Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

How can we break down and build up students' active learning experience in a behavioral statistics course?

15 Apr 2024 6:42 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Rachel T. Walker
University of the Incarnate Word
Click here for a link to the article with figures

When I was an undergraduate student in biology, I decided to take a statistics course in psychology. I didn’t realize at that time that I would later be teaching this course in graduate school, and I couldn’t imagine that statistics would be one of my favorite courses to teach. Statistics can be a challenging subject for many students, but effective teaching can make a significant difference in how it's perceived (Pan & Tang, 2004). Over the years I have taught this course using a variety of teaching strategies based on the department layout of the course. As I progressed in teaching this course, I wanted the course to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs and create an active and effective learning experience for teaching behavioral statistics.

Over the years, I have continued to ask questions related to effective teaching strategies. What if I embedded videos or journal articles related to the real-world application of statistics? How could formative assessments such as quizzes, discussions, and polls during the course gauge students’ understanding? How can I use hands-on applications to illustrate the concepts of the material? Can I combine traditional lectures with interactive elements? Could I use a technology integration like SPSS (a software package used for the analysis of statistical data) to provide a hands-on project? How can I use scaffolded learning to break down complex statistical concepts? I will share some of the ways I have addressed these questions.

What if I embedded videos and research related to the real-world application of statistics?

I embed videos and research materials using a mixture of resources. Here are several examples of how I use short videos within the lecture. I show the videos during class, but students can also access them outside of class to confirm their understanding of the material.

I incorporate various Crash Course Statistics videos into the semester, offering detailed examples that illustrate the practical applications of specific statistical concepts in our daily lives. Before the start of the semester, I reach out to students and shared a crash course statistics video that provides the purpose of statistics; for example, how meteorologists use statistical methods to analyze historical weather data, identify patterns, and make predictions about future weather conditions, and how companies use statistics to aid in analyzing consumer behavior, preferences, and trends. I incorporate additionalCrash Course Statistics videos to provider a preview of specific statistical concepts, such as central tendency, before diving into the lecture content. For instance, before the central tendency lecture, I share a video that provides an overview of how these statistics can determine the center of both normal and skewed distributions.

Crash Course Statistics Preview

Mean, Median, and Mode: Measures of Central Tendency: Crash Course Statistics #3

In one of the classes, I cover the four levels of measurement along with fundamental definitions and a few examples. Following that, I present a brief video offering visual insights into the distinctions among the measurement scales.

Data Science & Statistics: Levels of measurement

Another instance related to the use of a short video involves the application of bar graphs. Initially, I instruct students on the X- and Y-axes to depict data. Students acquire the skills to construct histograms and bar charts and interpret their representations. Once they grasp the fundamentals of bar graphs, I introduce a video that provides real-world instances of commonly shared misleading graphs.

How to spot a misleading graph

In addition to videos, I also distribute sections of a journal article, allowing students the chance to practice reading and interpreting the results section. I first provide students with the abstract of the article to offer a brief overview of the article, highlighting the main objectives, methods, results, and conclusions of the work. I share the results section to provide an overview of the structure of the results on the statistic that relates to the lecture. This is usually the first time that students are introduced to reading the results of a scientific article related to psychology. This process assists students in understanding the format of how statistics are reported in a journal article and the use of APA format. In other psychology courses, students will be required to summarize scientific articles and understand the methods and analyses.

How could formative assessments such as quizzes, discussions, and polls during the course gauge student understanding?

Quick quizzes are embedded throughout the lecture to test student understanding after each small section of content. These questions, taken from Cengage’s instructor materials related to the textbook (Essentials of Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences 10th ed., Gravetter et al.) could be multiple choice, true or false, or applied research questions. This process allows students to confirm they understand the course material before we continue to move forward in the chapter.

I incorporate discussion group assignments in the course to encourage active engagement amount students. Throughout the semester, I offer six discussion board opportunities, where students submit their discussion topics and respond to posts from their peers.

Here are several examples of sources that could be used for creating discussion group assignments:

1) A majority of Americans have heard of ChatGPT, but few have tried it themselves. Integrate the information from the tables into your overall understanding of the material.

2) How to defend yourself against misleading statistics in the news.

Integrate the information in the video in your overall understanding of misleading statistics.

3) Correlating Barriers to Medication Adherence With Trait Anxiety, Social Stigma, and Peer Support in College Students With Chronic Illness

Indicate how the information from the tables and result section into your overall understanding of the material.

Directions for Response: Make sure your responses are well thought out and each provides at least 3 sentences for each section. Respond to each of the following questions: Describe the topic provided by this resource. What did you find interesting? How would this relate to the real world? What did you find challenging to understand?

Directions for Replies to colleagues should be at least 3 sentences as well. Reply to another student's post: Replies can include your thoughts about the student's perception of the source or your additional thoughts on the topic related to the source.

Moreover, I employ Poll Everywhere in diverse manners within a lecture. For example, at the beginning of a lecture on descriptive statistics, students are asked “What type of social media is used the most in the U.S.?” Once students submit their thoughts, I show students the data related to this question that did not support most of their responses for adults. However, I then provide data on teens' use of social media that is closer to their responses. After the discussion, I lecture on descriptive statistics.

Here are the links I shared from PEW and discussed the changes over time.

I also use Poll Everywhere towards the end if a lecture to ensure that students understand the content. For example, rate your level of understanding of how to calculate an independent t-test. If students respond that they are struggling with this issue it provides useful feedback and students can ask specific questions regarding their issue.

How can I use hands-on applications to the concepts of the material?

Here is an example of how I utilize hands-on applications in class. First, I teach students how to read and understand a research scenario, determining information such as the alternative hypothesis, the alpha level, and the variables provided.

During a lecture, I present how to use that information in the 4-step process for hypothesis testing.

1. State null and alternative hypotheses.

2. Identify the critical region based on alpha level, one or two-tailed hypothesis, and degrees of freedom.

3. Compute the statistics by showing all calculations.

4. Draw out the distribution with the critical and test statistic. Conclude and report the findings in APA format.

After students took notes on this process, I provide them with another research scenario to solve during class. While students are working through the 4-step process, I assist them along the way. For example, if a student wants to know if they are on the correct path, they might ask if their critical region is correct. If the student is incorrect, instead of saying no, I ask them a question.. I asked them to show me how they came to that conclusion. This process allows the student to find the correct answer in most cases. Students can then proceed to complete homework questions using the hands-on applications introduced in class. In many real-world scenarios, the use of statistical software and tools has become standard due to their efficiency, accuracy, and ability to handle large datasets. This process of manual calculations can be more effective in conveying the step-by-step process, contributing to better conceptual communication. However, in some work situations small datasets and manual calculations can be quicker than setting up and using statistical software.

Can I combine traditional lectures with interactive elements? Could I use a technology integration like SPSS to provide a hands-on project?

How can I alter my previous teaching of behavioral statistics? I did something I thought I would never do. I had to remove some of the content to provide students with the opportunity to learn how to analyze, interpret, and summarize their results by integrating technology. I use SPSS, but other types of software can be used. such as Microsoft Excel. I've excluded lectures covering paired-t tests, two-way ANOVA, and Regression. While these statistics are referenced in a lecture, students won't receive in-depth information about these subjects. Our department offers an elective course in Advanced Statistics, providing students with the opportunity to explore and delve into more intricate statistical concepts. In addition, this change allowed me to use those class times to embed a lab component into the lectures.

I provide students with a preexisting dataset that I collected earlier, which they use in the lab component of the class. This data is employed for descriptive statistics, independent t-test, one-way ANOVA, and correlations. I familiarize students with the broader subject of the research they will be examining, which involves personality and social networking. Subsequently, I clarify the variables and their measurements, such as gregariousness and the frequency of social media usage. In the lab, I guide them through the SPSS layout to enhance their understanding of the software's functionality and then provide lab for each of the four types of statistics that will be analyzed in SPSS. For example, after I teach the independent t-test, I will have a lab focused on how to calculate the independent t-test in SPSS, how to interpret the outcome, and how to write up the findings in the APA format. I provide handouts for the lab that include an introduction, the steps to complete in SPSS, an example of the output, and a paragraph of the findings of the example. As I explain this process, students follow along by mimicking my steps. Subsequently, I task students with forming hypotheses derived from the measured variables. In the assignment, students are required to generate two hypotheses. I review each hypothesis before examining the analysis of the first one in the lab. Afterward, I provide feedback on the results of each student's first hypothesis before the conclusion of the lab session. Throughout the lab, I employ the Socratic method to facilitate learning and guide students in completing the assignment related to the second hypothesis outside of class.

How can I use scaffolded learning to break down complex statistical concepts?

Teaching a course using scaffolding involves providing structured support to students as they learn new concepts, gradually removing this support as they gain mastery. Here's my step-by-step guide on how I implement scaffolding in a course:

1) Assess prior knowledge: I use poll everywhere at the beginning of a lecture.

2) Break down the information: I define terms, provide steps for analysis, and utilize quizzes.

3) Provide guidance: I allow students individual practice in and out of the classroom.

4) Encourage collaboration: I embed collaboration with the instructor and other students.

5) Continuous assessment: I assess in-class calculations, poll everywhere, and quizzes.

6) Gradual release of responsibility: I utilize the Socratic method in the lecture and lab.

7) Applications to real-world tasks: I offer discussions on real-world situations and provide students with the opportunity to analyze, interpret, and report on existing data.

8) Flexibility: I utilize an adaptive based on various levels of support needed.

It is essential to teach statistics according to students' needs and foster an active and effective learning experience for various reasons. This includes the utilization of active learning methods, such as hands-on activities and engaging discussions, to keep students motivated and involved in the learning process. Additionally, enhancing understanding by presenting practical situations, connecting statistical concepts to real-world scenarios, and equipping students with proactive skills and problem-solving abilities are key objectives in this approach.

In summary, teaching statistics in a way that addresses students' needs and incorporates active learning methodologies enhances the overall learning experience, making the subject more accessible, engaging, and applicable to students' academic and professional pursuits.

I consistently adapt and modify the course design in response to student feedback and through collaboration with fellow instructors. This ongoing process makes teaching this course a continuous and rewarding experience. This story never ends… which makes this course still one of my favorite courses.


Pan, W., & Tang, M. (2005). Students' perceptions on factors of statistics anxiety and instructional strategies. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 32(3), 205.

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