The unexpected fear of statistics

Statistics is the cause of a lot of fear. There are thousands of students studying psychology, sociology, economics, biology, medicine, animal science and education who thought they would be free of mathematics and suddenly discover they have to deal with statistics. In the case of psychology it is absolutely everywhere: both in whole courses about statistics, but also embedded in almost every other course they do. For most of these students, their fear of statistics carries over from their existing fear of mathematics, and so as sad as it is that they are afraid, it’s not wholly unexpected.

What is unexpected is the the thousands of students who have done the highest levels of mathematics at school, and are doing the most mathematical disciplines like physics, engineering and mathematics itself, and yet somehow have a deep aversion to statistics when it appears in their degree. Indeed, my own staff at the Maths Learning Centre often express a fear at having to help people with statistics. As I often say “Mathematicians are afraid of statistics in a similar way to how other people are afraid of mathematics.”

But why? What is it that causes this fear of statistics in those with lots of mathematical experience? I have some ideas…

One of the biggest reasons is that statistics isn’t 100% maths. A large part of statistics is whatever discipline the statistics is being used for today. That discipline dictates the kinds of data that can be collected, how it is recorded, and most importantly how it is interpreted after the statistics is done. In a generalist statistics course this will change moment-to-moment as each new assignment question brings up a new context. In Question 1 it’s ecology, in Question 2 it’s quality control in food production, and in Question 3 it’s engineering. Each new question requires you to think about a new context and understand various subtleties about what the context means. For a professional statistician, this is often what they say is the most exciting thing about their job. They absolutely love that they get to “play in everyone else’s backyard”. They love that the same tools can be used for a large variety of different problems. However, for many a maths student, this annoys them at best and terrifies them at worst. They didn’t sign up to learn ecology/food science/engineering; they signed up for maths. They prefer to work with the numbers and word problems have made them worried from a young age. Think of how terrifying it would be to suddenly be forced to do a course where every single problem is a word problem! And spare a thought for how hard it is to do the statistics when you don’t have a clue what the context means. As I said, each new context has subtleties that impact a lot on how the statistics is applied and interpreted, and not everyone will have the general knowledge (or indeed language skills) to understand those subtleties without considerable effort. And now imagine having to go through that effort for every single assignment question. It’s exhausting!

I’m not really sure what to do about this particular problem, other than making sure you give students space and time to talk about the contexts. Don’t treat them like idiots for not understanding contexts they have never experienced before, and definitely don’t think they don’t understand the statistics just because they don’t understand the context. Allow them the grace to have to ask what a manatee is and to ask why manatee deaths would be expected to have anything to do with powerboat registrations. I can imagine assignment questions having links to further information so they can find out more, or a quick whole-class discussion about contexts when you hand out assignments — possibly something like a numberless word problem. They might go a long way to alleviate context fatigue.

The second reason is that statistics involves making decisions, the biggest of which is deciding what statistical procedure to do and which bits of your situation go with which parts of the procedure. With so many to choose from, and no consistent naming system for the various procedures even inside the one discipline, this is a hugely daunting task for the beginner. It all just seems like a big cloud of random stuff and the students often can’t see what it is that distinguishes between the procedures and what information is being used to decide one over the other. This is only compounded by the fact that part of the decision is made based on information that comes from the context the statistics is being used for today, which was already a problem. It’s further compounded by the fact that many who succeed in mathematics at school have done so by having a list of problem types and how to solve each one, and are not actually used to making decisions at all.

I think a good dose of actually analysing that decision process and comparing situations that produced different decisions would go a long way to helping this, rather than leaving the decision to chance. Indeed, I’ve written before about how important it is to give students practice at the act of making the decision.

The final reason I can think of right now is that doing statistics requires making a computer do what you want. This is a completely separate skill from understanding the context, understanding the maths and deciding what stats to do, and has a whole host of its own frustrations, not least of which is just getting access to the computer program itself or figuring out how to install it! And yet it is the gatekeeper of producing actual statistical results. Learning how to communicate with the statistics program is just one more language process that has to happen to succeed in statistics, on top of the decision-making and context-interpreting language processes I already mentioned! Added to this, for the mathematically experienced, they have spent a lot of time learning how to assert their independence from technology and rely on their own reasoning. To not be able to do something themselves and be forced to get a machine to do it for them leaves a bad taste in their mouth.

Again I’m not too sure how to do something about this problem. Certainly you can make sure there is a lot of support available for getting the program to work, and for asking help specifically with the program. At university you could elevate it to the regular lecture time rather than leave it to practical classes that students may avoid. (Yes I know if they struggle with computer stuff they should go to computer classes, but humans are nothing if not illogical when emotions like guilt and fear are involved.)

Now that I have written this all down, it occurs to me that these problems are a lot about language, and so this issue may be related to your high-maths-experience students avoiding language in much the same way that other students avoid maths. Perhaps the main thing we can do for them is help them process the fact that it will be about language and support them in their language, and perhaps help them realise that they have a lot more language skills than they thought they had. (Those of us who teach students at earlier stages in their lives might do well to help them realise that maths is all about language anyway!) On top of that, we can have some compassion on them because learning statistics actually is hard work.

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2 Responses

  1. Megan says:

    I personally love statistics but I certainly know plenty of maths learners and educators who don’t. I think statistics is often mathematically simple (mostly plug and chug often with technology) but conceptually challenging. For example, even a simple p-test (covered in Year 12) is not entirely intuitive (Wouldn’t we want a large probability to reject H_0?…We reject for a large test statistic…). As a result, students who usually do well in maths are suddenly struggling not because they can’t do the maths but because they need more time to understand the context and interpret what the numbers actually mean as you say. Maybe more discussion of what is actually happening when we perform different tests could help.

    • David Butler says:

      Thanks for the comment Megan. Yes I agree that people might struggle because it’s not the maths that’s the problem! I reckon more discussion of how the context relates to the maths might help them make the connection.

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