Teaching statistics between enabling and widening practice

Teaching statistics has increasingly been regarded as a complex mission, as it consists of many different mathematical components with many variables. Despite extensive research work in developing statistics education, this discipline still requires significant improvement in how it is taught. There has been strong evidence in literature that students at university have a lack of interest in undertaking statistics courses. The classical approach in teaching this unit has many challenges, including: (Peiris, S, & Beh, E., 2006, and Tishkovskaya, S., & Lancaster, G., 2017) 

  1. Many textbooks do not satisfy students’ self-learning needs.
  2. Teachers attempt to explain statistics with mathematical models which may be ambiguous to many students who have not had a chance to study moderate mathematics in high school.
  3. Deficiencies in the principles of statistics and the mathematical background of students.
  4. Following a prearranged syllabus and inflexible teaching method of statistics which does not consider the different analytical skills of students in the cohort.
  5. Traditional teaching does not welcome feedback from students nor provide support to struggling students to gain the confidence and skills needed.
  6. Traditional assessment techniques do not provide valid or reliable measurements of important student outcomes.
  7. Statistics is often taught with no link to the related undergraduate degree or real life experience.

The academic staff of the statistics unit at Sydney Institute of Business and Technology (SIBT) found that the above seven problems can be considered as a base line to improve the delivery and performance of the unit using contemporary and innovated teaching and learning techniques. 

Changes to the curriculum and delivery techniques 

Work was started in SIBT in session 3 (2017) to improve the delivery and assessments of the unit ‘MATH102 – Introduction to Statistics’ in order to improve students’ performance and class engagement, taking into consideration the seven major problems mentioned above. The new unit delivery techniques were implemented over a period of one year and covered the teaching materials, assignments, tests and quizzes. The worked examples adopted from the text book were modified in order to be more relevant to students’ local and daily life experience (i.e., selecting examples of case studies from local businesses or industries well known to students).  A weekly in-class online quiz was introduced, using mobile phones and Socrative, as tools to improve students’ attendance and class engagement. Workshops before midterm and final exams were introduced to provide revision to students who missed face to face classes. 

To diagnose students’ abilities in statistics, a readiness test was introduced for the first time in Session 2, 2018. Students who achieved > 70% were assumed to have enough prerequisite knowledge to study statistics, however students who gained < 70% were required to attend free statistics support classes 2 hours per week concurrent with the unit MATH102 using an online support tool called MATHSPACE. In Session 3, 2018 the test showed that about 38% of the cohort were found not ready to study statistics.  This cohort of students were asked to attend the statistics support class every week and were given the required fundamentals that would prepare them for the weekly topic of the lecture. 

With all these support tools MATH102 was still proving to be insufficient to enhance student performance and class engagement especially when it came to the final exam, where a high percentage of students failed to pass and therefore failed to pass the unit. Feedback from the learning survey found that some students were not able to comprehend or revise the 13 weeks of course materials during the final exam week because of the large amount of information. This was found by the SIBT academic team to be one of the major problems facing the progress of MATH102 and so efforts were made to find a core solution. 

Confidence, participation and learner autonomy 

The improvements in the MATH102 unit, done over one year, represent a practice to enable students at risk of failing by introducing different kinds of support during the academic session. However, this action by itself did not give students the confidence they needed to succeed. Students also needed more engagement with the knowledge and were still relying on teacher support which was counterproductive to the educational aims of autonomy and self-efficacy (Green J., 2018). Widening participation practice was found to be the key point in the development of a new delivery for this unit. Rather than simply providing them with extra help to progress in statistics, the idea was to improve their confidence when they do the major assessment, the final exam.  The ‘widening participation’ learning and teaching principle states that students already have abilities that do not require ‘enabling’. Teachers are facilitators in the learning process, and they need to pass on the responsibility to their students (Green, J, 2018). 

In Session 2, 2018 the same MATH102 syllabus was divided into three modules, with each module covered in a 4 week period. At the end of each module, students were asked to sit for the test – first trial. The second trial for these modules was offered again at the end of the session. This meant that students had two chances to show their competence in MATH102 as described in the infographic. Those students who passed the test in the first trial exam were not required to sit the second trial unless they wanted to improve their mark in the respective module. 

In the three module tests, students were allowed to bring a one page information sheet (crib sheet) where they could summarise some rules and principles in statistics.  Having this kind of sheet helped students to comprehend formulas and principles because they had written and summarised them by themselves. 

Outcomes of the new delivery 

Breaking up the statistics curriculum into modules gives students more confidence when they tackle the module test because they have another chance to prove their competence in the module if they fail at their first attemptThose students who have already passed one of the module tests in the first trial also have more time for revision during the test at the end of the session (second trial) because they can focus only on the modules they failed. The results of session 3, 2018 showed significant improvement in students’ performance as they achieved about 16% increase in the pass rate. 

To continue the conversation, contact Saad Odeh, or share your thoughts and ideas via YammerTwitter or LinkedIn.

The Academic staff who participated in this project are: Dr Saad Odeh, Virginia MandelburgerDr Fazeel Jaleel, Dr Frederick Wong and Krishna Ramanathan 


  • Green, J, 2018, Rename to reframe: Is it time to stop “enabling” students?, Foundation and Bridging Educators New Zealand (FABENZ), 29- 30th November, Wellington. 
  • Peiris, S, & Beh, E., 2006, Where statistics teaching can go wrong, CAL-laborate, August. 
  • Tishkovskaya, S., & Lancaster, G., 2012, Statistical Education in 21st Century: A Review of Challenges, Teaching Innovations and Strategies for Reform, Journal of Statistics Education, 20, 2, found at:  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10691898.2012.11889641