Modern day science, industry and knowledge is defined by statistical information. It is so important that the world celebrates 20th October as the World Statistics Day. However, educators and students are faced with the difficult task of teaching and acquiring this skill. So much so that it causes “Statistics anxiety,” which is defined as the feelings of anxiety encountered when taking a statistics course or doing statistical analyses. In this article we break down why it is so prevalent, the root causes and the solutions to alleviate statistics anxiety and to improve learning.
We enjoy music played on an instrument (let’s assume it is a guitar) but most people don’t know how (and don’t need to know the skill) to play one. Now imagine a world where most need to know the skill to play a guitar in order to do well at a job; people will have guitar anxiety. Similarly, in today’s data-driven world statistical analytical skills are essential for most industrial and academic professions. To make matters worse, people need statistical skills to simply make sense of all the numbers that advertisements bombard them with regarding products. Research shows that 80% of college students have statistics anxiety (Onwuegbuzie and Wilson 2003; Chew & Dillon, 2014); a feeling of anxiousness when either taking a statistics course or conducting a statistical analysis. This has detrimental effects on their short-term academic achievements (Macher et al., 2012) and consequently on long-term career goals.
Many high school students fear numbers and avoid courses and streams in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). They think they have found a good career path when they take up Psychology, Political Science or Social Science as their major/minor. They also believe that they no longer have to go through numbers ever again. However, they are shocked and fearful as soon as they learn they have to take a compulsory course in statistics. This usually happens in their second year and it is likely that that semester turns out to be the worst of their program. With this fear comes avoidance through procrastination, feelings of anxiety and ignoring by considering it unimportant for their career. In this data-driven century where statistics is one of the most fundamental and one of the few truly transferable skills, we analyze why there is statistics anxiety and what can be done to alleviate it.
Evolutionary Psychology Perspective
Evolution has solutions and reasons for all our behaviors. We are the way we are because humans have evolved like that. And for most of human evolutionary history statistics was not necessary to survive and thrive and pass on the genes to next generations. Another important factor is communication. If we look at human history, we started communicating using sign language. This over time transferred to verbal language and then came written communication and the youngest of all (only a few decades) is communication through numbers at a mass level. You can think of it as how easy it is to speak out your thoughts versus writing out your thoughts. For most of us speaking is much easier than writing it down. This perspective would argue that it is because writing is new in human history compared to speaking so it has relative advantage over it. The same logic applies to numbers. Using numbers, communicating through it is difficult because of its chronological order in human history.
Cultural Psychology Perspective
Culture plays a very important role in our lives. It defines what we find right and what we find wrong. It defines morality, relationships and what is easy and what is difficult, how we perceive and communicate. Studies have found that those cultures where people communicate using numbers do not fear the numbers the way people have where they don’t communicate through numbers. For example, there is a tribe where the answer to where you are heading is not work or home but 40 degrees north. Because numbers are an important part of their everyday life, they don’t perceive them as difficult as we do.
Cognitive Psychology Perspective
Humans are by the very nature cognitive misers since physical resources and mental capacity are limited. For example, we cannot pay attention to every object while driving or remember/recall only a limited amount of information at a time (even during a test). There are tasks that require a lot of effort and practice and there are things that don’t. Unfortunately, numbers belong to the effortful side. You need to pay focused attention, you need to recall important formulae in memory, you need to reason when to apply it correctly. All of these makes learning statistics a high cognitive load task. Just like not everybody can play guitar similarly not everyone can work with numbers. The problem is we can live without knowing how to play a guitar, but we can’t live without.
Research by Siew, McCartney & Vitevitch, (2019) suggests that people who feel high levels of anxiety think that statistics is either a higher form of mathematics and being good at math is a prerequisite, “I can’t even understand seventh- and eighth-grade math; how can I possibly do statistics?” They also find their teachers to be abstract and inhuman “statistics teachers are so abstract they seem inhuman.” On the other hand, there are students that feel low levels of statistics anxiety and think that learning statistics is “not worthwhile,” since they are never going to “need or use it” in their career.
How can we alleviate statistics anxiety?
We suggest several interventions. Two that can be implemented by learners and two by educators.
Students: First, when we feel anxious, the anxious thoughts use attention and working memory resources. As a consequence, there isn’t an adequate amount of working memory resource left to use for the statistics problem at hand. A way to overcome this problem is to offload this anxiety just like we offload having to remember 30 phone numbers onto our mobile phones. A tried and tested method is writing down one’s thoughts of anxiety. This will result in improved statistical problem solving. Second intervention is towards the felt emotion itself. Breathing exercises which help alleviate negative emotions can be practiced and used right before a statistics class or exam. This can lead to an improvement in understanding statistics and applying it.
Educators: Contextualizing the statistics is very important for learning statistics. However, this burden falls solely on the teacher of the statistics course alone. A program-wide inclusion of statistical material (Slootmaeckers, Kerremans & Adriaensen, 2014) is important on the part of educators and institutes. Specifically, those that offer degrees in Psychology, Political Science and Social Science. Contextualizing statistics can be very helpful since it will address their thinking that it is simply “not worth it.” This will completely alleviate low levels of statistics anxiety.
Educators can work on improving emotional rapport with Students with high levels of statistics by taking a three-fold approach (Waples, 2016). First, being approachable for addressing problems and explaining concepts. Second, implement collaborative group-based class exercises. Third, give a one-minute paper (Chiou, Wang & Lee, 2014) at the end of class where students anonymously provide answers to the two questions: “What is the most important concept you learned in class today?” and “What questions remain unanswered?” Their answers can help regularly address hiccups and update the pedagogy.
Evolutionarily, communication through numbers is very new and because the problem lies in time, the solution too might lie there. With time, through generations we would naturally evolve to get better at communicating through numbers. Culturally, we need to communicate through statistics to students at a much younger age at lower grade levels in order to build a stronger foundation. But at a shorter time scale we need to implement interventions that can help alleviate statistics anxiety and pave the way towards a fearless and a less anxious world where people can learn and apply statistics in their professional and personal lives.
- Chew, P. K., & Dillon, D. B. (2014). Statistics anxiety update: Refining the construct and recommendations for a new research agenda. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(2), 196-208.
- Chiou, C. C., Wang, Y. M., & Lee, L. T. (2014). Reducing statistics anxiety and enhancing statistics learning achievement: Effectiveness of a one-minute strategy. Psychological reports, 115(1), 297-310.
- Macher, D., Paechter, M., Papousek, I., & Ruggeri, K. (2012). Statistics anxiety, trait anxiety, learning behavior, and academic performance. European journal of psychology of education, 27, 483-498.
- Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Wilson, V. A. (2003). Statistics Anxiety: Nature, etiology, antecedents, effects, and treatments–a comprehensive review of the literature. Teaching in higher education, 8(2), 195-209.
- Siew, C. S., McCartney, M. J., & Vitevitch, M. S. (2019). Using network science to understand statistics anxiety among college students. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 5(1), 75.
- Slootmaeckers, K., Kerremans, B., & Adriaensen, J. (2014). Too afraid to learn: Attitudes towards statistics as a barrier to learning statistics and to acquiring quantitative skills. Politics, 34(2), 191-200.
- Waples, J. A. (2016). Building emotional rapport with students in statistics courses. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(4), 285–293.
Dr. Abhishek Sahai & Dr. Shruti Goyal,
Faculty, Department of Psychological Sciences, FLAME University
(They teach Statistics and other Psychology courses at UG and PG levels).