When the data doesn’t work

This week I’ve been running the tutorials for the core first year Health Sciences course. The tutorial is a very light intro into how data is part of communication of health science research, and one of the activities involves the students arranging a set of data cards to investigate relationships between variables. Something happened today that I hadn’t observed before and I need to talk about it.

The students had been going for a little while on the activity, and I walked over to one group just as they were pulling apart some groupings of cards. I asked them what they were doing and they said “We’re starting again because the one we did didn’t work.”

“What do you mean it didn’t work?” I asked.

”We we’re looking at hat wearing and happiness and we didn’t see anything,” they replied.

I was momentarily shocked as the implication on this began to dawn. These students had made a picture that showed there was no relationship, and decided to take it apart because it didn’t work. That is, in their minds, it only works if there is a relationship!

I said to them I’d love to have them put their picture back, because it’s still good to show there isn’t a relationship. (They didn’t, which made me sad.)

I wonder if they had come to this conclusion just because of their natural thinking, or because their past experience was that if a teacher asks them to look at data then there is always a relationship. Either way it’s a bit of a dangerous thing to set up because we are in a bit of a crisis in medical publishing where only positive results get published.

Perhaps we need to give students more examples of data working effectively to argue a lack of relationship.

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