Collaboration demonstrated a situated cognitive approach to statistics
Sep 24th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I gave a statistics assignment over the past week to my students which challenged them to assimilate most of the course content and explain it in an applied assignment requiring both visual and written interpretation.  Basically, they took their data set that they had generated in a previous assignment, and analyzed it descriptively:  means, medians, modes, standard deviations, interquartiles, box-and-whiskers, and the like.

But this post isn’t about what the students had to do, it’s about my impression of how they did it.  I received many emails from students expressing how they worked hard, collaboratively.  Together they were able to figure out how to complete the assignment.  They repeatedly told me about the groups that met up together at the University lab, to work, share frustrations, successes and, struggles, and ultimately create tangible products, based on authentic data.

I can’t think of a better example of situated cognition in action.  They were socially constructing knowledge together.  It was in their social interactions that learning took place.  What is interesting, is that they chose to learn this way. 

They were using the authentic tools of the practicing educational researcher:  student achievement data, SPSS software.  Of course, to most, they are new (neophytes) to the field of educational research so they are on a peripheral trajectory to the community of practice. 

Seeing this type of learning in practice makes me think that I must continue to strive to provide cognitive apprenticeship opportunities for the students, both in class, and in the “homework” opportunities to make the experiences as authentic as possible.  I think these homework assignments should represent the most meaningful learning that takes place for the course.  Kind of interesting to consider the role of an “in class test” in a situated learning model.  Doesn’t really fit so well.  But, as most know, a doctoral class in statistics, complete with objective in-class assessments is a right of passage towards the letters that are earned after your name. 

So how do I reconcile the the two? 

  • Make the assessment as authentic as possible. 
  • Use the tools of the community of practice. 
  • Allow students to have the necessary resources to solve problems. 
  • Evaluate on concepts, not isolated facts. 

Any other suggestions?

Inquiry as an underlying theme
Sep 22nd, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I have been struggling with trying to describe my last statistics class (central tendency, normal distribution) in a holistic way. The content was certainly more demanding than previous classes, yet I felt the students stayed with me well. I gave an assignment to allow the students to process the information and see if they really understood it. Although the assignment barely took up half a page, I felt that it would probably take a good chunk of time to complete.

I have received many comments from students quantifying the time they spent on the assignment. Ironically the time frame “4 hours” seems to be quite common. I think this is reasonable as the rule of thumb suggests that for every hour you spend in class, you are expected to spend at least two hours working on the course materials. So four hours seems about right to me. I hope that it is not perceived as too much, as I make no qualms that statistics is a very demanding and rigorous course. I feel the experience of the assignment necessitates an extended period of time where students work through the problems and come to a true understanding of the concepts.

That being said, I did not give explicit instructions for all computer tasks necessary to complete the assignment. There was some sorting and sifting – in essence – some inductive reasoning – that had to be accomplished for successful completion of the assignment.

When I think of inquiry as an approach to learning (which is certainly the approach I hope to use when I teach), I realize that there is no one way to solve a problem. However, students often look for the step-by-step, one-size-fits-all method to approach problems. While there are some straight-forward techniques and patterns in statistical analysis, I think it is the willingness of the individual to approach the problem solving from a creative avenue, that ultimately makes them successful.

High-achieving students not only want to learn concepts well, they sometimes also want to complete assignments the way they perceive that the teacher wants it. This has always been an area of contention for some of my students, because I want them to complete their work so they demonstrate meaningful understanding, whether it’s in the format I want or not. You see, I do not perceive my way as the only way. I love to look at solutions that I had not previously conceived. To me, it’s exciting and interesting. To some, it can be very disconcerting. I do not buy into the concept of the right answer. I more readily appreciate the best answer. I don’t define best; that is the ultimate goal for the student.

I recently received an email from a student asking two questions to help decide how to represent data. This data was generated and/or collected by the student, and probably has some personal meaning to the student. The student certainly has a far better understanding of the sample and of the data set that demonstrates some characteristics of the sample than I do. So, although I may have a better understanding of types of analysis, I would venture that the student has a much better understanding of the meaning and relevance of the data.

Thanks for your great effort to learn the stats and SPSS.
Both of your questions are interesting to me as a teacher because I always try to empower my student to make the decision on what is important to show. You have great judgment since you know the data best, so try to select information which “tells the best story.” I guess your questions answers are “it depends,” because there are really no right or wrong answers. The decisions you make for data display will be appropriate in either scenario you present. I’ve personally been struggling with what to write about on my blog this week, but I think your question helps me focus my ideas. Thank you for that.
So that’s ultimately the challenge of an inquiry approach – to empower students to make the choices to best answer their questions in a meaningful way for them. I think this is sometimes frustrating, but in the end, I think this is the way the best learning takes place.
Now don’t come to lynch me on Wednesday with a pitchfork!
Embedding Data
Sep 17th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Earlier today, I was working on a PowerPoint for a class I will be teaching later tonight.  I am using the PowerPoints as guidelines for topics, then I use other modailities to compliment the presentation (e.g., whiteboard, handouts, activites).  I posted my PowerPoint to my Google Docs site and noticed it had some code that I could insert into my blog.  So here it is. 

As I look to examine new (to me) features for the power of blogging, I constantly have to rethink what can and/or should be done.  Is there value in this type of interaction in this forum?

Sep 14th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This past Wednesday I taught my second class in statistics. The focus was to explain types of data and examine visually appropriate ways to represent data. This took the form of making an appropriate APA table as well as constructing several graphs. I think that most of the students recognized the actual attributes of the representations, and some walked away with an understanding of the differences that they might not have known before.

Although I was not surprised, what was most striking to me was how the differences in abilities, mainly related to computer expertise (not content understanding/knowledge). The students are very open, unassuming, and metacognitive when it comes to their level of experience using technology. I value that, because I don’t have to guess what’s happening. They just let me know. Therefore, I can adjust to the needs of the students. Also wonderful, is watching those with more experience and expertise lean over and provide the support and help that some need themselves.

This has all of the feels of differentiation. However, the interesting part is that all students have to end in the same place, in the same 15 weeks of the instructional experience. I guess what makes me fret most is that we meet for a very limited time: two hours per week, only once a week. That’s not a great deal of contact time to meet the individual needs of each student, especially in a fairly large class.

I consider the initial topics of the first two weeks fairly easy.  When the content becomes more demanding, I think my challenges will increase.  It is important for me to continue with my inquiry-oriented constructivist approach (I really hope I’m doing this . . . ) to prepare these students for authentic quantitative studies.

Why my own wiki?
Sep 8th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

For years I’ve owned the domain labanca.net.  I would point my domain to a school server and use my address to phantom to the school’s address.  Recently the cost of domain forwarding has been increasing to the point of it being illogical for me not to just own the site myself.  To that end, I recently migrated my site to Bluehost and have been very happy with the way the system works. 

So, even though I have not migrated my homepage, I’ve been enjoying converting my “pet projects” to the bluehost account. I like the way my name appears for website addresses instead of some third-party host.  My blog changed from:  problemfinding.blogspot.com to problemfinding.labanca.net

Suprisingly, I was able to add LimeSurvey software, and this has made a simple data collection method.  For my dissertation, I coded my own instruments, then had to collect data that came via email, transfer each individual file to an Excel spreadsheet and then analyze.  Now it’s a one-click operation.  Easy and user-friendly.  surveys.labanca.net

Finally, I’ve added a wiki as part of a Statistics Course I am teaching at Western Connecticut.  I am using the Wikipedia sofware:  mediawiki.  Although there have been a few glitches, I am pleased with the 21st-century concepts that I often speak.  These tools allow me to focus on concepts and content instead of web coding.  Type it and view it.  My job is that of an educator, not of a web designer.  I need to help my students understand ideas.  If I had to spend time worrying about code, I think I would not have the time to develop ideas (hopefully) well.

Attempting to make statistics applicable and accessible
Sep 5th, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I taught my first graduate class in statistics today. As I said to my students, I think I was far more nervous than they were. I found that I was sweating – probably a combination of nerves and movement while teaching the class. But, nonetheless, I wanted to share my personal philosophy of the discipline. As I have stated before, I view statistics as a tool to help us understand the things that MATTER TO US. Certainly there are those that study statistics for its pure value, however I don’t see it that way. If statistics are to be practical, then there must be value for the user.

I’ve encouraged my students to collect data that is meaningful to them. If they can learn something about their teaching and, in the process, learn something about a sophisticated method to evaluate its effectives, I think we bring such greater meaning. This doesn’t stray far from my dissertation where I purport that learning takes place in a situated environment, where constituents become members of the community of practice (see Brill). Work needs to be authentic, not sort-of-maybe-on-Tuesday-authentic. I cringe every time I hear the saying, “like real life,” in some instructional setting. Why can’t it just be real life?

I think this is an incredibly hard concept for educators to grasp. I gave an assignment for the teachers to collect some data that had meaning to them for further evaluation in our class. I was not completely convinced that everyone bought into the value of this. Some students certainly won’t have access to good or usable information for the assignment, but I think some that might will complete the assignment with arbitrary or fictitious data. This is totally fine and acceptable within the context of the learning. However, I guess my own personal biases in education really want me to have students completing real work. Ultimately what’s most important is that students learn well. That can happen with or without authenticity. As the saying goes, I shouldn’t impose my values on others.

Now for a bad transition. The purpose of the class was to talk about p. p being probability. I wanted students to have a very firm grasp of what p was, since it is the real foundation to statistics. When they see the p, or the Sig. notations, I want them to quickly think about how sensitive that value is compared to other decisions we make that have far higher risk (i.e., a higher p value). We played Black Jack to illustrate this. Students were interested in taking a card with a p value of ~.50 – the 50/50 odds. Yet in education, we wouldn’t dare say anything was statistically significant (make a choice to take a card) unless we were at least 95% sure that it was different (p<.05).

I hope I effectively communicated my big idea of p. So much can make sense with just a simple, yet clear understanding of p values.

A graduate course in statistics
Sep 2nd, 2008 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Tomorrow, I will begin to teach a doctoral course in statistics. I am excited about the prospect of working with highly motivated, engaged teachers. What concerns me most is the “fright factor” that some have. To me, statistics has always been a tool to help explain whether or not a phenomenon, a teaching strategy, or perhaps student learning changes due to influencing factors.

That said, I think of statistics as an applied tool. Statistics don’t exist in isolation. They exist IN CONTEXT. The challenge for me will be to translate some technical mumbo-jumbo into meaningful concepts that these teachers can realistically apply to their research or even to their understandings of their own students.

When I learned statistics, I was working in a bacterial genetics laboratory examining DNA restriction fragments of human chromosome 6, locus HLA-C (major histocompatibility complex of the immune system). I needed to determine the significance of different fragment lengths to see if our human genome project mapping strategy was working. Now, realistically, I know that most won’t even understand the nature of this genetics project, and that doesn’t matter. The fact was, that I needed to use statistics to explain what I had done experimentally. My data was IN CONTEXT for me. That being said, statistics for educators need to be in context for them. It’s not just good enough to examine fictitious educational data, we also need to consider meaningful data to the student-constituents.

My colleague and good friend, Krista Ritchie sent me some interesting literature recently and one
paper caught my eye:

Singer, J. D., & Willett, J. B. (1990). Improving the teaching of applied statistics: Putting the data back into data analysis. The American Statistician, 44(3), 223-230. (Argues against artificial data sets for learning statistics – that false data makes statistics seem dry and dull. Argues for learning statistics through authentic research).

I had the opportunity to present to this group of students earlier this summer, talking about 21st-century skills and their application in the classroom. I guess now it’s my turn to put up and show that authentic teaching and learning can be a reality. I will attempt to use this blog as a point of reflexivity for both me and my students, I’ve established a collaborative wiki for us to share ideas, and I will attempt to get an online survey working as well. I thought this would be done before writing, but alas, I am having technical difficulties with the limesurvey freeware. If I can’t get it to work by tomorrow’s class, I will resort to paper (maybe bubblesheets from Apperson?). I think the online survey will be valuable to my students, not only as an expository activity, but as a potential tool for their dissertations.

Challenges await for both the students and me. As Marcy says, “I take no prisoners.”

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