Survival Tips for Students in Introduction to Measurement and Statistics

Occasionally, an otherwise excellent student who possesses a high G.P.A. will walk into a statistics or research methods course and they flounder for the first time in their academic career. This need not happen to any student! If you possess basic math/algebra and critical thinking skills, you should have a high level of success in a statistics course.

More often than not, if individuals experience a problem, it is not the result of an inability to comprehend the material or a lack of preparedness. Rather, the problem lies with a unique characteristic inherent in a statistics or research methods course. These courses require application of knowledge to demonstrate proficiency and mastery of the material and also require creative, logical thought. In other words, the answer is rarely in the book. Students must take the information they have learned, trust that they understand the information, and go out on a limb by putting their application of that information on paper. In any ways, learning statistics is much like learning to ride a bike. You will be learning "how" to do something, as opposed to simply learning content.

Here are some basic suggestions that you can use and remember during the course to help you be highly successful.

Monitor your learning: You should keep a weekly log of your work in this statistics course. Lan (1996) tested the effects of self-monitoring on statistics class performance. Lan assigned students to either a self-monitoring or one of two control groups. Students in the self-monitoring group kept a log documenting the time they spent using various learning strategies (e.g., group discussion, tutoring, problem solving), the amount of time they spent studying a particular statistical concept, and they recorded their confidence level in understanding the material. Lan found that students in the self-monitoring group performed at a significantly higher level than the other two groups and demonstrated a better ability to organize and understand course content. It is easy to fall behind in statistics and hence, monitoring your progress will enhance your ability to do well in this course.

Keep Up: "The material presented four weeks from today will be based on the material presented today." A statistics course consists primarily of successive skill layer development. Thus, what you learn in during Week Two will be based on the material from Week One and what you learn in Week Three will be based on and an extension of Week Two and so on. Therefore, it behooves you not to fall behind; this is not a course where you can just pick things up in the middle.

Be prepared to make mistakes and to take risks: Mistakes are a necessary part of the learning process. If you fail to take risks and you are not making mistakes then you are undercutting your own learning. Therefore, make sure you participate in all online discussions and activities, as this will enhance your learning. Do not hesitate to participate simply because you think you may make a mistake or you might have the wrong answer. It is through trial and a fair amount of error that we learn. Expect to make mistakes as you work through the practice problems and homework. The key is to learn from those mistakes! No one ever got on a bike and rode it perfectly the first time around the block!

Seek understanding vs. rote memorization: As each research problem or scenario is unique, so will be your analysis/interpretation of data associated with each study. If you simply memorize formulas, you will not know when to use them or how to interpret data once computed. Thus, seek to understand the concepts. If you understand conceptually the underlying logic of each statistical analyses, you will then know when and how to use each technique. A corollary to the maxim of "seek understanding vs. rote memorization" is "study to learn as opposed to studying for a grade." Also, avoid surface learning--looking for "cues" or specific words to provide hints to a solution. Often these words may lead you to a false conclusions (Kelly, Sloane, & Whittaker, 1997; Pfannkuch & Wild, 2004). So, again, look to understand the deeper concepts and not just surface hints.

Bear in mind that statistics is not a math course: Students and teachers should recognize that quantitative literacy is only a small component of statistical literacy. Statistics is not branch of mathematics but is rather a distinct discipline within the liberal arts (Moore, 1998; Cobb & Moore, 2000). As such, it is most important to focus on the learning of ideas as opposed to simply learning how to crunch numbers.

There may be more than one correct answer to a problem: Often times in statistics, there is more than one answer to a problem or a single answer can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways. This is actually part of the fun of statistics! Nonetheless, this fuzziness can be frustrating for students who want one correct answer to a problem. Unfortunately, this desire for clarity does not reflect the ambiguity of real life. Keep in mind that statistics are not designed to provide "proof" for a research hypothesis. Rather, statistical techniques are designed to be used as a tool to help us make educated decisions about research hypotheses. As with many tools, they can be used in many different ways with different outcomes.

Practice: Practice using the problems provided in class. Practice using the problems in the text. Make up your own problems to help you study. As with the development of any new skill, practice can lead to increased competence.

Keep your sense of humor: Because the application of statistical knowledge requires logical and creative thought, anxiety may be your worst enemy in a statistics class. It is difficult to think clearly if you are surrounded by a cloud of panic. Thus, try to keep this class in perspective and look for ways to make the class fun for you. Should you find yourself overwhelmed, contact me or other students in the class to help you get back on track.

Be patient with yourself: Learning statistics is very much like learning a new language. Early on you do not have enough knowledge to speak in complete sentences but as your learning and skills develop so will your fluency. Thus, be patient with yourself as you learn the introductory concepts necessary for the development of statistical competence.

Ask questions: It is impossible for me to know that you do not understand a concept if you do not ask questions. Although it may be difficult to "raise your hand" in public and express confusion, in the long haul, it will be less troublesome than demonstrating your confusion on an exam.

Don't be afraid to ask for help: There are many ways that an instructor can help if you are having difficulty. Only by communicating with me can I assess how best to provide assistance.

Use additional resources: Feel free to use additional resources to enhance your learning. For example, your text may periodically recommend a reading for additional information relevant to a particular topic. In addition, the instructor may be able to provide a list of suggested readings. In addition, go to the library and make a point of reading professional journal articles (particularly the results sections) in your discipline. This will help you become increasing familiar with the application and interpretation of statistical information.

Pay attention to time management: Again, it is vital not to fall behind in a statistics course and as such, effective time management is essential. Therefore, at the beginning of the term develop a formalized schedule for study time, class participation, sample problems, homework, etc. Be sure to pace your readings and assignments. If you fall behind in statistics, it is difficult (although not impossible) to catch up.

Take good lecture notes: As with any class it is imperative to take good class notes. Learn to recognize key lecture points. Thus, take notes based on the online lecture, watch for repetitions in the lecture and readings, watch for other types of emphases, pay attention to examples, and look carefully at the beginning and end of lecture for highlights. It may seem silly to take hand-written notes when taking a class online. Nonetheless, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) researched the issue and found that taking handwritten notes significantly improved learning!


Cobb, G. W., & Moore, D. S. (2000). Statistics and mathematics: Tension and cooperation. American Mathematical Monthly, 106, 615-630.

Kelly, A. E., Sloane, F., & Whittaker, A. (1997). Simple approaches to assessing underlying understanding of statistical concepts. In I. Gal & J. Garfield (Eds.), The assessment challenge in statistics education (pp. 85-90). IOS Press.

Lan, W. Y. (1996). The effects of self-monitoring on students' course performance, use of learning strategies, attitude, self-judgment ability, and knowledge representation. Journal of Experimental Education, 64, 101-115.

Moore, D. S. (1998). Statistics among the liberal arts. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 93, 1253-1259.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.

Pfannkuch, M., & Wild, C. (2004). Towards an understanding of statistical thinking. In D. Ben-Zvi & J. Garfield (Eds.), The challenge of developing statistical literacy, reasoning, and thinking (pp. 17-46). Kluwer Academic.

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