Redesigned statistics course helps students become more informed citizens

It is not Emlily Goodell’s ’99 first time teaching statistics at Mayfield, but she restructured the course this year to meet “our current student population and their interests.” Although she works closely with the textbook, she wanted to focus less on rote memorization and much more on how data was flowing through the lives of her students, better equipping students with understanding data in deeply practical and easily applicable ways. And a visit to a statistics class showed her approach in action.
Over the course of nearly three months, each class period would begin with an individual student giving a presentation to the entire class. Mrs. Goodell had been instructing them in ways to create and deliver surveys, helping them understand the many ways that bias could affect data collection and reporting. Then students went on to design and deliver their own surveys and report their findings to their classmates.

This morning, it was Lucy Meek’s ’23 turn to present. She loaded up her presentation on the SMART Board and started to address the class. Lucy had chosen to conduct a survey on movie-going. Per the design, she produced two versions of the survey, one with intentional bias and one designed to reduce bias. The bias Lucy focused on dealt with word choice—lack of specificity. In one survey, she asked “Do you see movies in the theater?” But in the second survey, she was more clear, asking, “Considering the pandemic, do you watch movies in the theater?” And to “avoid confounding variables,” Lucy decided to survey Mayfield Faculty/Staff instead of Mayfield students because the faculty/staff had more agency and license when it came to their free time and their access to personal transportation. After sharing her graphs and datasets, Lucy gave her analysis: it appeared that the pandemic seemed to have little effect on the movie-going patterns of those she surveyed.

The students were given a lot of license in creating these surveys, encouraged to take on topics that interested them specifically. Sade Falesse ’23 conducted a survey about stress and working out. Lily Salazar ’23 conducted a survey on littering around Mayfield’s campus. Everyone encountered specific challenges in their projects and everyone had to avoid bias in different ways. Who was delivering the survey? How big was the pool of responders? Was everyone given adequate time to participate fully? At the end of their presentations, the students didn’t just share their findings, they explained what possible errors might have taken place in the process and what alternative explanations could be drawn with their data.

Chloe Clawson ’23 found the tools she was learning in this class incredibly useful, “It is always important to find out where data came from, how it was collected, and who was asked,” said Chloe. “There is always bias but it is important to try to reduce it as much as possible.”
Raizel Villaluna ’23 appreciated the skills she was learning during the course as well. She explained, “Statistics has definitely made a difference in the way I view data outside the classroom, because now I understand what factors come into play.” 
In the redesign of this course, Mrs. Goodell described it as “a mission-centric decision to increase student access to statistics.” And if “increasing access” is defined by exposing statistics to a wider cross-section of Mayfield students, this course design seems to have been wildly successful. Mrs. Goodell explained that her students came from a variety of math backgrounds: students who were taking this alongside an AP® math course, others alongside an honors math course, some as their second math course, and some as their only math course. Mrs. Goodell had students that were “interested in data science and…programming” enrolled in this course, but she explained there were also “artists, students who are interested in law, students who are interested in business” and she found great pleasure in “taking the diversity of experiences that the students bring and finding a course that's really relatable.” And although Mrs. Goodell teaches all grades at Mayfield, she hadn’t taught any of the students in this statistics course before.

“At first I was a little nervous to take this class only because I was not sure if it would be something I would enjoy,” Lauren Fajarado ’23 admitted. “However, this has been one of my favorite classes this year.” Lily Salazar shared her praise as well, saying, “It's way beyond a math class. There's a lot of deductive reasoning and logic… I've honestly had a lot of fun because it's much more than just calculations.”

Mayfield has always encouraged curiosity in its students, but statistics also strengthened their capacities to think critically. Mrs. Goodell keeps that critical lens at the forefront of her teaching. She explained, “We live in a world where you cannot ignore data and you have to understand what the data's telling you. Because, if you don't, that's how you can be misled.” In this way, Ms. Goodell knows that understanding statistics doesn’t just make those in her class better students, but also more informed citizens. And when asked, her students tend to agree with that assessment.

Rachel Towner ’23 said, “I think understanding statistics makes me a better informed citizen because I now know how to differentiate what makes a good experimental design versus…advertising.” Isabella Gordon ’23 echoed the sentiment, “I believe that understanding statistics has made me a better citizen, because now when people around me talk about statistical evidence that was explained on the news, or on a billboard, I am able to put in my own input.”
And whether or not students think much about statistics in their civic lives, they certainly see applications of the coursework every day. Alexandra Garcia ’23 felt that in this class, she got to “think about practical and real-life situations.” And Sade saw a lot of practicality in the coursework as well. “I think people just don't realize that statistics are everywhere,” said Sade Falese. “It is used in…everyday life…it’s really useful.” 
During a lively class discussion, students explained that being exposed to data shared in the media had the potential to bring out a lot of anxiety or confusion, without the appropriate tools to analyze that data. Lucy Meeks explained, “especially during the pandemic…there's a lot of numbers that are being thrown around,” and added the course made her “more mindful of everything that's online.” Eva Gullon ’23 added, “I wish people questioned things more instead of just kind of taking the first thing they see and running with it. I think it's important for people to question where information is coming from…I think stats helped me to do that.”
The deeply engaged conversations in and after the class makes a persuasive case for the course redesign Mrs. Goodell took on this year. This approach involves a lot of project-based learning, in a highly discursive environment, affording a variety of students many unique ways to recognize and encounter the data that is all around them. Mrs. Goodell has often referred to statistics as a “humanities-based math” and Lily Salazar aptly summarized how math and humanities interact in this distinctive learning environment, “There's a lot of writing…not only calculate whatever the answer is, but explain what it is, explain why the number's important.” 
Perhaps that was exactly the point. Mrs. Goodell doesn’t want her students to take anything for granted and to always investigate the numbers placed in front of them. Or, as Mrs. Goodell would say: “learning about the stories that numbers are telling us.”
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.