 3. Second. 4. Nine. 5. Meat. 6. None, there’s no dirt in a hole. 7. Three. 8. Five minutes. 9. One.)


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I'll also add that the Internet is rife with data as more and more public records go online, at the local, national, and international level. It's hard to get totally raw data sets, but you can still do some really cool stuff with what's there.

Thank you for this helpful information, Sally Raskoff. I am taking a Statistics class in my upcoming school year and this article has helped me think about how I might help myself get through the class! I will definitely be looking back on this article for helpful tips when I struggle with the work!

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