Attempting to make statistics applicable and accessible
September 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.

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