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Most students suffer from major anxiety when tackling statistics

Most students suffer from major anxiety when tackling statistics. A study from the University of Kansas has revealed that up to 80 percent of college students experience “statistics anxiety” in some form. A team of researchers including Professor Michael Vitevitch set out to investigate what may specifically cause this anxiety among students majoring in psychology.

“We teach a statistics class in the psychology department and see many students put it off until senior year because they’re scared of this class,” said Professor Vitevitch. “We’re interested in seeing if we could help students out of the statistics anxiety. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to get them to overcome their fears. You need to find out what their fear is and focus on that. For people who don’t think statistics are useful, you need to convince them it’s not just useful for psychology but for other things as well.”

“For people fearful of math and statistics in general, you need to help lower their anxiety so they can focus on learning. We hope this gives us some understanding of our own students and statistical anxiety in general.”

The team used a questionnaire called the Statistical Anxiety Rating Scale (STARS) to classify the students as being either high or low anxiety when it came to statistics. The participants were asked about their math ability, fear of statistics teachers, test and class anxiety, and their fear of asking for help. They were also asked about the value of statistics.

“People would answer and rate questions like, ‘Do you think this is a useless topic? Do you think you’ll never use statistics in your life? Do you think statistics professors aren’t human because they’re more like robots?’” said Professor Vitevitch. “Hopefully something like ‘my statistics teacher isn’t human’ is something we can focus on – and I’m saying that as a former statistics teacher who is human.”

Using a new analysis technique called network science, the responses from 228 students were mapped visually with the most important contributors and symptoms of statistical anxiety in the center of a diagram.

The analysis revealed that high- and low-anxiety have different network structures. Students high in statistics anxiety were found to strongly agree with statements like “I can’t even understand seventh- and eighth-grade math; how can I possibly do statistics?” For students with low anxiety, the primary symptoms included fear of “asking a fellow student for help in understanding a printout” or anxiety “interpreting the meaning of a table in a journal article.”

Professor Vitevitch hopes that the study findings will be used by instructors to develop interventions to ease statistics anxiety among students.

“This paper is targeted at people who teach psychology. Hopefully we’ll turn our science on ourselves and find a better way to make sure we’re getting our points across to our students and helping those who need a little help. It might not be a matter of teaching remedial math, but more like helping them overcome fears or discomfort they have with this topic.”

The research is published in the journal Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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