August 30, 2010

Finding Success in Social Science Statistics Classes

new janis

By Janis Prince Inniss

Many students dread the thought of taking a statistics course and probably imagine that faculty foist it upon them as payback for having had to endure the class as students themselves. In reality, statistics courses are required for sociology and other social science students because they may be conducting their own research one day. If you go into a social science career one day, you will need to know statistical processes so that you can decide on what is most appropriate for your project.

Even if your social science career does not include conducting research, you will probably be exposed to lots of published research studies and the knowledge to interpret them remains important. Further, in our everyday lives we are exposed to lots of statistics in news articles and magazines. We often see and hear headlines such as:

· Candidate Y is likely to gain 45% of the vote.

· 25% of Americans think that XYZ is the right thing to do.

· 15.6% of men think ABC about their wives and girlfriends.

Wouldn’t it be handy to be able to get behind the numbers and use your statistical knowledge to assess this kind of information?

Yes, statistics courses are challenging for many of us and they demand substantial time and work. These courses tend to be unlike other classes—particularly in the social sciences—so I thought you might find the benefit of my experience, that of other colleagues, and some other students helpful.

You might want to do a basic math review (there are others, but one can be found at to see whether you have the skills needed for this class or just to refresh your skills. Although you’re not likely to have the high level math problems you dread, you will be at a real disadvantage if you don’t understand basic math.

clip_image002Perhaps the most important suggestion is that you “keep-up” with your statistics class from the very beginning since “catching-up” later on is very difficult. (I recommend that you keep a notepad, journal, binder or some other source of blank paper handy when preparing for this class, along with a pencil and eraser. You should also have a calculator available; for many of these courses a fairly basic one will do.)

As you read each assigned chapter in your textbook, highlight or note concepts that seem important, and follow along with every mathematical calculation. This means doing the actual calculations, step-by-step, so that you get the same answers as they are laid out on the page of your textbook. Make a note of any places where you are unable to figure out how a calculation was performed. Ideally, you will read the assigned chapters before attending classes.

Although you might find some chapters difficult to follow, it is still important to try and go through the entire assignment before you attend the class in which the material will be discussed.

After class, go back to your textbook as a means of making sure that you’ve really got it. In this second go around of the readings and calculations, you might figure out how to do some that previously stumped you. If you haven’t, get help from your professor or teaching assistant. Quickly! Again, keeping up with this is important, because until the semester ends there will be new material and it all builds on what has come before.

Keep a few pages at the beginning, middle, or end of your notepaper for formulas and tricks you’ve discovered. Add formulas to this section of your notepaper as you encounter them. By the end of class, you will have a list of all the formulas you’ve learned. This is a handy reference tool. Some textbooks have done this work for you, but if you create your own list as you learn new things, with a glance, you can see what material you have already covered.

Every statistics textbook that I’m familiar with has problems at the end of each chapter. Sometimes, the back of the textbook has the correct answers to half of the problems—all the even ones or all the odd ones, usually. Sometimes, the textbook has answers to all of the problems. Do them! The more you do those exercises, the better, and more comfortable, you will become at solving such problems. More than likely your tests will have some version of these problems, so clip_image004you’ll be receiving good practice for them.

Many students find it helpful to collaborate with classmates; form study groups and hold each other accountable for reading the material and doing the problems. You could do half of the problems and have a study partner do the other half so that you can discuss all of them when you meet. Explain concepts to each other; you’ll probably find that explaining material deepens your understanding of it. Caveat: all students will not be as conscientious as you are so be careful that you work with equally serious minded students.

If you follow my recommendations, you’ll have a softer landing in your social science statistics class and hopefully learn skills you’ll use for a lifetime. And if and when you go to your professor, having done so much preparation, you will create a wonderful impression.


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