Statistically Thinking: Tech Tools to Boost Student Engagement

African American Man in front of Math Equations

We live in a society bombarded with data. Most of us acknowledge the power of data to communicate and persuade people. Is our curriculum in some cases outdated? Or is it new ways of pedagogy we need to embrace? I agree with Larry Cuban, from Stanford University, who wrote in Mathematics and Democracy that “curriculum and pedagogy are inseparable.” He pointed out that it’s not simply an issue of introducing more subject matter or adding a course; the “quest for numeracy is a plea for progressive pedagogy.” (p.89)

Both the American Statistical Association (ASA) and National Councils of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) have worked to include some data analysis in the curriculum. A few of my students had a statistics course in high school. But their teacher might never have had a statistics course in which technology and data analysis with real data played such a key role. Gone are the days in which you computed by hand working with fixed data sets and limited numbers of data. Unfortunately, the reputation of the “Statistics” course as being a challenging one is not gone. What can we do to change the direction of the tide?

A tool like StatCrunch, for example, opens the door to a “whole new world” (sorry, Disney, but I hear the music playing here!). Access one of the 20,000+ shared sets or import one from the web, learn about its context, and explore the shape of the distribution. Run a confidence interval or form and test a hypothesis. Explore the applets. Run a simulation. Do some resampling, and students start to see the power of numbers. I find my students’ ability to apply their math sense is weak; if the context is unfamiliar, some almost immediately say they can’t do the problem. Even if they know the algorithms/procedures, they aren’t sure what questions to ask or what tool to try. Simulations are a great way to see the effects of asking those questions. Applets, simulations, and little experiments help students develop some intuition in statistics. They involve students in the reflection and judgment process.

Use the “Histogram with Sliders,” for example, to explore the effects of changing bar width or scale. Students quickly see the differences in resulting graphs, and it’s a great point for discussion about why someone might pick one graph over another to convey a completely different message. Challenge your students to a hypothetical game of poker or roll of the dice using the Simulations and watch them realize just how poor their chances really are. Use the “Correlation by Eye” to explore the strength of the relationship between two sets of data. None of these require a formulaic approach or pre-existing knowledge but get students exploring data. Use the “Facebook Friend Data” as a tool to get them engaged the very first day. After all, it’s their friends  you are talking about. Are the birthdays of your friends equally distributed throughout the year? Or are there birth months that seem to be more likely than others?

Take some time to explore Mike Sullivan’s Interactive Stats ideas and resources. It might give you some new enthusiasm for your class, too. Try some Learning Catalytics questions. Statistics is not all about games or applets of course; we need solid content and concept development, but embracing technology and interactive tools helps build a foundation for those concepts to build upon. If you haven’t yet read through the college report from the  ASA in Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education (GAISE), take the time to do so. The appendices contain some ideas that might help you get started.