Many students are gun-shy of math and go out of their way to avoid it. But when they go to college to major in subjects like environmental science, business, allied health, and even psychology, they discover they have to understand statistics if they are to succeed in their careers. This is a challenge for college educators worldwide. At Aaniiih Nakoda College (ANC) we decided to tackle our students’ math phobias by doing something different.
It all started when we took a risk and decided to team-teach a statistics course. We were trying to find an approach that would spark student interest and catapult them into a love of the subject. The method had to be linked to real world activities, use place-based information and data relevant to the Fort Belknap reservation, and feed back into the community. We knew we were in for an uphill battle because so many of our students are anxious about engaging in math.
First we went hunting for a text. We found the book Statistics Explained by Steve McKillup (Cambridge University Press), which is aimed at students who don’t like math. Even the cover is approachable, featuring fish instead of math formulas. McKillup is Australian and teaches in the School of Medical and Applied Sciences at Central Queensland University, which has a relatively high proportion of Indigenous students. Many of the students at the university are from low socioeconomic and rural backgrounds and are the first in their family to go to college.
We emailed McKillup, who said he wrote the book to reach his own math-phobic students. His interest in teaching those who struggle with statistics stemmed from his own life experience translating often complex formulas into simple diagrams. McKillup says, “Most students with a fear of math do not have an inherent learning difficulty, rather they have a learned difficulty from previous bad experiences”—and we agree! His methods have been highly successful. One of his Indigenous students told him, “I used to skip school on the days math was taught, but your course has put my math demons to rest.”
The big challenge was to get the near incomprehensible language of mathematics and statistical formulas into a user-friendly format that would engage our students. This is where our non-traditional and very different approach to statistics produced a very positive outcome.
First, we used hands-on, practical sessions to teach basic concepts. To come to grips with probability, our students counted different colored beads which they sampled from bowls, recording the data in their log books. They then used a statistical computer program to analyze and graph the data. This linked a hands-on experience with the use of spreadsheets and statistical packages. The elders from the Fort Belknap reservation are often in our classes and so our students had an opportunity to explain why their hands were in a bowl of beads!
Second, students developed their own projects relevant to the community, carrying out their own original research. This engaged them and gave them ownership of the research process. Some gathered demographic data from the local cemetery to calculate early childhood deaths. Another group studied the data from our long-range monitoring project for the West Nile virus in local mosquitoes. And one group sought to determine if there was a difference between American Indians on the Fort Belknap reservation and the general population in their ability to taste a bitter substance known as phenylthiocarbamide (they concluded that there was a difference).
Third, we used the research projects to show the importance of employing statistics to make decisions about results. A problem every experimental scientist faces is making a judgment about the results of his or her surveys and experiments. Whenever one compares an experimental (treated) group and a control (untreated) group, the scientist must be aware that there will be variation due to chance. In other words, treatment and control groups are unlikely to be exactly the same, even if the treatment has had no effect. The question a scientist always has to ask is, “Is the difference between my treatment and the control groups only within the range of variation expected by chance, or does it seem as though the treatment is having an effect?” Statistical testing gives the probability of getting the observed difference, which helps the researcher to make that distinction. Therefore, no matter what the field of study, students must learn how to choose, use, and interpret the results of complex statistical tests.
Fourth, we adopted a text that explained complex statistical tests using pictures and diagrams, instead of daunting formulas. This approach demystified the tests and made them understandable to students with little or no prior mathematical knowledge. Statistics Explained differs from most statistics texts. It is written in the active voice and speaks directly to the reader. Most importantly, the explanations are pictorial, with formulas and tests explained as diagrams. The book describes even complex tests such as analysis of variance in simple diagrams supported by straightforward text.
Finally, the learning experience included an oral presentation as part of the final assessment. Each student group gave a report on their findings and analyses, and then had to justify and defend them in response to their peers’ questions. One faculty observer said, “This is so professional! It’s like a scientific conference.” Students were highly motivated because the course was an authentic experience in doing research that had relevance. It gave them an understanding of the tests they needed to use, how to apply them, how to interpret the outcomes of their experiments, and how to communicate them to a wider audience.
This non-traditional method for engaging students with statistics and empowering them has been extremely successful at Aaniiih Nakoda College. Our experience also illustrates the value of exchanging ideas among educators from different countries who teach Indigenous peoples.
Liz McClain and Annette Vander Ven have taught at Aaniiih Nakoda College for over 20 years, where the two team-teach statistics. They would like to thank Steve McKillup for sharing his teaching methods and his contributions to this article.