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«Virtual Discussion for Real Understanding Kendra K. Schmid University of Nebraska Medical Center, 984375 Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE ...»

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Section on Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences – JSM 2011

Virtual Discussion for Real Understanding

Kendra K. Schmid

University of Nebraska Medical Center, 984375 Nebraska Medical Center,

Omaha, NE 68198-4375


One of the challenges of teaching is engaging students in a subject they do not see as

relevant to them. This issue is especially prevalent when teaching statistics to health

science students as many do not consider statistics an important piece of their medical training. Additional difficulty is presented when teaching courses via distance technology or courses that are partially or completely online as the valuable class discussion component is lost. This paper focuses on fostering “discussion” about statistical concepts and how they relate to each student on an individual level. The approach includes an online discussion board where students participate in guided questions and post and critique an article related to their field of study. The objectives are to enhance knowledge, develop critical thinking, and gain an appreciation of how statistics is used in their field.

Students must reflect on why statistics is important in their field and respond to other students’ posts. This approach has been successfully used in an online class for Allied Health students in a large graduate level biostatistics class including both synchronous and asynchronous distance learners.

Key words: discussion board; online; distance learning

1. Introduction Statistics is hard. Ask anyone. The mere mention of statistics or anything close to it is met with grumbles or comments about how much someone hated his or her statistics class. Add to it the fact that students think of statistics as something completely unrelated to anything they will ever do or anything they will ever need to know, and what you get is a very difficult class to teach. Many have proposed wonderful methods for engaging students in activities or discussions where hands-on learning or thought-provoking concepts can be utilized and explored (Melton 2004, Boyle 1999). However, the current trends in education seem to be leaning more and more toward offering online courses (Cox & Cox 2008). This trend is a double edged sword as it provides greater access to classes for students, although the quality or experience may or may not be the same (Webster & Hackley 1997, DeVaney 2010, Ward 2004). According to Galusha’s 1998 report on distance learning, “problems and barriers encountered by the student fall into several distinct categories; costs and motivators, feedback and teacher contact, student support and services, alienation and isolation, lack of experience, and training.” Roblyer & Ekhaml (2000) and others have reported that increased student involvement and interaction resulted in increased learning, improved grades, and improved student satisfaction. There have been great developments in engaging students in statistics courses as well as in distance learning courses or online courses (Everson 2006, Everson & Garfield 2008, Brown 2001, Nicholson & Bond 2003, Wickstrom 2003, Cox & Cox 2008), and even using online components in a traditional statistics classroom (Ward

–  –  –

2004, Malone & Bilder 2001) but what about when one class contains all three:

traditional classroom students, distance students, and asynchronous distance learners?

Levine (2007) provides guidelines and tips for using an online discussion board and Harman & Koohang (2005) discuss the online discussion board’s role as a learning object to incorporate elements of constructivism learning theory such as: “collaboration, cooperation, exploration, higher-order thinking skills, knowledge construction, learner driven goals and objectives, multiple perspectives, multiple representations of content/idea/concept, negotiation among learners, learners previous experience, realworld situations/problems, social disclosure, social negotiation, and the use of primary sources of data.” Many of these are elements that statistics instructors already diligently try to include in their classes. Teikmanis & Armstrong (2001) have used a discussion board in a pathophysiology course to shift learning from “teacher orchestrated to student centered” and discussion boards have been used in rural medical rotations (Baker, Eley, & Lasserre 2005) and many other subjects (Cox & Cox 2008, Nicholson & Bond 2003, Wickstrom 2003, Rainsbury & Malcolm 2003, Nodder & Young 2001), and have been effective in increasing student participation and understanding.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce an approach to engaging students, both those in and those out of the classroom, by using an online discussion board in a graduate level introductory biostatistics course. The activities used promote critical thinking and discussion on a deeper level than what is allowed during scheduled class time. The proposed approach can be used in any type of class, and has been used by the author in regular lecture style classes, an online class, and classes that include both synchronous and asynchronous distance learners.

2. The Issues The issues that this paper addresses are two-fold: (1) Increasing students’ interest and appreciation for a subject that most have decided they don’t like and don’t need before they set foot in the classroom (real or virtual) and (2) creating a classroom of discussion, critical thinking, and inquiry when students are not starting on an equal playing field. By this, I mean they do not all have the same classroom experience. Some students are physically in the classroom, some are viewing the class via distance technology in another classroom, some are viewing class via live stream technology from their own home, and some are viewing asynchronously from another country. My goal is to make the learning experience as similar as possible for all these students.

3. The Approach The introductory biostatistics course I currently teach is once a week for two hours and 40 minutes. Each week it is structured so there is about 45-60 minutes of lecture, 20-30 minutes for in-class practice problems to receive immediate feedback, and then the same process is repeated with a new topic. The students also complete weekly homework assignments, a project, and 3 exams. As many instructors have experienced, class is barely enough time to cover the required topics, and does not allow for covering anything in detail or allow much time for discussion or critical thinking problems. Distance students find it difficult to participate in class discussion if they view through live stream as they must call in each time they have a question or comment, and impossible if they are asynchronous distance learners.

Section on Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences – JSM 2011

3.1 Part 1: Creating a classroom of discussion, critical thinking, and inquiry that includes distance and online students.

While creating class discussion might be easy in some subjects, in statistics it is not.

Students are used to math, where everything is black and white, they think, “What is there to discuss, it’s math, the answer is either right or wrong.” Statistics, however, is not that way and many students are uncomfortable with that. Retraining students to actually think about a problem instead of simply trying to follow steps to get the answer is half the battle, and one that statistics professors have been fighting for years (DeVeaux 2007).

This retraining must include giving students experience with problems that are not black and white, problems that are difficult and require thinking. Requiring thinking also requires that students have time to think, and extra time is not a luxury that most classroom instructors have. In a typical classroom these types of problems are often incorporated as group exercises either with or without guidance from the instructor.

Students who are viewing from another classroom, their home, or using an archived video in another country lose out on these experiences. The question I have asked is “How can I bring these experiences to them?” or at least how can I make it similar for all students.

My solution was to put those types of problems on the course discussion board. Most classes these days have a course web-site where instructors can post things and students can check their grades. These web-sites often have other tools that can be very useful, one of which is the discussion board. Posting on the discussion board allows for followup on the class material, but at a deeper level. After class, students can look at the topic, have time to think about it, and post their response. They are also able to read posts from other students and discuss the topic in more detail. The questions or topics I post are often questions that do not have a right or wrong answer, they are aimed at getting the students to look beyond the surface of a problem and think about statistical topics critically and on a deeper level or so they can put statistical concepts into familiar terms to aid in understanding. The topics selected are both health sciences focused and general ideas, and are based on things that ideally I would like to discuss or have the students experience in class. However, this approach allows more flexibility as students have more time to think on their own, and most importantly it allows all students to participate at an equal level.

The first discussion board posting is on variable summary methods (adapted from De Veaux 2007). Students are given a variable with no background information and asked to find the best way to summarize it graphically and numerically. This lesson has several important points. First, it gives students practice with concepts covered in the first week of class: types of data, graphical summaries, and numerical summaries. Second, it lets them really dig in and play with the data right away on their own. Third, it gives practice working with the software package used in class, SPSS. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it reveals to them right away that it is difficult to do anything, even something as simple as making a graph, without any context. Of course, they are told during class that it is important to know background information, type of data, etc. before doing any analysis but this activity helps to drive that point home. Students report being very frustrated by this activity as they are searching for the “right” answer, but they also enjoy looking at the data in many ways and exploring it themselves. This is the beginning of the retraining; in statistics there is not always one “right” answer.

Section on Teaching of Statistics in the Health Sciences – JSM 2011

Another example of a discussion topic is the classic problem of relating hypothesis testing to criminal trials (Pagano & Gauvreau 2000). Students are asked to think about criminal trials and put it in a hypothesis testing situation including stating the hypotheses, interpreting the conclusions if they were to reject or fail to reject the null, interpreting the two types of errors, and deciding which type of error has more serious consequences. The students discuss the last of these most, inevitably giving examples of when each type of error would be worse to make, and come away knowing that the worse error to make depends on the situation and the consequences of the error. Students will usually notice that someone has said that if we fail to reject the null (innocence), then the conclusion is the defendant is “innocent” and point out that the correct answer is the defendant is “not guilty”. This example helps students to put statistical terminology in familiar terms and to understand why the null hypothesis is not rejected instead of “accepted” by showing that lack of evidence for an alternative hypothesis does not prove the null hypothesis.

A third example includes having students watch a video segment from a Good Morning America (GMA) Consumer Alert about an important public health topic, nutritional information on food labels (ABCNews 2008). The video describes how GMA hired a lab to sample one package of twelve different products and explains how food products are obviously mislabeled since their findings did not match the label on the product. Students are quick to point out that sampling one of each product is not enough to represent all products. It gives them a real life look at sampling variability, why sample size is so important, and why we make inferences about means instead of individual observations.

This is a way for students to see how statistical information is used by the media, and will help them be more skeptical and better consumers of information.

While these examples of problems are not new in themselves, the approach to class discussion of complex problems using an online discussion board is a creative and effective way to include or expand on topics with limited class time. Topics can be structured, predefined questions like those described above, or they can be derived from student interest or questions in class.

In the initial trial of the discussion board activity, students could participate for extra credit. During this phase, the goal was to see if the topics chosen were good, if students were getting what I wanted them to out of each topic, and to assess acceptability by the students. Once the questions were set, the discussion board participation was incorporated into the overall grade. There are typically at least eight topics posted per semester, and students are required to participate in a minimum of four posts. At least two posts must be their original replies to the topic I posted, and at least two posts must be responses to other classmates. The second requirement was to ensure that students would read each other’s posts to start discussion. The first semester this discussion board participation was required, I would announce in class when a topic had been posted and give students a week to respond, but many students would forget to post and run out of topics before completing the four posts. Instead, I now include each discussion due date in the syllabus with the course schedule. This lets students know what course topics have corresponding discussions and their approximate due dates. Participation is much better;

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