Developing Statisticians in Intermediate Statistics Courses Through an Applied Project

Contributing author Krista Varanyak is a lecturer at the University of Virginia and an Ignite Scholar.

The field of statistics education tends to focus heavily on introductory courses: How can we engage students who typically struggle in math-based courses? How can we develop statistical consumers? How can we prepare students to be successful beyond introductory courses? However, there is not much literature or resources shared about the teaching of intermediate courses. In many cases, the intermediate courses are designed for students working towards a statistics degree who are learning to be statistical producers. Overall, the goal of these courses, and the statistics major as a whole, is to produce students who will enter the workforce as statisticians. Therefore, it is imperative that students in these intermediate courses develop fundamental practical and interpersonal skills that are required to be a working statistician. Some of these skills include: comparing various analysis techniques to select the appropriate procedure, learning a new concept independently, applying the technique on data using a statistical software, and communicating findings in a formal report either written or orally.

For the last three years, I have been responsible for teaching one of the required intermediate courses for statistics majors at the University of Virginia (UVA). Prior to then, my focus had been on the best teaching practices for introductory courses. I spent the majority of my time in graduate school studying the GAISE Report and reading literature on introductory statistics students’ understanding of various concepts. When I learned I would be teaching intermediate courses, I was concerned about how I would develop course materials since there were limited resources on teaching these courses. Thankfully, I was handed a syllabus and some content from the previous instructor, but then the semester quickly started and I did not have time to make the course my own. I didn’t know what the course goals should be, what my students were capable of doing, and what ways I should assess them. This began my three-year development of STAT 3220: Introduction to Regression Analysis. Through trial-and-error, studying student patterns, and review of the ASA curriculum guidelines, I have developed a course that meets students’ needs and encourages them to develop the fundamental practical and interpersonal skills that are required to be a working statistician. One way this goal is achieved and assessed is through a final group project.

Overview

At UVA, the only prerequisite for STAT 3220 an introductory statistics course as a prerequisite, so it is comparable to “Statistics II” at other universities. Linear algebra, nor calculus are not required prerequisites. Therefore, the curriculum of this course focuses more on application than theory. The idea for this project was initiated with the realization that there were too many topics to cover in one semester of a regression course and that there did not appear to be an adequate place in the curriculum to develop a new course. That concern, paired with the desire for students to learn and apply an analysis technique independently, became the foundation of the purpose of this final project. For the project, students work in a group of 3-4 students to learn a topic that was not covered in our syllabus. Then students find an appropriate data set that can be analyzed using the new technique. Finally, students analyze the data using the technique and present their findings to the class in an oral presentation and submit a formal written report.

Logistics

To select their topic, students are given a list of level-appropriate techniques, then have a few days to review the topics and select which they would like. Example topics include: Poisson Regression, Survival Analysis, Time Series Regression, and LASSO. Groups are assigned topics on a first-come-first-serve basis and most groups end up with their first or second choice. After their topic is selected, groups have approximately six weeks to complete the project. For about 3 of those weeks, class time is devoted primarily to continuing the syllabus content, with about 1-2 days where students can exclusively work on the project.  The remaining class time is spent solely on the project, peer review, and presentations. 

Before submitting a final report, students are required to submit a proposal. The purpose of the proposal is for students to demonstrate they understand their technique. They are asked to write about the advantages and disadvantages of the technique, compare the technique to something we have covered in class, and write why their data are appropriate for the technique. During this time, I allow groups to sign up to meet individually with me.

The final written report includes: a research question to be answered, methodology of the technique, applied analysis, and results with conclusion. To write their reports, students are required to cite at least three sources in the methodology section and at least one source to support their research question. In this course, students complete a project earlier in the semester, so they are somewhat comfortable with report writing. If this is the only project for the course, it may be wise to establish general requirements for these sections. 

Finally, students present their findings. In my course, the goal is for students to be able to present to an audience who is unfamiliar with their concept, not teach the concept. Students have about 10 minutes to give a PowerPoint presentation. To keep students focused on listening to the presentations, all students are required to evaluate two other groups. This semester, however, my class is much larger, so instead of PowerPoint presentations, there will be a poster session. Other students in the class will review posters, just as they would have done for in-class presentations.

Adapting

One concern for assigning group work in any course is deciding how groups will be selected. I have tried many different ways to form groups and without fail, no matter what way groups are formed, there will be issues. However, I do not think it is appropriate to remove group assignments from a course. When students graduate, they will need to learn the interpersonal skills of working in a group: communication, leadership, and conflict resolution. Helping them through the process is a better way to prepare them than remove group work completely. One way I have found to alleviate tension and members not contributing equally, is to require groups to fill out, sign, and submit a group contract at the start of the project. This allows students to establish expectations and have a clear plan in place if expectations are not met. It also allows the instructor to have a point of reference if conflict does arise. 

This project can be adapted to any intermediate or advanced course where there is not enough time to cover all of the topics that are available, which most educators might agree is all of them. This project was extended in an advanced level course at UVA by another instructor, where the students not only presented their findings, but also taught a 30-minute lesson on their new topic and were required to create notes and worksheets for their peers. Finally, there is flexibility on how an instructor wants to assess communication/presentation skills: written reports, oral presentations, poster presentation, podcasts, recorded lessons, and infographics are all great ways to do so.

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