Getting to grips with statistics
Author: Jane Fielding, University of Surrey
Date: 15 July 2011
Type of case study: Teaching
Course title: Quantitative Methods and Data Analysis
Course type: Quantitative research methods; Statistics
Level: Postgraduate; Undergraduate
Jane Fielding has been actively using datasets in her classes for over twenty-five years. During the last few years she has been working with second year undergraduates in Quantitative Methods and an introductory course to statistics to postgraduates studying MSc in Social Research Methods and MSc in Criminology, Criminal Justice and Social Research at the University of Surrey.
For both levels she has been using the World Bank Development Indicators (WBDI) and the British Social Attitudes Survey. Fielding mentions that students find both datasets to be very interesting and they have the advantage of being appealing to a diverse audience. As she explains:
“The MSc students come from a variety of backgrounds, the course runs in one semester, some of them come directly from the undergraduate course but we also have quite a few students from overseas”
Fielding develops her own workbooks to accompany the data and to enable students to practice what has been demonstrated during the lectures. She elaborates on how the process takes place:“I have been preparing datasets for many years where basically I select the variables I want to illustrate my classes and exercises and sometimes I might prepare a separate codebook for the WBDI and download some technical information that will allow students to better understand the variables that they are using in the analysis they might do for the assignment”.
She chooses around sixty variables form the WBDI and presents their research potential to the class. She elaborates:“Students like it, it’s an interesting dataset … I don’t use all of them in my illustrative exercises but I let students play around the data… I think some of the variables are interesting for the students. They look at it and they might explore it on their own.”
At both levels, students practice basic statistical techniques and later on do some original analysis using the data.“They do, from the assignments I get them to choose, using the WBDI, dependent variables and to choose one or two independent variables to carry out regression analysis. It has the advantage that one can try and control the exercises so that they are different. I check out the variables they use and try to reduce issues of copying or plagiarism.”
Making students aware that there are data available for secondary analysis for her students has also been one of her priorities. She says it has the added use of giving students the opportunity to “try and explain what you see with your real life experience.” Dr Fielding mentions one of the advantages of using real data in the classroom is the added value that “you cannot get from a contrived dataset.” Moreover, she elaborates, students tend to continue using statistics in their academic and professional future:“I tell them that this is a skill that they can sell, that they can put on their CV, that they can use SPSS, which is basically saying that they can do statistical analysis and many of them do. Many end up being the ones doing the analysis in their placement and of course when they come back in their final year we can try and persuade them that it is easier to do quantitative analysis or better still a mixed methods project involving both methodologies”.Fielding believes that her job “is to try and get across to them how simple it is and a lot of the times they think it’s much harder that it is.” She mentions that “teaching anything with numbers to social sciences students can be a great challenge but I like to emphasize to the students how far they have gone.”