Learning in Spite of Fear

Learning in Spite of Fear

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Learning in Spite of Fear

Students in higher education face many enjoyable challenges while integrating academics into daily life. However, research and statistics courses sometimes provoke anxiety, fear, or hatred. Having performed and taught research throughout my career, I enjoy helping students overcome these obstacles to science education. As Lead Faculty in Human Development at University of the Rockies, I work with faculty and administrators to evaluate courses and student progress. Through this review, we see a variety of ways in which students can overcome their fears and develop their research skills. Challenges will always remain, but there are many opportunities to promote successful learning in research courses.

The Situation

Many students enter U.S. colleges and universities with little useful background in statistics. They may be afraid to sign up for statistics courses and are often worried about failing. Fortunately, these same students are also often interested in scientific and statistical concepts so they are able to learn in spite of their fears. How do we know? Here is a series of student comments from the first week of a recent statistics course:

Selected First Week Comments

  • “I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a bit intimidated for this class but I am unbelievably eager, nervous, and driven to learn every beneficial piece of information that I can.”
  • “I am so intimidated with the idea of learning how to properly interpret and apply statistical concepts, I'll need all the help I can get!”
  • “I'm just about halfway through my program. One last thing - This class scares the **** out of me!”

We can see students mixed emotions and motivations. Students face a “feel the fear and do it anyway” situation. What I like most is that students may also feel significant excitement when taking on fear-provoking challenges, and this can help motivate learning. Given this situation, it is worth looking at a variety of student achievements, instructional methods, and steps University of the Rockies has taken to support students’ learning. Last, I’ll make a case for students to consider taking these courses earlier in their program of study.

Student Achievements

Students achieve important personal and technical milestones in each of week of our online courses. In the early weeks, students begin to engage with the ideas and work in spite of any fears. In the middle weeks, students deal with mistakes, failures, revisions of work, and generally wrestle with the concepts. In the final weeks, students have gained enough perspective to appreciate their hard-won gains. Throughout this process, students improve their knowledge of key concepts, learn that they can succeed in spite of fears or other obstacles, and most are able to articulate the value and/or ubiquity of statistics in real life. This assessment is backed up by comments from students at the end of the course:

Selected Final Week Comments

  • “I came into this class hesitant about getting through, but I have learned so much and can finally say that I got through just taking it one assignment at a time.”
  • “Thanks to this class we are able to question and further look into the validity of what we are reading prior to just accepting everything as truth.”
  • “In my past courses I have been exposed to research articles but I can honestly say I never understood variables and independent variables, different type of studies, methods, data analysis, etc… I do feel that I have a better understanding of the basic terminology of statistics and why the tests that are conducted are chosen for statistical research. Even though the articles are typically long and somewhat intimidating, I feel more comfortable taking my time and comprehending them. I am by no means an expert, but I am grateful for what I have learned of this subject.”

For students, it is a notable personal success when they start working with ideas, making mistakes, and correcting prior misconceptions based on feedback. In all learning, “feedback is the breakfast of champions” so students should be encouraged to explain and then update their conceptions as needed and as time allows. To encourage learning and to avoid punishing mistakes, I routinely allow students to revise their work for additional credit. It is extremely important not to punish people for misunderstanding statistical concepts because mistakes are a necessary step in learning.

Objectively, student successes appear as increasingly detailed discussion posts and papers which demonstrate new and improved usage of the vocabulary and concepts. Students improve their questions, and become more able to identify variables, research designs, and results, from scientific reports. My favorite events are when students link the concepts to their life, and when they can describe ideas to me or to each other when speaking on optional phone calls. I consider all of this a personal and technical victory for students and the outcomes are clear. Students can be seen to engage with the concepts, apply them to examples from their own lives, and improve their discussions of the topics.

Engagement through Instruction and Peer-to-Peer Learning

After students start moving, engagement and peer-to-peer learning are key features of course completion and student retention. When students are engaged, they can persist within the course, avoid dropping out, and increase their chances of passing the course. Engagement is shown by regular participation in discussions, assignment completion, the willingness to correct mistakes and gain additional credit, the willingness to try the University’s free tutoring services, and the degree of interaction with other classmates.

Regarding peer-to-peer learning, I always mention to students that statistics should be seen as a team sport. Students sometimes feel more comfortable approaching each other than professors. Peers who have just learned how to solve a problem or understand a term are sometimes better suited to explain those concepts to other beginners. This idea has received new attention via the work of Dr. Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University (Lambert, 2012). Professors sometimes have explanations that are too advanced or abstract, so peer-to-peer learning lets students discuss topics from the perspective of people who are new to the field. As it can take a while to convince students that it is OK to make mistakes, show ignorance, and ask questions, peer-to-peer conversations also serve as a more relaxed forum in which students may open up more to other students than to a professor. To encourage direct interactions with professors, I also make it a point to let students know I am approachable, non-judgmental, and want them to learn and succeed.

When peers support each other through detailed online discussions or even telephone calls, these actions further demonstrate engagement. To evaluate engagement in online courses, professors are able to view the number, content, and thoroughness of student replies.

How University of the Rockies Supports Students

In research literature about statistics education (e.g. Tishkovskaya et. al., 2012), I have mostly seen a focus on students’ negative reactions and the general difficulties teachers face. There does not seem to be much mention of student emotion and motivation or their desire to learn and apply statistics to life. With these negative expectations, what do we see in statistics and research courses at University of the Rockies?

When reviewing discussions in prior statistics courses, I noticed that statements of interest and motivation often outnumbered statements of fear. These statements show mixed emotions and motivations within each student, and it was encouraging to see students’ good general level of interest. Whether or not the literature on statistics teaching methods has too much of a negative focus or not, it is clear that our students have a strong desire to learn interesting and practical information. If professors tap into this motivation and interest, we can help students make important gains and feel better about that progress.

A Call to Action

I would like all students to consider taking statistics courses sooner in any program of study. Statistics and research courses help students better understand scholarly journal articles, numerical arguments, scientific arguments, and social policy arguments, regardless of the field. Please avoid saving research and statistics courses for the end of your program. The longer you wait to take these courses, the less ability they have to impact your learning in all other courses.

Whether or not students are clear about how research and statistics relate to their life and work, knowledge of statistics and research is common throughout science and many industries. I often call statistical and scientific knowledge “forever knowledge” because the fundamentals are always the same and notions like variables, averages, charts/graphs, and experimental design, are used widely in society.

Few of our students expect to perform statistical analyses in future careers, but many expect to apply the ideas when interpreting scientific literature and other media. Most students gain a real appreciation and respect for the concepts along with a new ability to read and interpret scholarly articles and scientific reports. I view all of these outcomes as somewhat remarkable because many students enter with an overt or covert mindset of fear, hatred, and reluctance, but leave with a mindset that includes awareness, appreciation, respect, and a new technical competence. Do some students maintain their fear and hatred of the topic? Yes, some do. However, every student gains new awareness and useful skills with previously mysterious concepts.


Written by Paul Greenberg, Lead Faculty


1) Tishkovskaya S. and Lancaster G. (2012) Statistical Education in the 21st Century: a Review of Challenges, Teaching Innovations and Strategies for Reform. Journal of Statistics Education. Volume 20, Number 2

2) Lambert, C. (2012, March–April). Twilight of the lecture: The trend toward “active learning” may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved from http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture

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