How to Teach an Intro to Stats Class | Stats + Short Stories Episode 78 / by Stats Stories

Mark Hansen.jpg

Mark Hansen is a professor of journalism where he also serves as the Director of the David and Helen-Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Founded in 2012, the Brown Institute is a bi-coastal collaboration between Columbia Journalism School and the School of Engineering at Stanford University -- its mission is to explore the interplay between technology and story. 

+ Full Transcript

(Background music plays)

Bailer: Introductory statistics classes have been taught for decades, and some students have viewed it as a source of punishment for past crimes. There are challenges about how we might do this differently. Today we're going to talk on this Stats and Short Stories episode about what should the narrative be in an introductory statistics class. We're delighted to be joined by Mark Hansen a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute of Media Innovation. I'm John Bailer chair of Miami University's department of statistics and I'm joined by Rosemary Pennington a professor in the department of media journalism and film and Richard Campbell former chair of media journalism and film. Mark thank you so much for joining us and I want to start with that question. What should the narrative be in an introductory statistics class?

Hansen: I mean so I'm seriously thinking about going to…because I have a joint appointment in the stat department at Columbia so I'm seriously thinking of like taking on that introductory class now that I know what I know. Because. I mean the narrative burden here is just to say, saying that the mean is five or something is not enough. What does that mean? What's the context behind it? Are there implications for that? Right, like what…again, it goes back to not just telling the story of the dataset like a dataset, right? Oh, there are two outliers here. Oh, it's skewed to the left. Oh, there's three modes. Oh, you know, it clusters in this way…but instead to like take the next step and like get someone on the phone and figure out why this is the way this is or start to do a little research. And I don't know that I've seen how reporting classes work, right, and the way you send people out into the world. They don't start with a data set, they start with a question, right, and how do we address the question. Even when I teach my advanced data class in the J. School I think that last couple years I've been on the criminal justice system and we start with questions like What does it mean to close Rikers. How do we ask questions about that and because it’s a data class, we would like to have some data involved.

Bailer: Go figure!

Hansen: They’ll retreat to their comfort place and they'll just interview a lot of people but you know that interview is a lot more interesting if there's some data analysis done. I looked at the data and I saw this, this and this. We calculated the average transit time between you know between where a family lives and the prison that their loved one is in is incarcerated in, right, and it's this amount of time. What we do with that? Right, like there are things that you can do to make those interviews a lot more interesting so. And a lot deeper and it just I don't know it's…we've tried it also with G.I.S., like teaching mapping not just as a way of visualizing but also as a way of organizing reporting and we'll pair editors with teams so that a team of you know usually a mixed disciplined team but often statistics, data science or whatever, get an editor who will help them ask questions and bring them through this process and it's astounding, it really is.

Bailer: That's a really cool model.

Pennington: Yeah. I was going to say, it wasn’t until I went to grad school I had to learn to run all this stuff by hand and luckily had a stats professor who was sort of saying what are you interested in, let's look at some data and figure out how you can use it and then figure out what tools you need. Then I was like oh I actually really enjoy statistics I wish someone had actually done this when I was eighteen and in a class where I’m like I hate everything about this.

Hansen: Well I mean the thing is and probably one of the last soap boxes that I have to get on is that is that we as a journalism school shouldn't be teaching this stuff. I mean it is historical curiosity that I am teaching python to a group of journalists or that I am I'm you know that we would be teaching mean, median, mode in our introductory data classes, right? That's K-12, that is a proper undergraduate training probably K-12. The fact that they come to us not knowing any of this is like I said, a historical curiosity that will hopefully go away and that when students come to us we can focus instead on how do you use these ideas to really interrogate systems around us, because you know we don't teach students grammar I mean well sometimes we but ideally we're not teaching them grammar…

(Voices overlap)

Pennington: I'm doing that right now.

Hansen: I mean yeah you got to admit, some people are sort of worse writers than others and the ecosystem supports that somehow but there are some basic things that we don't have to teach, right, and this in the same way these basic things in statistics or data, we shouldn't have to teach either and the basic understanding of how computer works and how an interface works and like all that stuff we should have critical thinking skills around the technologies around us long before they get to graduate school…that's just it's shameful.

Bailer: That's a really great point. We're trying to do a lot of things to sort of make sure that we have a vibrant and vital introductory exposure to statistical ideas because you want people to be able to think about asking questions and the data that's required to answer them and always contextualize in the work. I love the way you frame that and I think that's something that we embrace and…

Campbell: I think we need to bring Mark here.

Bailer: Yeah! That’d be fun…

(Collective laughter)

(Voices overlap)

Hansen: But I mean I think I think that there really is there really is something I have to figure out what this experience has meant being in a journalism school because my Dean keeps talking about the durable principles of journalism and at first you know the best that I could tell was what you know what I…because I would co-teach in a reporting class to the data students and mostly I would watch someone like Ann Cooper or you know do her amazin thing. But there were some things like you know like referring to journalism as portable ignorance, right? I love that! Or like I'm slowly, over time seeing what those durable principles are and how we have strategically when the durable principle goes right statistics seems to go left. Like there's moments to bring these things back together and I really I don't know I just think that it's such a shame that students can come away from that introductory stat class and not realize that statistics is amazing. I try to always teach it like…because I remember having our history class. It was a 101 class or something when Wayne Tebow taught it and I came away going, holy sh*t, that is the most amazing like I had never thought I would be oh my gosh and how many students come away from our introductory stat class going oh my gosh that's what I want to do, right? I want to do the T-test. There are no people in our introductory stat class right, Type one and Type two error smashed together with P values, we don't know that there was any conflict around that, we don't know who the people are, we might have historical curiosity like Gossett came from a brewery and tehe tehe right, but that's about it. There's like no nothing of the human side of it and I don’t know, it just feels like such a wasted opportunity. Anyway I mean I'm going off, I'm sorry

Bailer: No, this is great fun! Thank you so much. That's the time we have for this episode of Stats and Short Stories. Mark, thank you so much for being here. Stats and Short Stories, in fact Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s departments of statistics and media journalism film and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter or the iTunes podcast land. You can also find Stitcher, or you can find us on Soundcloud, wherever you want to look, you probably can find us anywhere. If you'd like to share your thoughts on our program send your e-mail to and be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories we discuss just the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.