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Show the Power of Statistics with a Student-Driven Survey Project

Math instructor Lee Ann Roberts takes the fear factor out of quantitative reasoning by having students pose a real-life question and collect data on it.


Lee Roberts, MS

Instructor of Mathematics, Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville

MS in Secondary Mathematics Education, BA in Psychology


Non–math majors do not see value in numbers

Students who are not majoring in a math-based field often view math classes as having no bearing on their future. While they may be able to muddle through the homework by applying formulas learned in class, they often fall short when it comes to data analysis. Taking this next step requires actual deep learning, not rote memorization.


Have students survey each other—and analyze the data

The concepts that underlie quantitative reasoning are useful in any field that deals with data—as well as in everyday decision-making. To prove this to students, Roberts asks them to choose a real-life question that they find interesting, create a survey to collect data on it, and apply mathematical logic (and the scientific method research methodology) to arrive at an answer.

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“Students need to realize that statistics can be used to inform a decision or answer a question. For example: How many grams of sugar are in a box of cereal? Do the ‘healthy’ ones really have less sugar or more sugar than others?”

— Lee Roberts, MS

Course: MATH 1001 Quantitative Skills and Reasoning

Course description: This course emphasizes quantitative reasoning skills needed for informed citizens to understand the world around them. Topics include logic, basic probability, data analysis, and modeling from data.

Lesson: Roberts’ student-survey project for applied statistics

To bring numbers to life, Roberts assigns a project that requires her students to find a question they want to investigate. They must propose and create a survey, collect and analyze data, and then summarize their findings in a final presentation. The semester-long project counts for 15% of a student’s total grade, with each step graded individually.

For this student-survey project, Roberts expects her students to:

Learn how to phrase questions to seek a numerical answer

To encourage student buy-in, Roberts asks students to decide what question they want to ask their peers. “This consists of identifying a question and posing it in such a way as to get a numerical answer,” Roberts says. For example, students may wonder how often their classmates do their own cooking. To gather data on this topic, they must rephrase it before posing it to the class. For example, “How many times did you cook at home last week?”

Use research methodology to expand the question into a proposal

In this step, students create a plan to pursue their question and write up a formal proposal, us-ing the scientific method. Their final proposal will include a description of their topic and ques-tion, the reason for their interest in it, the data collection method they will use, and details about the sample being studied (e.g., age, sex, selection process, relationship to student). Stu-dents also must explain what they hypothesize their data will reveal. Roberts must sign off on the proposal before a student moves to the next step.

Choose a “comfortable-for-you” avenue for data collection

To ease additional anxiety that may be felt by introverted students, Roberts allows everyone to choose between conducting their own survey (of friends, family, etc.) or using numbers from online data sets, such as a publicly available government website like https://www.data.gov, https://www.census.gov/data.htm, and https://www.cdc.gov/datastastics/index.html. Students can use social media to gather their data or create a Google survey or Sur-vey Monkey; the method of data collection is their choice. The survey is one question with a numerical response. Later in their writing, the students can make observations of differences between age groups or gender groups, but that it optional.

Organize the data with computer programs and charts

After students collect their data, they pour it into an Excel spreadsheet. They also are asked to provide graphical representations, such as a pie chart or frequency table. Then they use these results and images to perform an analysis and look for patterns. Use of Excel is purposefully embedded within the course to prepare students for the project. “During the semester, stu-dents will have accessed Excel tasks in order to complete activities during the class period,” Roberts explains. “So they have some foundation in Excel and it can be used as a tool for ana-lyzing their findings.”

Weave the semester’s learnings into the final report

This three-to-four-page paper is the project’s key component and must contain all of the ele-ments generated along the way: This includes the proposal, the data, any graphs and visuals, an analysis of the data, and a conclusion. In addition, Roberts requires students to touch on key topics covered during the semester, such as probability and correlation. Not only does this rein-force those earlier learnings, but it has students apply them to ensure that they really under-stand what they mean.

Use a “peer cheer” to share feedback with classmates

At the end of the semester, each student gives a short PowerPoint presentation (five to seven slides) in which they communicate what they explored—and learned. During and after their talk, peers write feedback on an index card, making sure to be supportive. This is why Roberts calls it a “peer cheer.”

“As a teacher, this project gives me an opportunity to allow students to demonstrate that they know and understand statistics topics and to see mathematics as a tool for action,” says Rob-erts. “Also students get to see how math is used in the real world—in many, many ways—and make connections between classroom learning and real-world data.”

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