Impressing Upon Students the Importance of Statistical Literacy by Getting Real


It has become increasingly important as consumers of information that we have a clear understanding of not only how to interpret the information presented to us, but also to understand where it comes from and how it is collected. During election years, we are often given fluctuating percentages of prospective voters who would choose a particular candidate. When standardized test results come in, the results are commonly reported to the public with a comparison to previous years. The average consumer of statistical information may not realize that there are many factors that go into determining if the information they are being presented with supports the corresponding conclusions.

Statistics for All

Because of the increasingly widespread use of statistics in this information age, I am thankful that courses, such as Statistical Discovery for Everyone offered at the university where I teach, are cropping up at colleges and universities across the country. This is an elective that counts towards “quantitative reasoning” that any student who is not required to take statistics for their major can take. It is designed for the average consumer of statistical information. I love teaching this course because it does not focus as much on computation as it does on understanding where data comes from, how to appropriately present it, and how to draw meaningful and legitimate conclusions. To me, it is such a necessary course that I often find myself wondering why this class is an elective and not a requirement for all college students in the information age. In keeping to the theme of this course, I try to use my own experiences or examples right out of popular media to emphasize why it is so important to understand the basics of statistical thinking and how often statistics are misused or misrepresented.

Surveys and Personal Experience

One of the very first things I cover in any statistics course is how much the results of a study can be “off” just because of how the information is gathered. Data obtained as a result of surveys has always been a thorn in my side, and I like to share my own survey experience with my classes to make the point that results obtained from a survey are often not representative of what is happening. Typically I start by telling the class that data gathered from surveys is almost always misleading because not only do people choose whether or not to participate. Usually, those that do respond have very strong feelings about the topic, either positive or negative. Those asked to participate who are either indifferent or undecided often don’t bother to respond.

The personal story that I typically use involves the birth of my two children and the survey sent to me by the hospital after both occasions. The goal of these surveys was to find out about my experience while I was in their maternity ward. Unfortunately, during the birth of my first child, my husband and I were treated terribly by the staff and administration of the hospital. So, our happy, joyous occasion will always be marred by this. After telling my students about how horrible our experience was, I ask them if they think I answered the survey. The class almost always responds unanimously, “OF COURSE!”

This alone does not paint the whole picture. I then follow up with the fact that my sister-in-law also gave birth to her first child in the same hospital six months earlier. She had a mediocre experience. I then ask the class if they think she responded to the survey. At this point, I typically have students looking around at each other and back at me not knowing what to say. Then I tell them that she did not participate in the survey. She did not see any point because her experience was about what she expected.

Just so that my students do not think that all surveys elicit only negative responses, I tell them about my experience when I had my second child (of course, at a different hospital). I share with them how wonderful my husband and I were treated and how it was practically a stress-free experience. I ask the question again if they think I responded to the survey to a resounding response of, “OF COURSE!”

I have had many students tell me at the end of the semester how they will never look at surveys the same way again because they will always remember my story. Mission accomplished! However, this only addresses the pitfalls of how data is collected. What about other misuses of statistical tools?

The Importance of Careful Analysis

Recently, I saw a report that the result of recent standardized tests indicated that “the statewide average for grades 3 through 8 was 58 percent proficiency in English, down 3 percent; and 49 percent proficient in math, down 2 percent.” The Commissioner of Education was quoted as saying “We are concerned about the decline of student performance.”

When I bring these types of examples to class, usually pulled right from the morning’s news, the students tend to agree that the numbers support the statement. However, when I ask if these numbers demonstrate a significant decline, the response is almost always, “it depends.” Exactly! Is a two percent difference that big? At this point, I introduce the idea of hypothesis testing and how sometimes differences are caused merely by random fluctuations.

Exposing my students to these very real examples demonstrates to them how important it is to understand where their information comes from and helps them remember the main ideas of the course. A personal story not only stands out, but it also shows students that they encounter statistics every day. It impresses upon them how critical statistical literacy is. Now, if I could convince my administrators that ALL students should take statistics….

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About the Author

PhD, Statistics Instructor, University of New Hampshire //

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