Statistics instructor Bruce Dunham is re-thinking how he teaches - and liking his odds - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 9 | Sep. 4, 2008
Prof Improves Probability of Learning Stats
By Brian Lin
After teaching statistics for over 15 years, UBC instructor Bruce Dunham is working harder than ever to reach students, but he’s liking his odds with some help from the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI).
“Students are a very dynamic entity and students in 2008 are not the same as those 20 years ago,” says Dunham. “As a result, our educational goals are essentially moving targets -- and we must move with them.”
Dunham co-teaches a second-year introductory course of more than 800 science majors each year. Two other introductory statistics courses, tailored for arts and engineering students, are also offered by the department.
“The Dept. of Statistics graduates 30-40 majors a year,” says Dunham. “For the other hundreds of students coming through our classrooms, these courses are likely the first and only statistics course they’ll ever take.”
The field of statistics has undergone tremendous changes over the past 40 years, and so has the way it is taught. “It’s probably the discipline most impacted by the availability of modern computers,” says Dunham.
“Many calculation techniques we used to teach students to do by hand are no longer required and more emphasis has been put on statistical concepts. But it’s increasingly clear that most students simply aren’t grasping -- and retaining -- these fundamental concepts.”
Working with the CWSEI, Dunham assessed what students remember six months after taking his course. “The results were a little depressing,” says Dunham. “The students appear to be retaining certain ideas but simply aren’t getting some fundamentally important concepts.”
Students may remember how to go about solving certain problems, but when probed about the steps taken, he found they couldn’t articulate their thinking.
“It’s made me reappraise how effective I’ve been as a teacher,” says Dunham. “I always thought I was pretty good for the top students but that’s not really a respectable position to take.
“Look at it this way: if you’ve developed a treatment for a medical condition and it’s only effective for 10 per cent of the patients, you’d never get it to market.”
Seed funding from the CWSEI made it possible for Dunham and his co-instructors Nancy Heckman and Eugenia Yu to begin instituting some changes and documenting their progress.
For the first time in the department’s history, Personal Response Systems -- or “clickers” -- were used in the course. “The clickers told us what everybody is thinking, not just the top students or those who readily volunteer their answers in a large class,” says Dunham, who adds that further exploration of certain concepts prompted by clicker responses have yielded some surprising revelations.
“I thought I had clear ideas before about what areas students could get confused in the course,” says Dunham. “But boy, students get confused in ways I never knew before.”
The team of instructors has conducted an overhaul of lab activities to target concepts that students routinely have difficulty with. Some labs expose students to difficult concepts and encourage them to ponder them through hands-on exercises before showing up for a lecture. Dunham also experimented by offering part of his office hours as a drop-in workshop for small teams of students to work on problems with minimum guidance from him.
“It’s difficult as an instructor to see students get on the wrong track, but ultimately they learn more by examining a problem from all sides, talking about different approaches, and working through it together,” says Dunham.
Starting this fall, a graduate student will begin analyzing pre- and post-course surveys taken last year to decipher students’ attitudes towards statistics. Exam answers will also be analyzed to document and build data on student understanding of statistical concepts.
“There are misconceptions hard-wired into students minds, from whatever source they may have obtained them,” says Dunham, who is helping set up a campus-wide forum for instructors teaching a dozen statistics courses in other departments.
“By understanding the ways in which students go wrong and the underlying reasons, we increase the odds of not only leading students down the right track, but showing them how to follow sound logic and solve problems in the future.”