Slack for (A)synchronous Course Communication

Contributing author Albert Y. Kim is an assistant professor of statistical & data sciences. He is a co-author of the fivethirtyeight R package and ModernDive, an online textbook for introductory data science and statistics. His research interests include spatial epidemiology and model assessment and selection methods for forest ecology. Previously, Albert worked in the Search Ads Metrics Team at Google Inc. as well as at Reed, Middlebury and Amherst colleges. You can follow him on Twitter @rudeboybert.

Contributing author R. Jordan Crouser is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Smith College. He is published in the areas of visualization theory, human-computer interaction, educational technology, visual analytics systems and human computation. For more information, visit his faculty page.

Contributing author Benjamin S. Baumer is an assistant professor in the Statistical & Data Sciences program at Smith College. His research interests include sports analytics, data science, statistics and data science education, statistical computing, and network science. For more information, visit his faculty page.

You might have heard of Slack before. But what is it? Is it email? Is it a chat room? Slack describes their flagship product as a “collaboration hub that can replace email to help you and your team work together seamlessly.” In this blogpost, we’ll describe how we’ve been using Slack for asynchronous course communication, as opposed to the synchronous course communications afforded by Zoom and other remote conferencing platforms.

Why do we stress (a)synchronous? The brick-and-mortar constraint of having everyone working at the same time is unworkable under the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, support staff, faculty, and students have suddenly been forced to convert to a remote learning model of education. In order for this model to be successful, flexibility is needed to ensure equitable learning experiences with respect to differences in time zones, suitability of student learning environments, internet access, and many other factors. In order to ensure this flexibility, many instructors are recognizing that some portion of their courses must be delivered in an asynchronous fashion, on top of the synchronous nature of regular lecture and meeting times. 

Before we discuss how we’ve been using Slack, we must explain how Slack is organized.

How is Slack organized?

Slack is organized into workspaces, which loosely correspond to a “team” of individuals (such as a research or special interest group). In our case, this will be an individual course. When using Slack from the Desktop or Mobile app, a list of your workspaces appears in the left-hand vertical menu bar. For example, of the 8 workspaces highlighted in red, we are currently viewing the “220” course workspace:

Within each workspace are channels (identified with hashtags), highlighted here in blue. You can think of channels as forums corresponding to topics. In this example, we have #general (announcements), #questions, and several others. Different stakeholders can join each channel, and channels can be designated public or private as appropriate. Note how the #problem_sets channel has a lock icon, indicating that it is private (to just instructors and graders).

Additionally, within each workspace are direct messages (DMs), highlighted in green. You can think of DMs as group text messages. Unlike with channels, people cannot later “join” these conversations.

What are the benefits of Slack?

Slack’s primary benefit is centralization and organization of communications, which helps to minimize inefficient context switching:

For example, if we want to ignore messages related to the 220 course and focus our attention on the 293 course, we can do so easily. This inherent compartmentalization of communications relating to courses is especially helpful when managing asynchronous communication across multiple courses, the challenges of which have been amplified during the recent outbreak of COVID-19.

Second, Slack facilitates the posing and answering of student questions via channels dedicated to discussion boards. This is a welcome feature of Slack given the importance of (a)synchronous communications in light of COVID-19.

Note that Slack is certainly not the only platform that has such functionality; other platforms include Moodle, Piazza, and Discord

Third, the benefits of Slack increase not only as the number of team members grows, but also as the number of distinct groups of team members grows. For example, this semester’s two sections of Smith College’s SDS/MTH 220 Introduction to Probability and Statistics have 79 students who form 31 term project groups, 2 instructors, 2 lab instructors, 2 graders, and 2 in-class teaching assistants. By carefully constructing both private and public channels and direct messages, we can  localize communications in their appropriate destinations. This is critical at a time where we can’t meet in person, nor can we easily meet at the same time.

Fourth, the more casual nature of Slack interactions versus email reduces instructor/student barriers. For example, less time can be spent choosing appropriate email greetings and signoffs. Additionally, Slack’s use of newer modalities of communication like emojis and GIFs can further facilitate expression at a time when maintaining open communication is paramount.

Other benefits of Slack include (1) seamless transition between Desktop and Mobile interfaces; (2) a growing ecosystem of 3rd party applications to integrate with platforms such as Zoom, GitHub, PollEverywhere, Google Drive, and Dropbox; and (3) unlike Moodle or Piazza, Slack is widely used in industry. While we won’t argue that Slack is a skill, familiarity with it certainly won’t hurt students as they enter the workplace.                   

What are some pitfalls of Slack?

As with any communication platform, Slack has its share of potential pitfalls:

  1. There are cognitive costs associated with switching to Slack-based course communication, and student buy-in can vary depending on (1) general comfort with technology and (2) the use of Slack within other courses at your institution or department.
  2. Notifications settings really matter: students who only use Slack via their browser often miss messages sent between lectures if their email notifications aren’t set. Students who use the Desktop or Mobile applications encounter this issue far less often, but this does require installation of these interfaces.
  3. Since Slack was designed for tech companies rather than for education, it is consequently not FERPA compliant. Thus, certain sensitive communications should not take place on Slack. 
  4. While Slack offers a “freemium” version, it caps access to the most recent 10,000 messages and 5GB of file storage. To exceed these caps, monthly per user fees must be paid. 

When to make the switch

Should you switch to Slack right now (during the COVID-19 pandemic)? Our answer: if you have an existing method that gets the job done, probably not. Switching your communication tool amid the stress currently facing staff, faculty, and students may cause more harm than good. However, you may want to consider the following reasons we think you should use Slack in future courses: 

  • Do you prefer having your communications centralized and compartmentalized?
  • Are there multiple groups to coordinate within your team: instructors, teaching assistants, graders, students, and various groupings thereof?
  • Are you looking for ways to make communication between students and faculty feel more accessible?
  • Does your course involve collaborating on code, either directly or via GitHub?
  • Do other instructors in your department or institution use Slack?
  • Do you hate email?

As your answers to these questions tend toward yes, the case for Slack gets stronger. At our institution, we have been vocal advocates of using Slack in the classroom. The increased importance of (a)synchronous communication brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has further reinforced our belief in the benefits that Slack can provide for course communication.


As with any large change in workflow, getting started is often the hardest part. To this end, R. Jordan Crouser has created the following quickstart guide for Slack: Getting Started with Slack for (a)synchronous course-based communication. 

Additionally, for a live demonstration of Slack and many of its useful features, check out this video. The content of much of this post is based on Albert Y. Kim’s 2019 Symposium on Data Science and Statistics talk Using Slack for Communication and Collaboration in the Classroom.

Teaching Programming vs. Training Programmers: Where the Means Justify the Means

Contributing author Jonathan Duggins is a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University.


Most of us statistics (and data science!) educators understand that knowing how to use statistical software is integral to student successes, both in their coursework and in their careers, for our statistics and data science majors. However, in many degree programs, software usage is seen as a means to an end – getting an analysis – rather than an end goal in its own right. How did this come about, why does it matter, and what can we do to change our software-related instruction? These are the questions I discuss below, first by looking at some history of programming in these contexts, then by presenting two current philosophies on how to incorporate programming.


Getting a bachelor’s degree in mathematics has long meant learning computer programming. As statistics degree offerings appeared, they adopted this convention and the emerging field of data science, with its inherent computational needs, has followed suit. Whether Java, C, R (or S-PLUS back in my day!), Python, or SAS – students pursuing a degree in statistics or data science routinely program in at least one of these languages. Unfortunately, this is often enforced by adding a course to an existing degree program. In some cases, this course is merely borrowed from another department and does not meet the students’ discipline-specific needs! Even in relatively new degree programs, our field’s approach to programming seems anachronistic.

We commonly use software in the classroom to help teach a variety of topics – exploring data graphically, computing classical summary or inferential statistics, or conducting a simulation to study the properties of a resampling technique – and these advances in the inclusion of software are often touted when discussing how we have modernized our curricula. However, if students do not build the programming skills necessary to implement and understand these analyses, then software becomes a black box.

Why Does This Matter?

While there are several reasons to revisit how we teach programming, the one I’m focusing on here is that programming is different than most other skills we teach – if a program is inefficient, doesn’t follow good programming practices, or is otherwise sub-optimal, it can still produce correct results! Programming is not just something students should be doing to get an answer. We have an obligation to go beyond teaching students how to write functional code – we must train high-quality programmers. Statistics and data science careers that make extensive use of programming are exceedingly popular in their own right and as data sets get larger and programming becomes a ubiquitous skill, there is immense value in students having not only an ability to write code that solves a problem, but in using best practices when doing so.

Two Philosophies

Degree programs have typically adopted one of two prevailing philosophies regarding programming instruction: integrated or standalone. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages that are important for designing an optimal educational experience that prepares our students to write the end-to-end programs they will use in their careers. In this context, I’m defining end-to-end programming as the application of the following three components.

1.      Data cleaning and preparation

2.      Data summary, analysis, and modeling

3.      Reporting/presentation of results

Of course, most programs make use of general computing concepts (e.g. file types, paths, etc.) and not every program needs to employ all three components. However, students trained to write this style of end-to-end program can easily adapt to writing programs that only require one or two of the components.

Integrated Instruction

This approach typically focuses only on data summary, analysis, and modeling – concepts used as a means to an end for discipline-specific course content – e.g. a regression course teaching SAS modeling tools such as PROC REG but excluding any programming concepts not explicitly needed to complete the course. The most obvious pedagogical benefit to this approach is instructors can present a programming skill after students are familiar with the statistical concept. A second, but related, benefit of the integrated approach is logistical – students do not need to worry about when to take a programming course because programming is learned in concert with the discipline-specific content.

However, the drawbacks to solely using integrated instruction are substantial. The overarching issue is that students are less likely to gain an appreciation for, or even an understanding of, the general computing principles necessary to be a practicing statistician. One of the primary examples is that the classroom data sets to which students are exposed have already been sanitized, meaning a loss of opportunities to develop skills with reading, cleaning, and restructuring data. Students are also better able to understand the requirements for developing good data collection methods when exposed to the results of poorly collected and/or maintained data sets. Additionally, more instructional time is required to teach programming along with discipline-specific content.

Integrated instruction also requires all instructors to teach at least some computing concepts in addition to the course-specific content. Depending on department size, this can be an unrealistic expectation if all faculty are not well-versed in the same language because, as learners, it is important to expose students to the same language repeatedly. Exposing them to multiple languages is valuable, of course, but if done without proper structure, students cannot build on what they learned in an earlier course and instructors cannot assume prior knowledge.

Standalone Instruction

I’m defining standalone instruction to mean classes covering the language-specific concepts and any general programming concepts required to effectively use the language. For example, in a SAS course this would mean not only covering SAS concepts but also including path/directory structure, file types/attributes, image resolution, etc. There are two common “flavors” of the standalone course: applications-focused and whole-language. The applications-focused flavor – where material on data summary/analysis/modeling (Component 2) provides students with the skills necessary to carry out discipline-specific analyses needed in their other courses – is similar to the integrated approach above except these analysis tools are all in a single course and some time may be devoted to data cleaning/preparation and reporting/presentation of results (Components 1 and 3, respectively). The whole-language approach provides much less in the way of Component 2 skills and instead focuses on Components 1 and 3 by teaching the analysis software from the computer science perspective by covering syntax, compilation, and good programming practices while including a few basic Component 2 concepts so students get practice writing end-to-end programs.

The applications-focused course suffers from several significant logistical issues – when should students take the course and what should be included? If taken too early, students are unlikely to understand most of the analysis techniques but if taken too late they cannot apply any of the programming skills in their discipline-specific courses, severely limiting the programming course’s utility. To determine the course’s content, instructors need to agree on what skills will be useful throughout the degree program and deviation from that list in later courses also reduces the course’s utility. Additionally, concentrating the analysis in a single course still deprives students of a deeper understanding of the software’s capabilities and operation and is less likely to instill an understanding of good programming practices.

The whole-language approach should still include simple analysis techniques which is both a benefit and a drawback. It removes the logistical barriers because students can take the course earlier in their degree program, but then it derives its usefulness from how programming is emphasized in the remainder of a student’s coursework. If future courses never/rarely require students to use the skills obtained in this early-career course, then its benefits are severely blunted. However, when used properly, the whole-language approach provides a solid foundation onto which students can add skills presented in later classes while lowering the instructor’s burden in those courses.

What Should We Do?

To best educate our students, we should apply both approaches in a way that minimizes drawbacks and maximizes benefits to make sure we are truly training programmers and not just teaching our students to write a program as a means to an end. Because students need to be prepared to write high-quality end-to-end programs, we need to explain to students early in their career what that process looks like. To meet these goals, I propose the following as a starting point for degree programs looking to modernize their approach to teaching programming skills.

1.      Employ an early-career, standalone course using whole-language instruction. Use it to introduce the three components and establish good programming practices.

2.      Use integrated instruction in the same language in multiple future courses, each time assessing the students’ programming skills.

3.      Enforce a common set of good programming practices across all courses.

4.      Apply a common rubric for assessing programming skills across all courses.

Of course, most of us are not in a position to rewrite our department’s curricula or convince our colleagues to teach their courses differently. However, we can all take steps, such as collaborating with whoever teaches your programming course (or proposing a new course!) and choosing to assess programming in our own classes to help our students develop these crucial skills. By building a strong foundation, vertically integrating a programming language into our curriculum, and enforcing good programming practices we can not only produce high-quality data scientists and statisticians, we can also move beyond just teaching programming and start training programmers for the careers that are waiting for them.

Duggins, J. and Blum, J. SAS Global Forum. March 29 – April 1 2020. The Past, Present, and Future of Training SAS Professionals in a University Program.

Adapting Statistics Instruction for an Online Environment in the Wake of COVID-19

Contributing author Christopher Engledowl is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education and Quantitative Research Methods at New Mexico State University.

The world is currently experiencing unprecedented forced movement from face-to-face interaction to a completely virtual form of interaction. Higher education institutions have quickly made sweeping policy decisions that have, overnight, overhauled the classroom learning environment. These decisions have resulted in many people questioning the kinds of quality that can be expected—especially from instructors who have never taught an online course Simultaneously, many organizations have expanded the capacity of their digital platforms to accommodate the insurgence of people making use of their products for teaching and learning.

For instance, Discord—an application with free voice and text chat originally designed for gamers to interact in real time with one another, read more here—recently increased the capacity for live streaming for up to 50 people for the sole purpose of making it more amenable to online instruction. They also published a blog post about how to use Discord for instructional purposes, including a special pre-organized setup to help streamline the interface for new users.

Just as many others have recently experienced, my institution has recently dictated the movement of face-to-face courses to an online setting in order to practice social distancing and follow government recommendations designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. I am currently in the process of transitioning my face-to-face courses to online format, and I am making use of Discord. In this article, I will showcase how I made use of Discord in a prior online course, what I observed about student interactions, and what students reported about their experiences. I believe Discord can be an effective, and easy to implement, tool for creating quality discourse.

Some Context: Advanced Statistics in College of Education

In the Summer of 2019, I taught a required doctoral level course for an online-only program in a College of Education called Advanced Statistics. This course is comparable to a typical undergraduate level introductory course in statistics. In the pre-requisite course, students are exposed to basic descriptive statistics and visualizations, leading up to a two-sample t-test. Advanced Statistics extends this learning to include ANOVA, ANCOVA, and simple linear regression. The student population ranges in age from 25 to 50, whose only experience with statistics is the prerequisite course, where I have had students tell me that they had never seen a boxplot before! The course is application-based and ends with a small-scale project where students explore their own research question using either their own data, or data from the 2012 PISA—which is used throughout the course.

Because it was an online course, in addition to including the kinds of instructor presence and interaction that have been discussed by John Haubrick on this blog, I also was asking myself: How do I emulate the important student-to-student interaction that would occur in a synchronous, face-to-face setting, as suggested by the Guidelines for Assessment and Instruction in Statistics Education (GAISE) College Report?

Using Discord to Promote Quality Interaction

What is Discord?

Discord is an application designed with both text and voice chat “channels” within a “server.” The server is the larger space that only invited members can interact within, and it is composed of channels where members chat. Discord text chat channels are free-flowing chat streams. This was highly appealing to me because threaded comments can have the side-effect of conversations only existing in small groups, without ever making their way into the larger classroom discussion. Moreover, because Discord has integrated tagging (using the @ symbol), it makes it easy for everyone to see who is having side conversations, while also allowing others to enter into that same conversation—thus promoting them to the whole group level.

How Can it Promote Discussion?

In the Advanced Statistics course, because the majority of students were teachers and administrators in K–12 schools, this course was managed largely asynchronously. I used Discord as the central place for managing the classroom environment. I regularly posted links to videos on my YouTube Channel and I also posted announcements for the few times I conducted livestreams using a free application called Twitch. Thus, Discord was used for nearly all student-student and student-instructor interaction. To encourage students to get to know one another more, and make discussions feel more authentic, I set up a #general chat channel for them to discuss anything they wanted to, where I would not be monitoring unless I was tagged. I also created a #current-music-jam and #current-reading-interest channel. Many students made use of these channels at different points, and I also shared my own reading and music interests.

The course-specific channels I created to align with course learning goals were #roller-coaster-tycoon (to discuss assignments related to this dataset), #spss-discussion, #research-interests, and #p-values. Channels are very easy to add at a moment’s notice, but these seem to have sufficed for the course and were meant to work toward the GAISE recommendations to “foster active learning” and to “use technology to explore concepts and analyze data” (p. 3). It also supported students as we worked toward the GAISE goals regarding the investigative process, understanding statistical models, and understanding inference (p. 6). Discord supported these goals by providing a space where students could engage in productive discourse with one another to deepen their knowledge. For instance, as can be seen in the two screenshots below, students frequently inserted screenshots of output they were trying to make sense of in order to crowd source whether their interpretations were correct. I largely stayed out of these conversations, and found that many students would enter into the conversations, resulting in dialogic interactions that everyone learned from. Sometimes these conversations would head in an unproductive direction, but because I could see the entire conversation—unlike if it was occurring outside of class or in a group discussion in a face-to-face class where it might be difficult to hear what occurred—I could point directly back to the conversation using tagging—or even just tagging @everyone—or a screenshot and help steer students in a productive direction. This cannot be overstated: Being able to see entire conversations in this way is an incredible advantage over face-to-face discussions. It allows, in a sense, an omniscient perspective—one that everyone in the entire class also enjoys the benefits of.

How Can it Improve Instruction?

On the administrative side of teaching, to encourage participation, I evaluated both the quantity and quality of contributions using a simple rubric. Searching for a student’s username produces a list of every contribution they have made, along with a timestamp and the place in the chat stream where the comment was made—faded in the background. You can also filter contributions by channel. To see the contributions in the context of where they occurred in the chat, a simple click on the background reveals them. This process was very efficient, taking about 2-3 minutes per student.

What Did Students Say About Discord?

In an anonymous poll, I asked students: How useful did you find Discord? On a scale of 1 (Not At All) to 5 (Very Useful), 54% rated it a 5 and 23% rated it a 4. No one rated it below a 3. A follow up item asked students what they liked about Discord, and many responses were things like, “it is very interactive and we’re free to ask any questions we need at any given time” and “nice interactions that you could follow.” When asked what they did not like about Discord, students described issues that would exist even if the courses were face-to-face (e.g., “I couldn’t work ahead because I had to be involved in discussions”). Other responses were simple complaints (e.g., “Another platform”).

Perhaps even more revealing were the comments students gave when asked to compare ways of interacting in the Canvas learning management platform vs. Discord. Many responses included statements such as “Discord is best for discussion in real time” or “Discord seemed easier to follow than discussions on Canvas (and I teach online using Canvas)….seems less formal and more able to operate like a texting stream.” I will leave with this last revealing comment. When discussion turns into “I’ll do it just for the grade,” we have lost a major opportunity to promote deep learning through social interaction:

Discord is best for discussion in real time. Canvas is ok, more for turning in work and such—Posting discussion board responses and getting feedback, it is more assignment based.

Hello, is anyone there? Instructor presence in an online statistics course

Contributing author John Haubrick is an instructional designer and assistant teaching professor for the Penn State Department of Statistics where he supports the teaching and design of the online statistics courses.

With the prevalence of online chat bots and robocalls, we sometimes find ourselves asking: “Are you a machine or a real person?” Students can also experience this when taking an online course with an “absent” instructor. Instructor presence in an online course has been cited in research as a major influence of student satisfaction and engagement, which may impact their ability to learn the course content (e.g., Ladyshewsky, 2013; Gray and DiLoreto, 2016). So what can we do to “show up” to class as an online statistics instructor?

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer,  2000) is one model used to classify the types of instructor presence for a rich educational experience. The framework is based on three types of presence: Social, Teaching, and Cognitive. You can find a large collection of publications and resources related to the CoI framework on the CoI website. In the model, the entire educational experience is the result of the interrelationship (or overlap) of the social, teaching and cognitive presence. Let’s explore each presence and how they might apply to an online statistics course.

Social Presence

Social presence shows that you are a real human teaching the students. Examples of incorporating social presence in an online course include…

Start of the course

  • Post an introductory video to put your face and voice with a name. Share your interests, hobbies, research, and the keys to success in your course.
  • Use an introduction forum to allow everyone to share a thing or two about themselves. Make the prompts interesting and provide various format options. Educational social media platforms like Flipgrid and Yammer provide text, audio, and video options beyond the standard text based discussion boards.

Throughout the course

Teaching Presence

Teaching presence refers to the technical set-up and design of the learning management system and the design of the learning materials that the students engage with (e.g., content, activities, assessments). Examples of integrating Teaching Presence in an online course include…

  • Provide clear directions on how to get started the first time they enter the course.
  • Have contact information, resources, and links for finding help and support. This includes technical support, resources for statistics software, and who to contact (e.g., TAs, instructors, other) and when.
  • Create navigation through the course that is clear and optimized for efficiency.
  • Make expectations and directions clear, thorough, and concise on all learning materials.
  • Offer timely, constructive, and frequent feedback in a variety of formats (text, audio, video). Your LMS might offer built-in or integrated media tools, such as Zoom, VoiceThread, Kaltura or YouTube.  

Cognitive Presence

The cognitive presence determines how students create meaning of the course content. Through activities, assignments, and discussions, the instructor can challenge and lead students through the content. Examples of creating Cognitive Presence in an online course include…

  • Create a reflection journal where students can make their thinking visible. For example…
    • You could set up a 3-2-1 post, where they post: 3 key concepts of the lesson, 2 ways in which they can apply the concept to their life, work, or future career, and 1 challenge or difficulty they are still having.
  • Provide lesson overview videos connecting the new content to prior knowledge or previous lessons. Demonstrate how the new content fits into the big picture of the course (or program). 
  • Have students “make sense” of output from statistical software or results from a research article by asking questions about conceptual understanding rather than procedural knowledge.
  • Have students spot errors in worked examples that might include incorrect calculations, equations, software code, software output, or hypothesis testing conclusions. 

The examples provided are just a sample of the myriad of options available for creating presence in an online course. However, THE most important thing is to show up! Your presence is important. Presence can create a positive learning community that will not only motivate your learners, but you as well.



Ladyshewsky, Richard K. “Instructor Presence in Online Courses and Student Satisfaction.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan. 2013. (Crossref), doi:10.20429/ijsotl.2013.070113.

Garrison, D. Randy, et al. Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. 1999. Semantic Scholar, doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6.

Gray, Julie A., and Melanie DiLoreto. “The Effects of Student Engagement, Student Satisfaction, and Perceived Learning in Online Learning Environments.” International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, vol. 11, no. 1, May 2016. ERIC,

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.


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.


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.


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.

How Do We Encourage “Productive Struggle” in Large Classes?

Contributing author Catherine Case is a lecturer at the University of Georgia and the lesson plan editor for Statistics Teacher.

This post is really inspired by a plenary talk given by Jim Stigler at USCOTS 2015. He’s a psychologist at UCLA, and in his USCOTS talk, he emphasized the idea of productive struggle. He talked about different teaching cultures around the world, and how American classrooms often feature “quick and snappy” lessons as opposed to “slow and sticky” lessons, despite the fact that making the process of learning harder can actually lead to deeper, longer-lasting understanding.

His ideas really challenged me, because I often teach fairly large classes (120 – 140 students per section), and nowhere is “quick and snappy” more highly valued than in a large lecture. There’s definitely tension in large classes between efficiency and productive struggle. 

EfficiencyProductive Struggle
Statistical questions are clearly defined in the textbook.Students carry out the full problem-solving process.
Teacher solves all problems (correctly and on the first try).Students wrestle with concepts before strategies are directly taught.
Students use formulas and probability tables proficiently.Students use appropriate data analysis tools.

At first, this tension was overwhelming to me. In the stat ed community, we’re surrounded with inspiring, innovative ideas, but the gap between where we are and where we want to be can be paralyzing. To counter that, let’s start small with a simple classroom activity that allows students to struggle through the statistical process. Along the way, I’ll mention tricks that make it easier to pull off, even with lots of students in the room.

Example: A Survey of the Class

Formulate Questions

This activity is great for the beginning of the semester, because it only requires knowledge of a few statistical terms – statistical vs. survey questions, explanatory vs. response variables, categorical vs. quantitative variables. It also challenges students’ expectations about what’s required of them in a large lecture class, because right off the bat, they’re being asked to collaborate and communicate their statistical ideas.  

  • First, students work in groups to write a statistical question about the relationship between two variables that can be answered based on a class survey. Then they pass their card to another group.
  • After receiving another group’s card, students break down the statistical question into variables. Which is the explanatory variable and which is the response? Are these variables categorical or quantitative? Then they pass their card to another group.
  • Students write appropriate survey questions that could be used to collect data – one survey question per variable. 

I’ll admit that in many of my lessons, I have a well-defined statistical question in mind before class even starts. This activity is different, because students experience the messy process of formulating a statistical question and operationalizing it for a survey. 

Collect Data

Before the next class period, I read their work (or at least a “random sample” of their work ☺) and I try to close the feedback loop by discussing common issues that I noticed. Do some questions go beyond the scope of a class survey? Are certain kinds of variables commonly misclassified? How can we improve ambiguous survey questions? Even though my class is too large to talk to every student individually, this gives me an opportunity to respond to and challenge student thinking. 

Later we can use student-written questions as the starting point for data collection and analysis. I usually choose 10-15 survey questions (ideally relevant to more than one statistical question), and collect their data via Google Forms. When students answer open-ended questions like, “How many hours do you spend studying in a typical week,” it generates data that’s messy but manageable. It feels more authentic than squeaky clean textbook data, plus the struggle of cleaning a few hundred observations by hand may help students understand the need for better data cleaning methods.

Analyzing Data Using Appropriate Tools

“Appropriate tools” certainly aren’t one-size fits all, but for this activity, I need a tool that…

  • Can handle large(ish) datasets 
  • Is accessible for students – preferably free!
  • Makes it easy to construct graphs and calculate summary statistics

At UGA, we have a site license that makes JMP free for students, and many regularly bring their laptops to class, so JMP works well for us with students working in pairs. If I didn’t have access to JMP, I might consider CODAP, which looks a lot like Fathom (friendly drag and drop interface!) except it’s free and runs in a web browser. 

Speaking of a friendly interface, another hurdle in a large class is how to trouble-shoot technology for students, especially if you don’t have smaller “lab” sections or TA support during class. For me, it’s a delicate balance of scaffolding and classroom culture…

After demonstrating how to construct graphs and calculate summaries using software, I assign some straightforward data analysis questions with right/wrong answers. For this, I use an app called Socrative, which works similarly to clickers, except that it allows for both multiple choice and free response questions. Socrative allows me to give immediate feedback – for example, if they miss a question, I can provide them with the software instructions they need. In addition to feedback through Socrative, I try to normalize the process of struggling with new technology and encourage them to help each other. I remind them it’s impossible for me to help everyone individually, but I’m confident they can work together and solve most problems without me. Students generally rise to the challenge and accept that there are multiple sources of knowledge in the room.  

Once I’m confident students know how to use the necessary data analysis tools, we can try more challenging, open-ended questions. For example, I may choose a response variable and ask students to explore the data until they find a variable that’s a good predictor, then write a few sentences about that relationship. They need to use graphs and calculate statistics to answer this, but I’m not explicitly telling them which graphs and statistics to use, and I’m certainly not giving them “point here, click here” style instructions. There’s a little productive struggle involved!

Interpret Results in Context

In the following class, I present student analyses as a starting point for our interpretations. They already have a foundation for discussing effect sizes and strength of evidence, because they’ve considered the relationships among variables themselves. Students can offer deep insights about the limitations of the analysis (e.g., sampling issues, measurement issues, correlation vs. causation), because they’ve been involved with the investigation at every stage. 

Look Back and Ahead

The authors of the ISI curriculum (Tintle, et al.) include “look back and ahead” as the final step of the statistical process. At this step, students consider limitations of the study and propose future work.

This concept is really helpful in my teaching too. Earlier I mentioned students’ expectations, but I’m also working on managing my own expectations. I can’t let the idea of a perfect active learning class keep me from taking steps in the right direction. I don’t have to change everything in one semester and I can’t expect every activity I try will work. The best I can do is to make a few small changes right now, keep a journal to learn from my experiences, and keep moving forward.