Innovative redesign of statistics course improves grades, decreases equity gap

Innovative redesign of statistics course improves grades, decreases equity gap
Wednesday, October 13, 2021

When Victoria Torres sat in her Introduction to Statistics course on the first day of class in spring 2020, she experienced a daunting feeling. The lecture format in a dimly lit classroom was unnerving to her.

“Statistics can seem scary to many students,” Torres said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable in that class.” 

She went to her academic advisor for help finding another section of the same course. That’s when she discovered a pilot section for a new project-based statistics course designed for students majoring in social sciences and humanities.

“This new class was held in a large classroom where students sat in groups and large screens made it easy to follow the instruction. I loved this format. It seemed so welcoming,” said Torres, a senior who is double-majoring in marketing and communication studies.

Many students dread Introduction to Statistics, a required course for many majors. Traditionally, a high percentage of students receive final grades of D’s or F’s or withdraw before completing the course (the DFW rate). To complicate matters, before taking the statistics course, students were required to pass College Algebra -- another course identified nationally as a barrier to student success.

Beth Bumgardner, assistant teaching professor for the Department of Math and Statistics, is associate chair of the UNC System Math Pathways Task Force and a member of the UNC Charlotte Math Pathways Implementation Team. She led a group to redesign statistics courses with the goal of improving DFW rates in introductory statistics courses. It was Bumgardner’s active-learning classroom where Torres felt so comfortable.

“Up until 2020, all statistics courses were lecture-based. Even students who earned an ‘A’ in the course may have struggled in later courses because, while they were able to provide the numerical answer, they may not explain the meaning and application,” Bumgardner said. “Now, we take a few key concepts and teach them well, so students are able to compute the correct answers and also understand the meaning.”

The statistics redesign team created a sequence of two statistics courses with content that is applicable to students’ interests, majors and career goals. This course sequence provides a project-based approach to introductory statistics. 

Colleagues from multiple academic departments were engaged early in the collaborative design. The team tied the goals of the methods courses for each related major to this statistics course to ensure relevance. Co-design partners in the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Office of Undergraduate Education and J. Murrey Atkins Library offered pedagogical advice and access to resources.

In the new course, students work with RealizeIt, an adaptive learning platform, to master statistical calculations in Excel and understand the meaning of statistical concepts. Instructors use active learning techniques in class to engage students in a way that promotes a deeper understanding of the course material. 

“Adaptive learning with RealizeIt teaches just-in-time concepts and helps bring students’ knowledge up to where it needs to be. It also allows instructors to see where students are struggling and adjust that day’s instruction,” Bumgardner said. “I have two back-to-back classes in the same course, and I could be focused on completely different concepts on any given day based on the RealizeIt data for each section.”

Each class period, students engage in group assignments that scaffold to form the basis of their three course projects. Students select project topics by addressing the Global Goals for Sustainable Development developed by the United Nations and an area of social science in which they are interested. 

Focus is placed on connecting the statistical methods that the students are learning with real-world problems related to their majors and issues that they care about, such as climate action, clean water and sanitation, gender equality, zero hunger and no poverty. Students write a research report that includes a scenario and background for their project, a problem statement, data collection methods that would be appropriate for their scenario, calculations based on their data, an interpretation of these calculations in the context of their scenario, and, lastly, reflections and improvements for their study.  

“I enjoyed working with the same group of students throughout the semester,” Torres said. “Typically in a math course, you do your own work and never talk to anyone. Through the group work, we learned from each other, and it helped to hear different ways of explaining a concept. Our group had majors from economics, political science, nursing, business and communication studies. We all were able to bring our knowledge to the table.”

Results from the pilot courses indicate the new format is working. In fall 2020, the active/adaptive statistics course design decreased equity gaps between white students and minority students. In spring 2021, minority students performed better than white students under the active/adaptive design. In addition, students remained as successful in Introduction to Statistics without a full semester of College Algebra.

Qualitative surveys of students show that this instruction method improves growth mindset, sense of belonging and student motivation. In the anonymous survey, students provided encouraging feedback:

  • “For the first time in my life, I was excited about mathematical coursework.”
  • “Last semester I failed STATS 1222 because it was a very dry and complex lecture course … While I still struggle with math, it made more sense than it ever had when I took this course.”
  • “As a person who really struggles with math, I have had the best experience so far in this Stats class.”

The University plans to scale up this statistics sequence. Beginning in spring 2022, Introduction to Statistics 1222 will become a project-based course for all course sections for social science and other liberal arts majors.

There is a plan to broaden Math Pathways across the University. The next Quality Enhancement Plan, part of the University’s reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), will focus on this program and will consider the calculus sequence for STEM majors as well as Calculus for Business and Statistics for Business.

Town halls for faculty members related to UNC Charlotte’s next quality enhancement plan, focusing on Math Pathways, will be held from 12:15 to 1 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 13, and 10 to 10:45 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 14. Register for one of these sessions.