Things I’ve learned from my students

This summer I’m the TA for an undergraduate intro stats class for non-majors.  It’s been an enlightening process.  I’m learning a lot about teaching obviously, as it’s my first time actually running discussion sections and being fully in charge.  I’m glad to be doing an intro course because I’m really nailing down the basic things I need to know as a statistician, and I don’t need to worry about what I’m presenting so much as how I’m presenting it.  Interacting with the students is the most rewarding part of the experience, and observing them has been an exposition of the best and worst habits that people have.  A few things I’ve noted:

 Top students put in the time.  Even the naturally smart students who do well on tests don’t score as high as the ones who come to class consistently, every day. Those who put in the time get the most out of the class. The takeaway is that even when things seem easy, you can’t get cocky and stop paying attention; there is always more to learn.

How to hack the brainstem.  I love this idea.  I stole it from my advisor, Philip, who once said that the best way to convey statistical ideas to non-statisticians is to “hack the brainstem using metaphors.”  I have to teach things that I’ve internalized and taken for granted for so many years.  It’s really tough to boil things down to their essential parts when I see how topics connect and relate to each other, but the students just do not.  The metaphor I like relates chance variability in a random sample to measuring the concentration of a chemical solution: if your solution is well-mixed, it doesn’t matter if the drop you sample comes from a test tube or a gallon jug.  It should always have the same concentration.  Similarly, if you take a random sample of people, it doesn’t matter whether the population they came from is 1,000 or 1,000,000 people; your estimate of the average/percentage of some characteristic based on the sample will have the same accuracy.

Another version I like is hacking the brainstem using hyperboles.  To illustrate confusing concepts, take them to their limit: what happens if you flip a coin 1,000 times, then 10,000 times, then 100,000 times? What happens with non-response bias if all the unhealthy people in your sample die before the survey?

– Kindness makes a difference.  There are a handful of students who say hello, goodbye, and thank you to me every day.  I’m sure they do it without even thinking twice, but I definitely notice.  It’s nice to feel appreciated, and it’s a reminder to show others how much I appreciate their help and support regularly.

– My generation is spoiled by technology.  I look around when the students are working on exercises and I see them all on their phones.  Some have headphones on, some are clearly texting, while the rest are actually using tiny touch screen calculators to solve the problems.  Yes, it’s convenient, but wouldn’t they benefit more from actually talking to each other about the material instead of isolating themselves on their phones?  I’m guilty of this myself.  Sometimes, you just need to shut it off.

I’ve noticed that students overuse technology in other ways.  They think it’s okay to email pictures of their problem sets instead of turning in a hard copy, without even writing a message of explanation.  As if messy math scribbles on paper weren’t hard enough to grade, now the end product is one step removed and only visible on a screen, and it comes without acknowledgement that the student is bending the class rules.  It’s as though the availability of email makes people forget basic politeness.  I hope not to be like that; I try to be cordial, straightforward, and clear in my electronic communications.

There’s only so much I can do.  And that’s okay.  No matter how much time and effort I put into the class, some students are still going to fail.  It’s not a reflection of me as a TA if the student doesn’t hold up their end of the deal.  Are you emailing me asking for extra help?  You better come to office hours.  Are you asking me to return your graded homework?  Then you better show up to class and pick it up.  The failures of others aren’t a reflection of my work, and I shouldn’t take any of it personally.

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