Improving the Odds: A New Study to Improve Undergrad Math Results – Digital Promise

Improving the Odds: A New Study to Improve Undergrad Math Results

University students answering to female teacher

January 23, 2023 | By

At Digital Promise, we believe many more students can succeed and thrive in Introductory Statistics, if given excellent teaching and engaging materials and activities that illuminate the relevance of statistics concepts and methods. Our research aims to reveal the nature of the supports, teaching practices, technology tools, and curriculum that can make the difference, especially in the lives of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

Moving Beyond the Numbers

“If I don’t pass this class, I can’t be a nurse. What am I going to do? . . . . I’ve done everything I can. I study. I don’t even get to sit with my kids and have dinner because I’m [receiving] tutoring for two hours. I’m doing my part.” As the community college student I was interviewing described her anguish after receiving a poor grade on a midterm exam, I thought about the individual stories behind the numbers on college attrition and success rates for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. And those numbers are startling.

Nearly 1.5 million U.S. undergraduates take an Introductory Statistics course each year. One third of these students—nearly 500,000—do not do well enough to earn credit for the course. Among those who identify as Black or Latinx and students from low-income backgrounds, the risk of not earning a course credit is even higher. An estimated 4 out of every 10 Black students enrolling in an Introductory Statistics course, for example, fail, withdraw, or take an Incomplete.

These numbers are unconscionable. College is touted as the pathway to economic advancement, but that dream can’t come true if higher education doesn’t offer conditions under which today’s students can succeed. Students report that they’re expected to know things they’ve never been taught or haven’t used in a long time and that they don’t have the time they need or the feedback required to master statistics concepts. Statistics instructors report that they have to spend an increasing portion of their class time teaching basic math and dealing with mental health issues stemming from isolation and trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reimagining Intro Statistics

I know many efforts are underway to rethink both the content and the methods of Introductory Statistics. Many instructors are using learning software to diagnose areas where individual students may need to sharpen their mathematics skills and to provide the necessary practice. With adaptive programs, both the content and the amount of time spent working on prerequisite skills is adjusted to the individual student’s needs. Other educators have described things they’re doing to stimulate students’ interest in statistics. Some are requiring fewer answer calculations so that more time can be spent on statistical reasoning and foundational concepts. Places like Wesleyan University and Skyline Community College are experimenting with project-based approaches in which students choose issues and research questions to investigate with statistical methods, often using real data sets on topics such as race and traffic stops or geographic location and food resources. Other instructors are making concerted efforts to convey the relevance and importance of statistics for their students’ future lives, in some cases highlighting the contributions of Black and Latinx statisticians.

These pockets of innovation are inspirational, but we can’t expect everyone teaching college statistics to know about all of them or to have the time and motivation to put the pieces together into a course that sparks interest, addresses concepts effectively, and gives just-in-time support for any needed learning of prerequisites. With over 70% of undergraduate instructors being adjunct or other non-tenure track faculty1, new approaches to teaching Introductory Statistics will have to be packaged in a form that makes them easy for overworked instructors to implement. Digital courseware that presents core concepts in a clear and compelling way, while engaging in learning activities and formative assessments based on research,may be part of the answer. This does not mean that the courseware would replace instructors or that departments shouldn’t allow adaptations to fit instructors’ individual styles and circumstances. Rather, it means that statistics instructors would be supported by a solid, professionally designed curriculum and assessment systems that give them insight into the progress of individual students and of their class as a whole.

Our Research Agenda

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is sponsoring the development of what it hopes will prove to be exemplary courseware in a number of high-enrollment gateway courses, including Introductory Statistics. The foundation has made research an essential part of the course development process, starting with an in-depth study of the ways that Introductory Statistics is being taught currently and the experiences of Black and Latinx college students, as well as students from low-income backgrounds in these courses. As we conduct Statistics Teaching and Technology Studies (STATS), Digital Promise will work with faculty in broad-access two- and four-year colleges to examine both student learning and student perceptions of different instructional practices and ways of teaching statistics.

STATS seeks to answer questions such as “To what extent are Introductory Statistics faculty in different kinds of institutions employing active learning practices with their students?” “What kinds of students benefit most when instructors incorporate collaborative projects with real-world relevance into the course?” and “What combination of in-class activities and out-of-class learning software produces the best outcomes for students of color?” Our agenda is to highlight paths to improve the odds so students of color and students from low-income backgrounds are equipped with the strategies and tools needed for success in Introductory Statistics and beyond.

To learn more about STATS, or if you’re interested in joining the cohort of professors contributing to the research, check out our website.

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