Students shouldn’t be confused by numbers in the news

Abby Krishnan

Students have difficulty separating fact from fiction in media — especially when this fiction is being presented in a way that appears to be legitimate and objective.

As data journalism continues to grow in popularity and more fields begin to take data-driven approaches in research, it’s important that students have the ability to recognize falsehoods in information presented via data and statistics. Data and its presentation can be manipulated to greatly influence conclusions, which is why developing a strong foundation in statistical comprehension is critical. An understanding of the way statistics are created can help prevent students from falling prey to misinformation on the web.

In order to prepare students to be mindful consumers of media, UT should expand the course offerings in UGS Signature Courses to include the basics of statistical thinking and comprehension. The purpose of these signature courses is “to incorporate various integral elements in order to facilitate first-year students’ transition from high school to college-level learning.” Introducing statistics in these courses would equip students with important skills for their college education and the world beyond.

For many of us, a study that comes to a quantitative conclusion appears to be objective — numbers can’t lie the way humans do. Although we may not realize it, graphs can be just as manipulative as words. Small nuances, such as cutting axes, rescaling metrics or changing the data from positive to negative, can result in two representations that are wildly different. Even more so, sampling bias, which rises from an unequal selection of data, and selective definitions can greatly skew the results of a data analysis.

A.J. Petrosino, an education associate professor, explains that one of the reasons why so many people lack basic statistical literacy is that, typically, statistics is only introduced at the high school level. Statistics is usually taught in isolation without connection to a framework of real world issues. This can make statistical concepts more difficult to grasp and remember. Petrosino further says making the teaching of statistics interdisciplinary, by contextualizing statistical thinking in other subjects, would lead to better retention and application of the information learned.

By incorporating these concepts into a UGS Signature Course, students are more likely to apply the concepts they’ve developed through their coursework. This will help students improve their recognition of dubious statistical claims. Potential exercises in statistical thinking in signature courses could include going over the statistical methodologies in research papers, evaluation of data visualizations and graphs, or an overview of the commonly used statistical terms a student may encounter.

Patricia Micks, director of the Signature Course program, explained in an email that the Signature Course Advisory Committee, the main body that oversees Signature Courses, meets monthly during the academic year and is continually looking to ensure the high quality of the Signature Courses. But the requirements for these classes haven’t changed since their creation in 2005. These monthly meetings provide a perfect opportunity for the committee to modernize these classes and provide more for students by creating requirements for statistical learning.

Our education should prepare us to enter our fields ready to embrace good data and question poor methodologies. The opportunity to gain this knowledge in the first year of college is invaluable, and it should be included in the course essentials for UGS Signature Courses.

Krishnan is a computer science sophomore from Plano, TX. Follow her on Twitter @theamazingabby