Prepping for the first day of my Graduate Statistics II class triggered a whole host of memories. I was thinking about the new semester and reflecting on my own relationship with statistics—my very own ‘stats story’. So I thought in this post I would share my story and conclude with some tips/strategies for those interested.
My college roommate/best friend and I both majored in the social sciences. And when we could, we took classes together, including one semester of statistics. We were fine students and did well in the course. In fact, since we studied together and worked on assignments together, we received comparable grades (though mine might have been just slightly higher, and Danielle went to office hours a few times when I didn’t). In any case, on paper, we were pretty much the same student. One ‘marked’ difference between us though, was that she is white and I am black. Neither of us thought that would matter in a stats class.
However, one day, the professor decided to hand out white envelopes to a few select students in class. Danielle received one and I didn’t. We opened it up to see that Danielle had been invited to join the stats club. We were both a bit confused. Why did she get an invitation and I didn’t, even though it was clear we both were dedicated students who could do statistics? Heck, I was that type of student who would’ve actually joined a club like that!
I was very bothered by that incident but never said anything to the professor. I did, however, go on to take another unrequired stats class in undergrad, receive high grades in my graduate stats courses, become my department’s graduate stats TA, and now teach an advanced stats class to graduate students at my research university (hmmmn… maybe I should *let him know*).
It’s frustrating that my undergrad professor would have never guessed that I would be teaching my own stats class in less than 10 years time (in fact it reveals a lot about racial bias and the shortcomings of our educational system). The professor’s decision to ignore my potential fed into my own insecurities when it came to my academic abilities. At this point I was convinced I was not a “math-person”. I guess to be honest, if you would have told the 20-year old version of me I would be teaching my own stats class, I wouldn’t have believed it either.
I most definitely didn’t think highly of my skills once I got to graduate school. I completely fed into the well-embedded climate of fear that surrounded the stats courses at my graduate institution. During the time I was a student the current trend was that about a 1/3 of every cohort would have to repeat at least one stats course. With that in mind, I made it my goal to just get through the class – just to merely pass. I did end up passing, but not without damage. I struggled through stats with everyone else. I cursed the stats assignments in the computer lab, I pulled all-nighters to finish assignments, and I even cried after my first stats exam.
Stepping away from the university during break was probably the best thing for me at that point. I realized that something needed to change or else I wouldn’t survive in that space; I needed a more positive semester. I decided to start with stats. I not only made it a goal to get an ‘A’ that next semester, but I shifted my goal to learning statistics, rather than getting through it.
What do you know; I ended up earning an A. And then I was asked to be the statistics teaching assistant the following year. I accepted, keeping secret my personal goal of helping *every* student pass the course by trying to help alter their approach to statistics. I rejected the notion that fear and pressure were necessary for success.
During that year I was also able to hone my skills – teaching is indeed the best learning tool. Perhaps my experience makes me a good stats teacher. As someone who had to overcome the doubt and had to go above and beyond to understand the concepts, I can relate to the majority of students. Now that I have had a little time under my belt, I have had time to organize some strategies for learning and mastering statistics that I wanted to share.
For those currently enrolled in a stats course, here are some tips on how to do well:
- Do all of the assigned readings before lecture, then read them again afterwards
- Work on your own, but consult with others when needed
- Tell someone (preferably the professor or TA) what you know, ask questions when you don’t know
- Work on statistics a little every (working) day (and take breaks from it when you need to)
- Recognize that all statistical concepts are related, if you don’t grasp something in the beginning learning will become more difficult as you go on
- Don’t let fear, anxiety or dislike impede your work
To the latter point, here are my strategies for changing your approach to statistics:
- Know that understanding and doing statistics is a skill, which means it can be acquired over time with practice and dedication
- Recognize that having sound statistical skills is necessary for academic success – even if you aren’t a quant person, you will need to know the basic skills to remain competitive in this field
- Take time to have fun with statistics – I mean, who hasn’t lost an hour or two making a fancy graph? At the very least, welcome it as break from other writing and reading tasks
- Statistics are important. To this point, my mentor used to like to quote Jay-Z: “men lie, women lie, numbers don’t lie.” And while that might not really be the case, arguments are often strengthened when you have sound statistics to back them, regardless of the type of research you are doing
- Oh, and don’t let any uninformed/racist/sexist/whatever-ist steal your joy 😉
Anyone else have tips or stories to share?