I tell my students, “Yes, you will use math in real life, here is how”

Young professional male drawing charts on a whiteboard

One of the most powerful questions students ask is, “When will I use this math in real life?” The power in this question is that it gives us a world of opportunities to help our students “get it” when it comes to statistics. As instructors, we understand how the material translates to the next course; however, have we really taken the time to equip ourselves with examples of how statistics fits into different professions or into students’ interests? Besides relying upon the dreaded application problems in the textbook, what else can we do to answer this question? I have a few suggestions.

The reason I love statistics is because there are applicable examples everywhere. This video was created about averages. One fact they gave was the average amount of time it takes students to pay off student loan debt. This is a great way for us to introduce measures of central tendency.

What about using current events like showing the results of Super Tuesday? With voting predictions, you can explain to students how the margin of error is calculated while also reviewing sampling methods. You can introduce students to the field of market research at the same time and companies like Pew Research.  

According to Mind Tools (1998), approximately 65 percent of learners are visual. Some concepts such as sampling distributions are abstract so visuals truly help assist in this. Websites like Art of Stat quickly show how changing the sample size or the number of samples changes the sampling distribution. You can also show infographics that will help to better explain concepts like the gender pay gap.

With the fundamental counting principle, you can talk about the creation of passwords and the process of hacking them. The website, How Secure is My Password, let’s you know the level of relative ease there is to cracking passwords. For the game players in the room, you can also show them a clip of The Claw video which might destroy their idea of being able to ever win a stuffed teddy bear again.

A humbling experience, but a worthwhile one, is to pull up your Rate My Professor account so that you can talk about bias in sampling.

Communication and journalism majors try to opt out and say they never need this information, and then I show them the Data Journalism website. A manual was created for those individuals and explains why properly understanding and reporting data matters.

Nursing students may not realize how strong of a tie their major is to statistics until they take higher level classes. They can be reintroduced to Florence Nightingale who studied the mortality rate of soldiers and found that the leading causes of death was not war, but sanitation.

Now there’s also the new world of Big Data and Data Analytics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for statisticians will increase by 34 percent by 2024, which is much faster than average. We have the opportunity in an Introductory Statistics course to expose our students to the power of data analysis.

Where can we find data so that students have the ability to analyze it? Just like websites and apps, data are everywhere! Forbes publishes the highest paid actors and musicians. The NFL posts their combine data. The College Board publishes the SAT results. The CDC maintains health statistics. Statistics departments of universities and organizations such as the University of Florida and the American Statistical Association keep a database of datasets that open for use. Data.Gov is the home of the U.S. Government’s open data. If all else fails, ask your students some questions.

There is truly a world of opportunities available to you through the Internet, which can help break down the walls of the classroom so that students can clearly see the connections between our statistics course and the “real world” they are stepping in to.


About the Author
Keisha Brown

Keisha Brown

Keisha Brown is an assistant professor of mathematics at Perimeter College of Georgia State University. She completed her master’s degree in Mathematics Education at Georgia State University in 2007 and a master’s degree in Applied Statistics at Kennesaw State University in 2012. She is interested in research about students’ perceptions and expectations of learning.



Mind Tools Ltd. “How Your Learning Style Affects Use of Mnemonics.” Yapton, England: Mind Tools, Ltd., 1998. <http://www.mindtools.com/ mnemlsty.html>