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

So You (Don’t?) Wanna Teach Stats

10 May 2020 12:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

by Adam Green (Southern Illinois University) and Terrill Taylor (University of North Dakota)

Teaching statistics for the social sciences is difficult for many reasons. Varying levels of stats familiarity, interest, and aptitude among students are just a few challenges that instructors must recognize in order to provide effective statistics instruction (Strangfeld, 2013). Students enter college with many different backgrounds in statistics and math in general. Even at the graduate level, students enter programs with diverse statistics experiences. Many/most students are not particularly interested in stats and must take the class simply to complete their degree requirements. In addition, some students have gotten the idea from past experiences/instructors that they are not ‘stats people’, which leads them to approach a stats class with an attitude of learned helplessness (Tomasetto et al., 2009).

So what can you do about this? Thankfully, there are ways to address each of these issues, though there are never any miracle ‘cures’. Here, we provide a few tips and resources for grad students who teach stats.

     Use pre-tests! Knowing where your students are at in terms of statistics knowledge when you begin a course is crucial. Even if it means changing the syllabus, try your best to adapt your teaching plan to the needs of the students. Also, use a post-test at the end of the semester (the same as the pre-test and not for points) to get a clear picture of what impact your class made on their statistical skill (Delucchi, 2014).

     Curb your enthusiasm (at least a little). An instructor being enthusiastic about a topic is generally a good thing in teaching. However, as a graduate student who is teaching statistics to undergrads, you are probably much more into stats than your class is. To avoid ‘losing’ your class, try not to expect your students to find the same joy you might get from seeing a very normal distribution or a large effect size (Tomasetto et al., 2009). Show your students that you understand that statistics can be confusing and sometimes tedious. That being said, some energy will always make your lessons more interesting for your students!

     Acknowledge your mistakes. One thing we all learn upon entering graduate school is that we do not have the time or energy, let alone the capacity, to be perfect. This applies to our statistics know-how as well. One thing about teaching is that we instructors learn new things each time we teach a course, whether through updates in the field or learning that we were mistaken about something the whole time. If you slip up or find out new information later which proves you wrong on something, you are being a good teacher when you let your class know that you were wrong and correct the information.

     Make the material relatable. Understanding statistics can be a daunting process, especially when the examples used in stats problems in and of themselves are tough to comprehend. It can be helpful to ask the class for topics or issues that they may be interested in and use this to help present/teach the material. This can be done by incorporating topics of student’s interest in your teaching presentation or offering assignments that allow students flexibility to create their own examples. Nonetheless, being flexible can go far!

For further ideas for activities or ways to improve your teaching, check out this new e-book by the STP.


Delucchi, M. (2014). Measuring student learning in social statistics: A pretest-posttest study of knowledge gain. Teaching Sociology, 42(3), 231-239.

Strangfeld, J. A. (2013). Promoting active learning: Student-led data gathering in undergraduate statistics. Teaching Sociology, 41(2), 199-206.

Tomasetto, C., Matteucci, M. C., Carugati, F., & Selleri, P. (2009). Effect of task presentation on students’ performances in introductory statistics courses. Social Psychology of Education, 12(2), 191-211.

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