Thanks to the work of educational psychology professor Joan Garfield and other teachers, statistics courses have become student-friendly and fun as well as instructive.
Statistically speaking, they are ahead of the curve
Student raves lead to national award for U statistics teachers
By Deane Morrison
March 13, 2007
As the class begins, the students debate what "Let's Make a Deal" contestants should do if they've just chosen door number three and host Monty Hall shows them that a booby prize was behind door number two. Do the odds favor a switch to door number one or staying with number three? They could ask Joan Garfield, their statistics professor, but she won't tell. Instead, she has the students play the game in class until the numbers make the answer clear. By having students learn statistics by doing it, Garfield, a professor of educational psychology in the College of Education and Human Development, and her colleagues have earned rave reviews from students and a national award for teaching innovation from the American Psychological Association. Presented to the department in February, the Innovative Practices in Graduate Education in Psychology Award was in large part due to Garfield, who was instrumental in reshaping her department's statistics teaching philosophy and style nearly a decade ago. Besides the award, Garfield is also a principal investigator on two grants from the National Science Foundation, one to assess students' statistical reasoning and another to develop class activities and lesson plans. "I think of myself as a revolutionary, trying to overthrow traditional ways of teaching statistics," she says. "I've been given a lot of freedom to do that in educational psychology." Garfield developed a new way to teach the subject and trains graduate students to use similar methods when they teach. "Joan is one of the people who have done the most to bring people together" to revolutionize statistics teaching, says Garfield's colleague Robert delMas, an associate professor of educational psychology. "She's a catalyst." The key to her success lies in never presenting statistics as a frightening or bewildering package of formulas. Instead, students collect their own data and analyze it to learn concepts first hand, making abundant use of computer tools to solve problems. Also, students get together in small groups to discuss their conjectures and test them with real or simulated data.
"Statistics is a fascinating subject," says Garfield. "It's been compared to detective work, investigating data to see what you can learn about the world."Since 1998 students have reported greater satisfaction with statistics courses in the department, and enrollments have been up. All seven doctoral students who have completed their Ph.D.'s and taken part in the department's statistics training program have found academic positions, and several were told that their unique statistics teaching was a factor in hiring them. Two Ph.D. graduates of the program, Michelle Everson and Andrew Zieffler, are now colleagues of Garfield who have adopted and expanded her methods. In particular, Everson, now in her fifth year in the position, has emerged as a highly respected teacher in the same mold as Garfield. Calming math phobia Whenever Garfield or any of her colleagues remarks to a stranger on a plane or in an elevator that they teach statistics, the normal response is a groan. "I think people fear statistics because they connect it with math," says Garfield. "But you can do very well in statistics and not be good at math."
Data reveals great statistics
Joan Garfield has received three teaching awards: Horace T. Morse Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1995), the College of Education and Human Development's Distinguished Teaching Award (2002), and the Postbaccalaureate, Graduate and Professional Teaching Award (2006). Other University statistics teachers have also been recognized. Among them are Deborah Levison of the Humphrey Institute, who received an Award for Outstanding Contributions to Postbaccalaureate, Graduate, and Professional Education in 2006, and Jon E. Anderson of the University of Minnesota, Morris, who received a Morse-Alumni Award for Contributions to Undergraduate Education in 2003.