Responding to the challenges of teaching statistics in higher education

Nigel Sainsbury (PhD Researcher in Environmental Sciences, Cornwall) chaired a discussion on the challenges of teaching statistics in higher education, with a particular focus on the undergraduate and postgraduate statistics courses run at Penryn. Nigel encouraged contributors who occupy a variety of roles (former students, demonstrators and lecturers) from across Colleges (CLES and CEMPS) to bring their different perspectives to the discussion in order to explore the challenges and possible solutions involved in teaching statistics to students who have a variety of backgrounds and mathematical knowledge. An immediate outcome of this Academic Practice Network Seminar was that those present felt a sense of community due to their shared experiences. The variety of issues faced and range of contexts in which these presented themselves provided the ideal opportunity for an analysis of underlying cause and effect and a discussion of possible solutions. Examples of challenges encountered in teaching statistics in higher education included: students learning statistics and coding concurrently; differences in prior learning; anxiety and low-confidence regarding mathematics, with equations being a particular problem; insufficient availability of 1:1 support. Some solutions discussed were: students generating their own data and constructing their own hypotheses to contextualise the statistics to make their learning more meaningful; online courses enable students to start at an appropriate point based on prior learning and study at their own rate with the ability to revisit material; separate module or module sections for coding; increasing contact time available for 1:1 support for students from 30 to 45 minutes; differentiated statistics modules for students based on prior attainment/qualifications; variety of tools/packages that simplify the coding element; emphasis on coherent progression in learning statistics across the lifetime of a programme; flipping the learning to ensure that opportunities for support are maximised; effective, balanced communication of the value and importance of learning statistics alongside a discussion on its relative difficulty for some; first year courses that cover experimental/research design provide useful context prior to learning statistics. Further time spent investigating this important topic and continued discussion around the teaching of statistics is likely to continue on the Cornwall Campuses.


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