Saint Louis University

Students in the introductory undergraduate business statistics classes taught by Mark Ferris, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Decision Sciences, kicked off the spring semester with the first of 11 innovative and challenging homework assignments designed to hone their critical thinking skills. Given that 2013 is the International Year of Statistics, this seems particularly apt.

Mark Ferris, Ph.D.

In the book Academically Adrift, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa provide strong evidence that there are small to non-existent gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over the course of a student's entire college education. Ferris believes that the intro stats course is an ideal vehicle to improve these very same skills.

In order to address those issues, Ferris created a new vein of homework called "Statistics as Evidence." The first assignment addresses the issues of advocacy and evidence.

As part of "DSC 207 Homework 1: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics," the students analyzed the websites of two diametrically opposed organizations - the National Rifle Association (NRA) and The Brady Campaign to Reduce Gun Violence.

Students were asked to analyze the credibility of their respective use of data and evidence, and the role that advocacy plays, while commenting on any ethical issues. Ferris, who has used this as a first assignment for a number of years, said that in light of the shootings at Sandy Hook it has been of particular interest.

"As part of the class, students read and analyze different websites, articles and evidentiary books," Ferris said. "I teach three sessions of 50 students where this is required and we have had some very spirited and interesting class discussions."

Another Statistics as Evidence assignment includes viewing a "TED Talk on Big Data" by a MIT graduate student and reading the New York Times piece "The Age of Big Data," where students are asked to respond to prompts like the following: What's new about Big Data? Are there ethical considerations? If so what are they? How does Big Data relate to our own statistics course?

Ferris adds that writing the analysis is only the beginning. Students then spend class time divided into groups of three where they discuss their analyses. A class discussion follows where students are randomly called on in a Socratic exercise where they explain their thinking and respond to other student comments.

Other assignments include looking at issues of risk and probability surrounding terrorism, interpreting disease statistics when it's a matter of life and death, and looking at the relationship between income inequality and well-being.

In addition to improving critical thinking skills, these various assignments supply essential context, which is often missing in introductory statistics courses.

International students constitute an important demographic and fully participate in all aspects of the educational experience involving analyzing, writing and discussing the 11 assignments.

Ferris said this new homework approach has been wildly successful if you are to judge from some of the comments from his students -- "Learned real life stuff," "Helps you think like a statistician," "Valuable material that gives you a better understanding on how to be a critical thinker."

Former student Kelli Holland, a junior at the John Cook School of Business said the class had a profound effect on how she evaluates information and an even greater impact on how information, particularly statistics and data, is presented in the media.

"Dr. Ferris' class taught me to embrace my skepticism in a more enlightened way, a way that made me look behind the numbers for deeper context," Holland said. "I feel as though my decision making and analytical skills have definitely been raised to a much higher level that has changed the way I think and go about my life by allowing me to effectively use data analysis for knowledge creation."

Holland is currently doing an honors research project supervised by Ferris that brings together the theme of statistics evidence and its application to "Big Data and Social Media Analytics" in business.

Fellow Cook School Junior Kelsey Jackson also says the class has changed the way she looks at information.

"It has shown me that even though a statistic may be presented as unbiased, it can be biased in order to favor a certain organization or person's point of view," Jackson said.

"I've also learned to think critically when reading articles and consider where the authors are getting their information," Jackson added. "We have learned to consider the role that advocacy plays in writing with statistics because advocating for a cause can change the way the person presents the information."

Another student, Connor Campbell, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, feels that the enormous amount of information being disseminated has caused a progressive increase in the complexity of pursuing the truth - making classes like "Statistics as Evidence" so important for evaluating data.

"In order to efficiently differentiate between various claims, we must possess the ability to think analytically and solve problems in an empirically defensible manner," Campbell said.

"At SLU one of the fundamental missions of the Operations and ITM Department is to impart a sense of rationality to students who will be involved in the endless discourses that help shape society as a whole. Attaining the so-called ‘full picture' can only come through a diverse approaches that encourages higher orders of thought," Campbell added.

Ferris also has added a new innovation to the class by having his students follow him on Twitter where he Tweets out links to interesting statistical studies and news about various topics including data science, social media analytics and internship possibilities. Follow him on Twitter at @ferristician (a name suggested by one of his students).