Students and their struggles with stats

A new report authored by Professor Andy Field looks at the mathematical and statistical needs of undergraduates in psychology. Ella Rhodes reports.

A report has been released that looks at the mathematical and statistical needs of undergraduate students going into studying psychology. Skills in Mathematics and Statistics in Psychology and Tackling Transition is one of a series of six discipline-specific reports produced by a Higher Education Academy STEM project. It is authored by Professor Andy Field (University of Sussex).

In undergraduate psychology, an A-level in mathematics is not usually needed to be accepted onto a degree course. Perhaps inevitably, the report suggests that many undergraduate students are surprised at the amount of mathematical content in their degree programmes and some struggle to cope with this content.

We sought the views of statistics writer and psychologist Dr John Reidy (Sheffield Hallam University). He said students could be better prepared for the amount of statistics likely to be included within psychology undergraduate courses, through online documentation and open days. But Dr Reidy added there was a danger of putting students off from applying for psychology degrees, and they should be reassured that they would receive support throughout the course. He added: ‘Psychology departments often have strong links with local schools, and we should utilise such links more to ensure that prospective students are made aware of the mathematical content of the degrees to which they are applying.’

Dr Reidy said many psychology departments are very good at increasing students’ confidence in their statistics ability, he added: ‘One of the key ways of increasing students’ confidence is to provide them with plenty of opportunities for practising their statistical skills in a supportive environment. It is usually by doing statistical analysis that students increase their confidence levels.

‘It is important that students are encouraged to run analyses on their own, not in groups or in pairs as this avoids the temptation for those who are fearful or struggling, or relying on others to do the analyses for them. This calls for appropriately resourced laboratory environments to ensure that during each session students are not sharing access to PCs. The report highlighted the fact that the majority of departments provided two to four quantitative methods modules and so it is apparent that departments are providing students with a range of opportunities for undertaking such analyses and thus increasing their statistical confidence.’

When asked whether universities should introduce diagnostic testing of mathematical ability at the start of courses, as the report recommends, Dr Reidy said: ‘I think that in principle diagnostic testing of mathematical ability has key benefits for staff and students alike. In practice though there is a big resourcing issue associated with such an intervention. It is not so much the testing of the students but the means of acting appropriately on the findings of such diagnostic testing.

‘Psychology courses typically have very large cohorts of students and therefore trying to tailor the provision and support for students based upon the results of such testing would potentially be highly resource-intensive. The introduction of such testing would need to be very carefully planned to anticipate the possible impacts upon other aspects of the psychology curriculum.’ 

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