Statistics course incorporates oral and written communications skills

April 18, 2016 by Elaine Smith - A&S News

First-year University of Toronto students who are eager to sink their teeth into a statistics course get side helpings of improved language skills and mentorship, thanks to a Department of Statistical Sciences pilot project.

Given the department’s large numbers of international students and the university’s priority of re-imagining and re-inventing undergraduate education, the time seemed ripe for a new approach to basic statistics.

After a year of planning by the department chair, Professor James Stafford, together with Professor Sheldon Lin and Professor Jeffrey Rosenthal, An Introduction to Statistical Reasoning and Data Sciences, or Statistics 130H, made its debut in January 2016. Rosenthal, who developed the course, is the instructor.

The course requires students not only to grasp statistical concepts, but use their English skills to explain them orally and in writing. It also pairs the students with those in upper-years who serve as mentors in navigating their way through the university experience and the coursework.

“About 50 per cent of the students in statistics courses are usually from China and another 20 per cent are landed immigrants, so we wanted a course where participating in written and oral communication is mandatory to help them engage more fully in the life of the university,” Rosenthal said.

Communications skills are also important for the students’ futures, whether or not they are native English speakers, said Jason Rajsic, a PhD student who works as a teaching assistant for one of the course’s five tutorial groups.

“The more the students work on communications, the better they get,” Rajsic said. “If they go on to do something like consulting, they have to be able to explain their conclusions to people who don’t understand math. It’s a life and career skill and you need to continue to practise it.”

The course is capped at 100 students who attend the large lecture session, as well as the weekly 20-person tutorials where they have the opportunity to ask questions and work in groups. The syllabus requires students to prepare both a final detailed written report and an accompanying oral presentation, and asks them to analyze their statistical findings on quizzes and tests.

“Having to write things out and communicate gives you a better understanding of what statistics means,” Rajsic said. “It ensures you to use both mathematics and reasoning.”

The mentorship aspect of the course includes three structured sessions with a mentor to introduce students to the university’s academic, social and campus resources. Students are also required to attend two campus events they choose from a specified list.

“The mentorship program helps support first-year students transition into university life and a new education system,” said Gillis Aning, the department’s undergraduate administrator. “Many of them face challenges, especially the international students, making the transition to life in the city and a new country.”

The course appears to be achieving its objectives if student feedback is any indication.

“Language is the harder portion of the course, but it’s totally useful,” said Eric Lee, a first-year student from Richmond Hill who is exploring various potential majors. “It’s not my strong suit, but if I can communicate the statistical process it will help me get jobs and interviews and do presentations and reports.”

Khai Ong, a first-year actuarial sciences student from Malaysia, likes the mix of language and mathematics the course offers.

“I am looking forward to the presentations,” he said. “I’d rather do a presentation than just exams.”

The mentorship aspect of the course also appeals to the students.

“I meet with my mentor every month,” Ong said. “Talking to her de-stresses me and we’ve become friends. It makes me feel more alive.”

Lee appreciates the opportunity to get input from someone who has trod the same path.

“It’s good having the advice of someone taking the same program you are, but who is in the upper years,” he said. “We’ve discussed next year’s course choices.”

“Developing this course has been a challenge, since it has so many different aspects, but I am glad to be contributing to students’ early development of statistical thinking and communicating on several different levels,” said Rosenthal, the course creator. “I hope that some of them are inspired to study more statistics in the future, and in any case, to interpret the world through more of a statistical lens.”