Back to classroom teaching

Last year I was on sabbatical and did not do any teaching. The six years before that, I was chairing a large department, and my time was totally taken up by administration. Thus I have not been in the classroom for seven years. While serving as chair, I did work with both graduate and undergraduate students in one-on-one mentoring relationships, teaching them how to do research. But I have not had to prepare or teach a regular course in a traditional classroom.

This past summer, one of our faculty members retired, and we hired someone with different expertise, leaving a gap in our teaching that had to be covered. The collective agreement that governs our work also changed, for the better I think, requiring all chairs to do some teaching. So, this past fall, even though I am once again department chair, I have been teaching statistics to 20 first-year master’s students whose primary interests vary across all of psychology. It has been a wonderful experience, and I have greatly enjoyed being back in the classroom. However, because I last taught statistics 15 years ago, I have had to completely rework the course, and I have found that preparing and carrying out the details of a new course has taken up all my time (and could have taken up more). Now I spend all weekend working on my lectures, and other parts of the course (marking) have been piling up undone.

Psychology students have a love/hate relationship with statistics. They know that because every individual is unique, researchers need to deal with the variance between people and look at averages and comparisons on messy data. Statistics is an essential tool for every research psychologist. At the same time, many psychology students are also apprehensive of the mathematics involved in statistics, so this topic causes them concern, sometimes outright terror.

I love the challenge of taking a statistical concept and determining how to explain it so that students can easily understand. But doing this is not easy: I can spend hours working on a single topic, such as how to determine if there is a real difference between two groups. Sometimes times I succeed, but occasionally I fail, and confusion spreads through the class.

Active learning

Adding to my joy of teaching is the fact that our approach to statistics is changing. We have realised that the methods we used in the past are not as robust as we assumed, and new, more cautious techniques are needed – replacing means with confidence intervals, for example: instead of saying the intelligence of first-year university students is on average 100, we say that the true average is likely (95 times out of 100) to be somewhere between 94 and 106. Hopefully, these changes will improve the quality of our science.

The tools we have available to do statistics have also changed. With the wide availability of computers and new software, we can run 10,000 simulations of a data set in a few seconds (a technique called bootstrapping) and answer questions that were beyond our ability when our tools were mechanical calculators. Students now need these techniques to be able to do their research.

Finally, the very classroom has changed. No longer am I a “sage on the stage” (a description of lecturing). With “smart” classrooms, featuring computer whiteboards and group tables, we now have an active learning classroom, and it changes my teaching approach. I am not yet as good at using these new tools as I would like, but I too am learning, probably more than my students.

In Scripture Jesus is sometimes called Teacher or Rabbi, a teacher of the law, but I doubt he ever taught statistics; it is possible he may have taught carpentry. However, from Jesus’ teaching of his disciples, we learn that true teaching is a sacred act of love for your students. In the classroom, at its best, we emulate this aspect of Jesus’ work and, as teachers, desire to have our students acquire a truer understanding of God’s world and how it works. I am blessed to again have this responsibility.


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