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Make Statistics Relatable with an Athletic Approach

In this high-energy class, getting students out of their seats and on their feet helps boost their odds of understanding how to read and apply statistics.

Educator

Jessica Wallace, PhD, AT, ATC

Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Sport Science, Youngstown State University

PhD in Kinesiology with a concentration in Athletic Training, MA in Physical Education, BS in Athletic Training

Oftentimes, people hear the word statistics and cringe. The subject is not exactly the most popular required course among exercise science majors. That is why Jessica Wallace, PhD, an assistant professor at Youngstown State University, decided to take a different, more engaging approach to teaching it. “I think it’s the class that everyone sort of dreads—the one they want to ‘get out of the way’ because it’s required in the curriculum, and nobody thinks it’s going to be fun.”

As an avid traveler and foodie, Wallace loves to try new things—and she applies this adventurous spirit to her teaching approach as well. “My personal goal is for my students to say, ‘Wow, stats are really not that bad. They’re actually really fun and interesting!’”

Challenge

When Wallace found out she was to teach statistics at Youngstown State University, she thought back to when she was a student. “I had some pretty terrible stats classes myself,” she adds. “So, it was my personal mission to make the class really fun and relatable, to get rid of that stereotype.”

“A lot of the time with stats, the teacher is lecturing and you’re going through calculations and it’s just mundane talking,” she explains. “And I thought, ‘How am I going to get through to [students] in a 2-hour lecture? What would have helped me as a student?’”

Innovation

Inspired by her background in physical education and her role as the University’s Athletic Training Program Director, Wallace came up with a clever idea: Get statistics students up and out of their seats!

“I use an active learning approach, and also game-based learning modules, to help students understand the calculations and rationale for statistical tests,” she explains.

Wallace often has students play games, such as dice or Horse (a basketball game), to illustrate statistics principles. Or she challenges teams of students to act out a research project themselves, serving as the subjects or participants and collecting data for their own results. This way, statistics becomes far more than simply mundane calculations with numbers, she notes.

“Any assignments I try to make as meaningful and applicable [as possible] to real life,” says Wallace. “As a student, there’s nothing worse than receiving busywork.”

Context

Course: KSS 3705 Statistics Research in Exercise Science
Frequency: Two class meetings per week (2 hours of lecture and 2 hours of lab work) for 16 weeks.
Class size: 20–25
Course description: Scientific methods in exercise science including research design and statistical analyses. Experience with statistical software and understanding published research.

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Lesson: Using games to bring stats to life

“This class is basically to help our kinesiology students read, understand, and interpret research. In our profession, we really emphasize using evidence to help guide your clinical practice. A lot of times, it’s very intimidating to read [research] and not know what it means or how to apply it, so we really teach them the building blocks of designing a research project from the ground up: developing research questions, going out in a literature search, and then understanding all the analyses and the stats, as you design different research questions.”

— Jessica Wallace, PhD, AT, ATC

From day one, Wallace sets expectations that this is a very hands-on class that requires total participation. Most of her classes involve some lecture, but she relies heavily on games and worksheets to help students learn everything hands-on. She also increases engagement by having students participate in a variety of activities, such as dividing into groups to conduct their own studies.

Here are some of Wallace’s suggestions for adding more hands-on learning to any course:

Do plenty of prep work

Wallace prepares for the course well ahead of time. When planning a day’s lesson, she thinks about what the space is like in the room, what worksheets she needs to create, and what materials she needs to bring for that day’s activity. For example, Wallace purchased game tools, such as dice, before her first semester of the class started.

She also notifies students when they need to do extra prep work: For instance, if she knows the group will be playing games that require physical activity, she will notify students days ahead to bring a change of comfortable clothes.

Use frequent assessments

Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists know how important it is to assess their clients’ physical state early and often; it allows them to adjust the day’s workout to prevent injury and maximize performance. The same is true regarding the assessment of learning.

At the beginning and end of each class, Wallace gives students a 10-question quiz: The first is to refresh their memories and the second is to assess their comprehension. Though the activities are physical, it is helpful to use some “seated” assessments to ensure that the material is being absorbed.

Do hands-on calculations, too

Wallace does not allow students to lean entirely on technology to help them do calculations. She believes in the power of a good old pencil and paper. “We always calculate everything by hand together before we throw it into the computer software,” she says. “Then they can say, ‘Wow, we did it right!’”

Put students at the center of the studies

“They really like to collect data themselves—and not just from a piece of paper,” she says. When students actually became participants in the studies, she explains, they became more invested in the data-collection process, “and they were excited to see the results of what we did.”

Explain the ultimate importance

Research studies may feel unrelatable to students—something that does not apply to their lives at this point in time. However, studies are being conducted every day, including studies on study skills, college students’ sleep habits, athletes’ nutrition, and a plethora of other hugely relevant topics. Wallace makes it a point to help students see why they may want to be able to decipher study results, for both professional and personal reasons.

“You always want to be able to understand numbers: for your own health, your children, and your families,” she says. “So you have to pay attention to numbers and pay attention to details. Stats teach you that details matter, and you want to be able to understand what you’re reading.”

Defense

“If [an educator has] a heavy teaching load, it might be tough to prepare [for this type of activity],” says Wallace. “It might require you to think outside of the box: Stats is not always the easiest [subject] to be creative with. But once you do it the first semester, it gets much easier. And it’s worth it.”

Outcomes

In 2015, Wallace received the Excellence in Teaching Award from Michigan State University for teaching using principles of active learning, and in 2018 she was awarded the Great Lakes Athletic Trainers Association Outstanding Educator award. She has seen other professors warming to her approach, since her course is so popular among students.

Students have reported that they actually enjoy and understand stats and that it “wasn’t as bad as they thought it would be.” Wallace also has some return students in her graduate classes, and they must apply what they learned in undergraduate work to the higher-level classes. “I’ve seen that they’ve retained the information,” she says.

Student feedback

Here are some verbatim evaluations from Wallace’s former students:

  • “This course, because of the style and implementation of materials, was much more enjoyable than I had anticipated. I had previously had this instructor for another course, and her delivery and expectation was very consistent.”
  • “Dr. Wallace did a great job applying the material to events and things that students could understand. She made the class very interesting and hands-on.”
  • “The games made it easier to learn.”

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