The University of Newcastle, Australia

The universal value of learning statistics (and it doesn't have to be boring)

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

As an inaugural recipient of a DVC(A) Merit List Award for Teaching and Learning Excellence, Lecturer in Statistics, Dr Natasha Weaver, shares her approach to education and what makes a great teacher.

Dr Natasha Weaver, Lecturer in Statistics

Statistics wasn’t my first love. My background is in pure mathematics and even though I took some statistics subjects in undergrad I definitely didn’t love it as much as I did maths. I came to statistics later for a job and found that I really liked working with real-life datasets and I liked seeing statistics applied in the context of the improving people’s health and wellbeing through evidence-based treatments. Mathematicians and statisticians can work in a huge variety of areas but it’s important to me to do work I like but as part of something positive for society.

People often have the wrong idea about what we do. Statistics is not a subject that is only accessible to people with a certain kind of maths brain; everyone can improve their statistical understanding. It involves learning how to think in terms of evaluating evidence, which I think is important generally in life for all of us as voters, consumers, patients, etc. The real-life importance and the application of statistics in context is what makes it different from studying math. Most questions don’t have neat answers, real-life data is messy, and it’s the process and the approach of collecting and evaluating evidence that is important rather than coming up with a single right answer.

You can have fun learning statistics, it doesn’t have to be boring. What I’ve admired in my own teachers, and what I try to emulate, is that they showed enthusiasm for the subject itself and an enthusiasm for teaching others about it. There’s plenty of great statistics courses and resources available online for free. What students can’t necessarily get from studying a textbook is someone who can help them challenge their assumptions or someone who can try to explain something in different ways until one of them clicks. What I try to give them is my view: why I like statistics and why I’m passionate about statistics education, which is mainly that there is a huge potential for statistics to be misused and it actually matters when facts are misrepresented, misleading, or just plain made up.

I’m always on the lookout for how content can be tweaked and improved. Beyond having the content be relevant, current, and organised I think a good course has a central and cohesive vision or set of big-picture learning goals that the individual weeks content are aligned with. Curating the materials takes a lot of thought: What activities or practical exercises are going to help students learn, how can different media deliver the course content in ways to cover different students’ preferences for learning, how can this content be made interesting for students? For example, I’ve had strong positive feedback about the use of Lightboard videos in the course evaluations, however, it wasn’t clear until I specifically asked a group of students what particular aspects of those videos made them a favourite resource? It’s the response from students that inform which changes are retained as improvements.

The future of work is data-centric. We know that there are huge changes coming with big data, personalised medicine, automation, Internet of Things (e.g. remote health monitoring, wearable devices, “smart” hospital beds) etc. Data literacy will become essential in more work areas as well as an increasing need for specialist statistical knowledge. At the moment, we just aren’t graduating enough students with skills in maths and statistics (at high school or university) to meet the current or future demand. I’ve been involved in school outreach activities as we know that career choices and stereotypes are formed very early in children’s lives so we really need to spark the interest in STEM topics and, particularly for girls, help them see it as an option for them.

I’m an alum of the University of Newcastle and I loved my study years. We are lucky in having such a beautiful green/gold/blue place to live and it’s been my privilege to study and work alongside wonderful people who are also passionate about redressing inequalities in the areas of health and education. Our challenge in being a regional university, nudging the rankings outside the group of eight, is making do with limited resources. I think one of our strengths is in our regional position, being able to offer educational opportunities to people living outside capital cities, especially those of lower socio-economic means.

About Natasha

Natasha has been a Lecturer in Statistics with the School of Medicine and Public Health for the past 2.5 years. She has been at the University of Newcastle in different roles for almost 10 years but only the last 2.5 have involved teaching. She teaches introductory biostatistics as part of postgraduate coursework programs in the School of Medicine and Public Health and has been involved in the development and teaching of courses in the new Master of Medical Statistics program that launched in 2017.

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