Ever Wondered How The Good Stats Teachers Do It?

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Imagine rocking up to a small classroom late in the evening after a long day at work and having to listen to a dude rabbiting on about means and standard deviations for three hours. Does that make you want to be violently ill, or run in the complete opposite direction to the classroom at the speed of Usain Bolt? It would me usually, but unfortunately I’m the person tasked with being this dude. What I wanted to talk about in this article today is how a teacher set with this task goes about it.

I’m a lecturer within the University of Sydney, Business School MBA program in the subject “Data Analytics and Modelling”. I lecture on a Tuesday night from 6pm for 3 hours. When you hear this topic it clearly doesn’t tug at your fun strings. The problem I have, however, is that in my view the key to an excellent teaching experience in a topic like this, and probably any topic, is that you have to make it fun. And the fun doesn’t have to relate to the subject matter. It could be anything.

I do a few things to make my lectures and the teaching experience fun. I am a naturally effervescent and bubbly kind of guy (no I’m not a Schweppes dry ginger ale) so a high energy and fun approach comes relatively easily to me – I understand it may not be for everyone. I have what is called a jokes penetration ratio target of 20% meaning that one of five jokes provokes a laughter response from at least one student and I find that even attempting to make them laugh can be entertaining.

The key to a great classroom experience is that students will actually enjoy coming to class and that won’t happen in most cases unless you make the classroom fun. I do a few things to keep it fun aside from attempting poor jokes. The first is to ask the students lots of questions. This keeps them engaged, active and awake. There’s nothing worse than listening to the same voice for hours, even if it has dulcet tones, so it is good to hear lots of different voices. I sometimes ask questions that are completely off topic just to add a bit of variety and spice to the lecture. I remember in one statistics lecture a couple of years ago we talked about banana allergies for around half an hour in a three hour lecture.

The second thing I do to keep it fun is to have the students perform in-class activities that are relevant to the curriculum. In my case this involved chasing up data and presenting it in particular formats. And get the students doing it together in groups. Activities like this get the blood flowing a bit and activate conversation. I also always ensure that my examples or illustrations are fun and suit the demographic I’m teaching. We would look at interesting things like the demand for bacon and egg rolls and a can of coke on a Saturday or Sunday morning or models describing the removal of pickles from McDonalds burgers.

I always make sure that I have breaks at the right time and play cool music during the breaks. In my data analytics class we had prize giveaways for those who could guess the correct song. The giveaways were things that I really liked and so the students got to know a bit about me. For example, one giveaway was four Weetbix biscuits with one banana and full fat milk – I explained to the students that this is what I ate every single morning, and that if I couldn’t access a banana because of a tropical cyclone hitting Far North Queensland then I would consume only 5 Weetbix biscuits with full cream milk.

Another key to excellent lecture and course experience is to come down to the students level. Picture yourself listening to you talk about standard deviations and work out whether you would enjoy that experience. If students ask a question don’t give up until it is resolved. Ask the student different questions to establish if it resolved. Read the body language of students. If they are dozing off or fiddling with their phone then you need to try something different.

Like anything you buy, the after-sales experience is important. The same applies to lecturing. The best lectures provide the best after lecture support, whether that be taking phone calls, emails or students rocking up to your office. There is also nothing better than a speedy reply.

These are just some of the things that have made by lecturing experience work with a dry topic. I’m sure there are many other things that can be tried and work as well.

Creative Commons License
Ever Wondered How the Good Stats Teachers Do It? by Dy Tony Webber is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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