# Helping Community College Math Instructors Teach Statistics Effectively

##### Matt Teachout

We are reaching a crisis at community colleges across the country. The number of STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has dramatically decreased, while the number of non-STEM majors continues to rise. At my college alone, only about 30% of our students are STEM majors.

## The Problem

Here is the problem as I see it: The traditional math curriculum is geared toward calculus preparation for STEM majors. Non-STEM students do not need to follow a traditional college mathematics track because they do not need calculus. They need real-world critical thinking skills and the ability to deal with a changing world in which unlimited data are a click away.

In short, our students need statistics.

Not just for their degree, or for transferring to a four-year institution, but for real life. In a sense, our mathematics education system seems backward: We teach an unending amount of algebra classes, but few statistics classes. This system is out of date, and we are not meeting the demand of our students.

## The Results

At my college, we are experiencing a huge shift from an emphasis on algebra to one on statistics. This is a shock to many community college math departments. Community college math teachers make their living teaching students basic algebra. Now, they are being asked to move into pre-statistics and statistics and teach a subject many were never trained for.

Data from my college made it apparent that we were placing students too low. Many students have the ability to succeed in the 100-level Intro Stats course and should be allowed to take it. Not only do they not need algebra classes as a prerequisite, but many do not even need the pre-statistics class. At my college, we are anticipating a large increase in the number of sections of our 100-level Intro Stats course over the next few years because of the de-emphasis on algebra and increased emphasis on statistics.

## Damage Control

Statistics has historically not been a popular class with math teachers. At my college, we don’t want to simply get a teacher in the room; we want our Intro Stats courses to rock! We want high-level critical thinking and deep conceptual understanding. How do we do this effectively?

Activity-based pedagogy, statistics software usage, an organized teaching schedule, and support and training for teachers when needed are vital.

### Activity-Based Pedagogy

We need to make Intro Stats easier to teach. My college has been using activity-based pedagogy (active learning) with an emphasis on the affective domain for many years. Instead of relying on a math teacher to explain every detail in a rigorous statistics textbook, the activities teach the topics. Intro Stats needs to be topic-driven, not book or lecture driven. There is less pressure on the teacher to explain everything, and students learn the material much better by actively working with data. In many ways, the classroom has been flipped. After a set-up lecture, students work with data to learn the concepts and solve problems. The teacher is the facilitator who is there as a guide to lead the students to understanding.

### Use Technology

We are in the Big Data age. We need to make our students real-world critical thinkers. They can’t analyze data sets with thousands of numbers without computers. It is vital that we teach students how to use high-powered statistics software. If you have access to computer labs, stop using p-value charts and calculators to calculate sample statistics. Teach your classes with technology. Statistics is a visual subject. Students have to be able explore a data set and see how statistics works.

I understand these are challenges if you teach in a school that does not have computer labs or funding for computers. Sadly, most Intro Stats and AP Stats classes across the country have little to no technology. Ask most students who have taken Intro Stats or AP Stats and they will tell you the point of the class was to use hard formulas to calculate things. No! Those students have totally missed the point.

If you want high critical thinking and deep conceptual understanding from students, they need access to statistics software. If you have taught Intro Stats or AP Stats without technology, you probably think—as I did for many years—that there is way too much material to teach in such a short time. That is because we are not teaching it as well as we can. Students need to experience how statistics works and practice working with data.

Statistics is like tennis. Without technology, all we can do is describe what a racket looks like and the various ways to hit the ball. We can describe the rules of tennis, but students can never hold the racket themselves and hit a ball.

So what can you do to incorporate statistics software into your classroom if you are at a school with few available computer labs?

Here’s what I did.

Look around your school and see if there are times when computer science courses are not using a computer lab. Some colleges have a surprising number of empty computer labs that are only used a couple times a day. Book your statistics classes at those times in those rooms, or at least see if you can reserve the room once a week or once a month.

If you only have access to one computer (maybe your own laptop) and a projector of any kind, project the statistics software on screen and analyze real data with your students. Focus on having them interpret and understand the major concepts. On exams, give printouts of statistics software displays and write test questions to check for understanding. You can also pass out printouts of the graphs and statistics and have your class work on conceptual understanding. While this is a poor substitute for the real thing, it is a step in the right direction.

You may want to also incorporate technology into your textbook. In place of a traditional text, I recommend online courseware through OLI (Open Learning Initiative). The courseware is an open educational resource in conjunction with OLI at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities. I like to use material from Concepts in Statistics and Probability and Statistics in my classes, but Statistical Reasoning is also available.

OLI courseware is self-grading, with instant feedback for teachers. It shows students interactive graphs, applications, and videos designed to teach topics quickly and more efficiently than complex written descriptions. OLI focuses on high-level conceptual understanding, not practice problems and calculations.

### Give Teachers Structure and an Organized Schedule

We like to give our math instructors a detailed daily schedule, outlining exactly what they will be teaching. Each day, our teachers facilitate discussions and activities designed to help students understand a major concept. Detailed directions and teaching notes assist teachers with the major ideas and how to use the technology. The key is that students need to see the forest during class, not understand every tree. Those details come through working with statistics problems outside of class.

### Give Training and Help When Needed

Math teachers need a lot of support to teach Intro Stats well. Professional development with full- and part-time math faculty is critical. Math teachers need practice with the technology and activities to be effective facilitators in the classroom. I always recommend our new teachers work through materials themselves.

I have found that “experienced” Intro Stats teachers need training also, especially on how to use statistics software effectively. For example, they may know the words of the Central Limit Theorem, but may have never used software to create a sampling distribution and explain all the implications of the Central Limit Theorem with real-data examples.

Deans and department chairs may be wondering how to train 50–100 community college math teachers to teach statistics. It is never going to happen. There are way too many statistics courses to staff. Here is the way I would approach it:

- Sign up the math teachers to teach Intro Stats, even if they have no experience.
- Give the math teachers access to the book and statistics software so they can work through the book and play with the software.
- Give the math teachers a detailed schedule of what activities to teach each day.

At the start of the semester, have the new teachers attend a meeting/training. At the training, a more experienced teacher will explain the major ideas addressed in the first couple weeks, where students will get stuck, and how to use the software and activities effectively. After two or three weeks, have them attend another training or meeting. Continue this process throughout the semester.

A structured course based on technology and activities will still be a high-quality Intro Stats course for students, even if the teacher is still learning. Once the instructors get through their first semester, the biggest hurdle is over. I like to tell my Intro Stats students that the study of statistics is like a deep well, full of water, and they are only playing in a puddle.

## So What Now?

How do we tell the thousands of math teachers that community colleges are being overrun with the need for statistics classes and desperately need math instructors to take on the challenge of teaching statistics? For me, it comes back to my students. Thousands of students across the country have failed out of community colleges because they could not complete algebra courses they never needed in the first place. Students today live in a technology- and data-driven world. They need statistics, not only for their degrees, but to begin to understand the world around them.

**About the Author**: *Matt Teachout is a math teacher and statistics coordinator at College of the Canyons—a large community college in Santa Clarita, California.*