Interactive Resources for Teaching Stats

The internet has allowed the creation and dissemination of a wide range of tools useful to those of us who teach statistics in our research methods courses. I found two to be particularly helpful.

  1. – As its name implies, the site gives students a scatterplot of points and asks them to guess the correlation. My students were asked to play three games and upload screenshots of their final scores as evidence that they had completed the assignment. Many went on to play more than three games; the sound effects and points make it a very addictive game. What it brought home to them very effectively is that correlation is about how tight the points are to the (imaginary) best-fit line, not about the slope of the line. Students enjoyed playing a game as homework; it was certainly less onerous than practicing calculating correlations by hand.
  2. The Rice Virtual Lab in Statistics: Sampling Distributions – The Java-based simulation for sampling distributions allows you to draw a distribution of any shape you want, select repeated samples of any size, and then plot the sampling distribution of the means (or several other statistics). I even let them draw some of the distributions and do some of the simulations so that they were convinced it wasn’t just the values I was picking. I was able to demonstrate to the class in just a few minutes that the shape of the parent distribution doesn’t matter; the means will always be distributed normally.  Watching their faces, this really blew their minds; they probably would have blindly accepted it if I just told them this is how it is, but having seen it, we had a much easier time accepting that the same property held for regression coefficients. (The chance to visit the central limit theorem was a bonus for undergrads.) The whole activity took less time than a lecture of the similar material. (A similar lab simulation exists for confidence intervals as well.)

What about you? What are your favorite interactive sites for teaching research methods or statistics?

Coming up for air

Do catch up on sleep, too

It’s that strange, twinkling time in the academic year; that point when your acquaintances ask: “so now the students have gone, I guess you’re on your holidays too, right?”

I appreciate this will vary for colleagues in other countries, but here in the UK it’s a 12-month year and the summer is the time to ‘do all the stuff we didn’t do in the semesters.’

In several ways, this is almost an unilluminating as the queries about how you fill your summer, since everyone I know in academia is busy doing all kinds of things all the time.

Given that our workloads all all as unique as we are [sic], rather than try to generalise too much, I just want to share my reflections on how I’m passing the time until the end of September, when we get our academic year going again. Continue reading

It takes a department…

Insert joke about Belgium’s space programme here

I’m coming back to the idea of soft ties and community building in education, having spent the weekend in Bruges, celebrating 20 years since my Masters degree.

For those of you not familiar with the College of Europe, it’s a Masters-only institution, teaching students on various aspects of European integration. It has a reputation as a training ground for those going to work in Brussels, in and around the European Union. Certainly, from my year, there are now many friends who are now senior people in European or national organisations, from ambassadors to heads of unit, professors to executive suite types.

I mention this not to brag – if anything, there’s a strong dissonance of seeing such people in such roles, when your lasting memory is of them having a food fight at a cheese fondue party – but to observe that our reunion was grounded in the very strong sense of community that we shared.

As students, the College insisted that we not only study together, but also live  and eat together, in the various residences that they provided. At the time, I’m not sure I appreciated being given 21 meals a week – especially come ‘sandwich Sunday dinner’ – but it meant that we got to spend a lot of time together, learn more about each other as people, rather than just classmates. Continue reading

The seminar and social media: Guest post by Samantha Cooke

As part of our guest post series, this piece by Samantha Cooke (Surrey) considers how to incorporate Twitter into seminar classes.

In 2014, I undertook a research project examining the use of social media in Higher Education, following experiences with lecturer and student engagement within a Security Studies module on which I was running seminars.

As someone who only had a Twitter account to keep up to date with the news, the regular use of Twitter alone was new to me. In this respect, the classroom served as a great environment for a newcomer to this social media platform as it provided a framework within which I was able to learn how everything worked. The findings of this project have since been published in Education and Information Technologies. Continue reading

Making assessment relevant

Insert metaphor here

Reading Martin’s post yesterday, just as I’m finishing my duties as an external examiner, makes me think about assessment formats.

Too often, we fall into the essay-and-exam approach: it’s simple, and easy and hardly anyone questions it. Of course, as the institution I external at is about to find out, I’m one of the people who does question it.

Assessment has a terrible reputation to deal with: in essence, it’s a hassle to do as a student, a hassle to set and mark as an instructor and the source of more academic complaints than anything else. No-one has a good word to say about it, it seems.

In our hearts, we know that it matters and that there has to be some kind of means of evaluating student performance, for their sakes and ours. But surely there’s a better way of doing it. Continue reading

Emotion & simulations

Since Chad was kind enough to pick up on the theme of my post last week – emotion’s role in what we do – it’s only polite to return the favour.

Chad’s issue is one that all of us who use simulations encounter. We’re trying to build a more manageable version of the real world, which means selecting particular aspects to focus on, and then our participants go and mess it all up by focusing on some other aspect. Chad’s finding that with the South China Sea, I’m finding it with my parliamentary dynamics game and you’re finding it with something else.

How to deal with this? Basically, in one of three ways. Continue reading

Introducing Computer Programming in Political Science Classes

Today’s post is a guest posting from Jane Lawrence Sumner of the University of Minnesota. Jane’s research and teaching interests are in international political economy and research methods.


Undergraduate methods classes frequently use statistical software programs, despite students typically have little background knowledge in programming. While we seldom ask students to do anything that would require that background knowledge, the idea of having to program can be a roadblock for many students. In an attempt to alleviate this, I designed an activity to introduce my students to the fundamentals of programming in a non-technical way. The objectives of the course were for students to understand that programming primarily involves providing the computer with very good, very specific instructions to carry out the task at hand.

Students were split into small groups, and each group was given a piece of paper with a hand-drawn cartoon on it. They were told to write instructions about how to reproduce the drawing that they could then give to another student. After twenty minutes, they stopped. Each group stood with their backs to the whiteboard while they read their instructions to a student from another group, positioned at the whiteboard with a marker. Students were not allowed to modify their instructions and were deliberately unable to see the student with the marker so that they could not course-correct. The student with the marker was allowed to ask only one question: “can you please repeat that?”

Only one of the drawings actually resembled the original. Although the students enjoyed drawing and seeing the monstrosities emerging on the board, and loved the great reveal at the end of what the drawing should have looked like, the key pedagogical point came in the discussion at the end, when I asked students, “What made this difficult? What would have made it easier?” The points that emerged organically were the same objectives I’d set out to convey. Specifically: many, short, precise steps were easier to follow well than longer, more detailed steps. Students also determined that having a clear and constant reference point (like a coordinate system) would have made the direction and scale easier, that naming parts of the drawing for later reference was easier than repeating “the curvy line that ended up at the first straight line” over and over, and that if each step relied upon the subsequent step, things could quickly go awry.