Teaching (and Learning) Psychology Statistics in an Age of Math Anxiety

Every semester, psychology students around the country anxiously file into their required, introductory statistics classes. Although some love it, statistics tends to be difficult and anxiety-producing for psychology students (who sometimes refer to it as Sadistics 101). To combat this, publishers have released a flurry of student-friendly textbooks designed to make statistics more palatable. However, students often face challenges learning statistics, and, frankly, don’t generally like it.

Now, a study examining over two decades of classroom data points to declining math skills as one source of the problem. The study, the largest of its kind, examined data from introductory psychology statistics classes between 1990 and 2011. During this time, scores on a pencil-and-paper math assessment, asking students to solve math problems by hand, decreased by 9%, and the number of attempts required to pass the math test increased by 28%. The material on the test ranged from rounding numbers to basic algebra.

The study (which came from a single private university) did not say why or what kinds of math skills are declining. However, the results mirrored those from the UK and elsewhere, suggesting that psychology (as well business and bioscience) students are increasingly struggling with basic math. Further, all of these studies observed declines on similar kinds of pencil-and-paper math tests (e.g., solving basic-to-intermediate difficulty mathematical problems by hand). The study also confirmed that these hand calculation skills are important for success in statistics classes—even classes that emphasize conceptual understanding.

In short, psychology students are increasingly struggling with math. This can have a number of consequences. In addition to making computations harder, it may cause psychological barriers. Students perceive statistics as highly mathematical, invoking fear and anxiety in statistics courses from the mathematically challenged. Similarly, psychology students with math difficulties tend to adopt negative attitudes toward statistics. Merely informing psychology students that a task requires math is sufficient to impair the performance of mathematically weaker students. If students become anxious, give up, or defensively distance themselves from their statistics courses, they are likely to have even more difficulties.

What Are Instructors to Do?

Given these challenges, how can educators (and students) be successful? In light of the above, we suggest a few strategies:

1. Offer Support Early

According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, people are unaware of knowledge deficits. Students who see themselves as mathematically weak may know this yet still lack the diagnostic information required to address their weaknesses. Giving students feedback early (e.g., via self-tests) paired with good supports (e.g., TAs, tutorial guides, YouTube videos, learning center referrals) may help students target and identify weaknesses before they become problematic.

2. Combat Negativity

As mentioned above, a number of the issues associated with math weaknesses may be psychological. For example, students may self-handicap, defensively disengaging to soften the blow of an anticipated failure. Similarly, students may feel threatened by statistics, perceive it as beyond their ability, or perceive it as not worth their time. However, instructors can present a different view of statistics. As a researcher, I am excited to open my data and see what I’ve found. Letting students experience this joy (e.g., via active learning exercises, research examples, even sharing stories from one’s own research) may help to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of students. Similarly, instructors can frame difficulties as surmountable challenges rather than impossible barriers.

3. Sell the Value of Statistics for All Career Paths

The reality is that statistics skills are valuable, yet this reality is not (yet) experienced in students’ daily lives. Statistical reasoning helps one interpret published (and media reports of) research and is useful for future researchers and future counselors, educators, and practitioners. Not only are the skills sought by employers, but they are highly valued by graduate programs, even masters-level counseling programs (c.f., research and assessment content on the National Counselor Exam). Helping students understand this may refocus priorities as they plan for their careers. More broadly, psychology can be sold in statistics classes as a marriage of “people science” and “data science.” As such, it can be a launchpad for lucrative and rewarding careers in research and analytics. Coaching students about these possibilities may spark motivation.

4. Don’t Sacrifice Understanding; Do Leverage Technology

If students struggle mathematically, it may take considerable time to teach basic formulas and calculations. One, therefore, risks turning statistics classes into number-crunching tutorials. However, knowing how to plug numbers into a tool does not equate to an understanding of the tool, how to use it, how to understand it when reported, and how to spot its misuse. Students will get much more out of a class that teaches statistical thinking and real-world problem-solving.

However, class time is limited. One solution that has been well supported in psychology statistics classes is screencasting—creating video tutorials. For example, my statistics students complete homework problems, watch video walkthroughs of each problem, correct their work, and then submit a revision. This allows students to pause, rewind, and review calculations at their own pace while protecting class time.

What Are Students to Do?

Are you a student who wants to be successful in statistics, yet feels anxious? A fellow psychology student suggests the following strategies:

1. Utilize Resources

Sometimes professors cover a large amount of material in one class session. This can cause stress as you realize you did not understand the concepts as well as you thought. When this happens, remember that there are a plethora of resources available for you!

First, there are a lot of online videos on sites such as YouTube. These videos can provide different examples and step-by-step explanations. These can be paused, rewound, and fast-forwarded whenever needed. One channel I have found extremely useful is How2Stats.

Second, use the office hours that your professor and TA have scheduled for you to come ask questions. Many professors sit in their offices waiting for questions during these times. Go in and work through the concepts and skills you are stuck on. More often than not, you will leave with a better understanding and a calmer mind.

Third, most universities have an on-campus space where tutors are available to support you. This is a great space to work through questions with a peer who has taken the course and been in your shoes. There are often other students there as well, making a great environment for group study sessions.

2. Focus on the Basics; Build Up from There

Before facing the big, scary world of ANOVAs, regressions, and mediations, have a solid understanding of the basics. Spend extra time learning and practicing the concepts in the beginning of the course. Statistics builds heavily on the first few weeks. With those skills well developed, there is nothing stopping you from learning the more advanced procedures.

3. Know That It’s Not Just Math

Many students walk into statistics nervous about math. However, math is only part of statistics. In psychology, statistics is a way to learn about people; the equations and charts are tools for understanding things you probably care about, such as how useful a treatment is, the role of stress in depression, and other psychological topics. If you can’t get excited about the math, look for that you do care about to keep you grounded.

Conclusion

We conclude that the introductory statistics class may be an increasingly major undertaking for some psychology students. However, we also contend that the same class can be a wonderful opportunity. Instructors can lessen students’ challenges by offering supports and speaking to psychological barriers: presenting a ‘stats positive’ attitude, expressing confidence in student ability, selling the value of statistics, and sharing the joy of discovery. Similarly, students can improve their experience by reaching out and seeking connections to their own goals to help them engage. Ultimately, the introductory statistics course can be a life-changing experience, giving students the chance to discover new strengths and interests, become more scientifically minded, and build skills upon which enjoyable and lucrative careers and callings can rest.

About the Author

Dr. Tom Carpenter is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Carpenter’s teaching focuses primarily on introductory and advanced statistics courses for psychology majors as well as introductory and advanced research methods for psychology majors. Dr. Carpenter has been teaching statistics coursework continually since 2010 and is dedicated to helping psychology majors develop data and research skills. Dr. Carpenter’s lab examines our human tendency to violate our moral standards, both in terms of causes (e.g., implicit bias) and consequences (e.g., guilt, shame, self-forgiveness). He is also an author of published articles examining the teaching of psychology and the psychology of religion.
Jaime is a senior psychology student at Seattle Pacific University (SPU). Jaime serves as a tutor for statistics and other psychology classes on campus and works as a research assistant in Dr. Thomas Carpenter’s Social/Personality Psychology Lab. Jaime is also a recipient of the Dickinson Fellowship, which works to address the needs of persons and families affected by severe mental health conditions. Following graduation, Jaime intends to pursue graduate study in school counseling. In her free time, Jaime loves to watch the New England Patriots, spend time with friends and family, and read.