Finding your statistics course harder than your other courses ? Not confident with mathematics?

The difficulty of learning something depends on how close it is to what you already know. So, doing a statistics course will be harder for you if all your other courses are qualitative in nature than if many of your other courses are also quantitative in nature.

But “harder” does not mean “too hard”, so what are the best strategies if you are not used to studying quantitative courses or not confident with mathematics?

Lots of regular practice

Remember, while it might be possible to simply cram memorise the road rules for your driving test, it takes lots of regular practice under a range of conditions to become a competent driver. Likewise, being able to do statistics, it is not enough to just know some facts, you also have to be able to read and interpret tables and mathematical formulas, do calculations, decide which formula is relevant for a particular set of data and so on, and becoming proficient at these things takes lots of regular practice with a range of different problems. Like driving a car, there are simply too many things to learn how to do for cramming to be even partially successful.

Work through your lecture notes and text book

Don’t just “read” them. Statistics texts are more like instruction manuals than the newspaper. So, like learning to drive a new DVD recorder, understanding can often only be achieved by working through things step-by-step; just reading is generally ineffective.

Tip: to build confidence and understanding, cover up lecture and text book examples and try to do them for yourself. If you get stuck, you get immediate help by having a quick peek at the example, and once you’re done you will have immediate feedback on whether you have done things correctly.

If you find that the text book or lecture notes example skips steps or don’t explain the reasoning fully, fill in the missing pieces in your notes so that you won’t have to recreate the missing material when revising for the exam.

Find concrete examples to help make the meaning clear of abstract ideas.

Approach statistics as a “foreign language”

Build up “vocab lists” (jargon definitions) and annotated formula sheets as you go along to act as a ready reference guide when you are reading and trying to do problems.

Practice speaking the language of statistics as often as you can by:

  • self explaining (i.e. pretending you are rehearsing to give a lecture on the material you are reading about);
  • discussing questions in a study group;
  • reading formulas and symbols correctly as you write them.
  • Since mathematical courses like statistics keep building on prior knowledge, it is important to seek help early if you are having trouble understanding. (It is very hard to remember and apply ideas that are simply memorised and not understood.)
  • ask questions at tutorials; see your lecturer during consultation times throughout the semester; ask other students – two or three or four heads may be better than one;
  • read your text book; read other books or web material if your book is too hard (but remember, like coming to grips with an instruction manual, you might have to work quite hard to understand any material on statistics);
  • seek the help of a private tutor who can help you with not only the course material, but also some foundations which you might have forgotten. The Khan Academy is also a place to go to get extra “tutoring” (non-interactive) through online video clips on both statistics and basic mathematics.
  • Learn not only how to conduct the various statistical tests, but also when they can be applied. (Just as doctors need to know that they shouldn’t prescribe certain drugs if the patient is also on heart medication or pregnant, statisticians need to know when it is and isn’t valid to use the various statistical tests.)

Regarding this issue, it helps a lot to get organised with a decision tree (e.g. version 1] or some other table.

  • Be organised and methodical in the way you do problems, set things out fully, explain to yourself why you are doing what you are doing (e.g. This should be tested with a chi-squared test because ...), and practise until you can do things confidently and quickly.

Skipping steps can lead to silly mistakes which slow you down.

If you are not consistent and methodical in your approach then what’s in your head is a mess which is very hard to remember and sort out at a later date or when under pressure.

Further Reading