The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology

Things They Don't Care To Learn

Inna Glaz

The fall 1996 issue of The Looking Glass contained a very thoughtful article by Anthony Ong on sources of flawed statistical reasoning among psychology students. While not arguing with his account, I would still like to point out what seems to be a flaw in Anthony's reasoning. He proposes that the difficulties some students have with statistics are not because they are coming to class as "…'blank slates' waiting to be filled," but because their prior experience interferes with the acquisition of new information. I am sorry, but this does not seem to be the case. Of course, I do not have Anthony's experience. But from what I saw, a significant number of students do come to class as "blank slates," and are not very eager "to be filled."

I came to the Psychology Department for my M. S. with a substantial mathematics background (I was a math teacher), but I still had to take all the prerequisites including Psy 202 and Psy 302. Thus, last fall I found myself in a class taught by Renato Villacorte filled with students who did not have any idea of what was going on. Poor Renato had to spend a lot of time in futile attempts to scare off the "math monster," a monster that persistently refused to leave. Of course, I did not expect everyone in the class to know the theory of probabilities, but not knowing how to find the mean of five numbers was a bit too much. Most of the students also had difficulty rounding numbers. I realize that this school is not Harvard or UCLA, but really, if the university catalog states that math knowledge is required, why not get it before coming to this class?

My Psy 302 class was not much better. Assuming that the students knew by then how to round numbers and find means, Dr. Tate ventured to introduce us to inferential statistics. Clearly, I did not have access to the class records, nor did I formally assess students' perception of the class. Nevertheless, I feel safe to infer, on the basis of my personal observations, that a lot of them had difficulty with this class mostly due to their lack of preparation. Worse yet, it appeared to me that most students were not too enthusiastic about gaining this preparation.

As I proceeded to Psy 304, the situation with the statistical background of my classmates worsened. As it should be, all of the students had passed 302 before enrolling in 304. However, this did not mean that they could use inferential statistics, for with "C" as a passing grade you cannot expect much from a student. Again, I observed that quite a few of my classmates could not work independently, nor did they care to learn how. After all, there were only two experiments, and some of us knew how to handle statistics and did it for those who, as usual, had no idea what was going on.

I would be very glad if I could share Anthony Ong's optimistic view about the future of students whom he expects to "...realize their own biases in thinking." However, I do not suppose that anyone can be said to have a bias on a subject on which one does not think at all. This is not to say that the students described by Anthony do not exist; I just do not think that they predominate in our student population. The math preparation of the students who study psychology at CSLA is disturbingly low, and the requirements that are set to improve the quality of this preparation are not enforced. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can stop being pleasant and start being serious. This would be better for the students, the Department of Psychology, and ultimately, the future of this country.

(See the article in this issue by Anthony Ong.)

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