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Writing Assignments in an Introductory Statistics Course Joy Jordan, Lawrence University May 13, 2008 (CAUSE webinar)

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1 Writing Assignments in an Introductory Statistics Course Joy Jordan, Lawrence University May 13, 2008 (CAUSE webinar)

2 Important Points from the Writing Literature Use of writing as a learning tool (I think we are already sold on this idea) Suggestions about assignment creation Research about revision and feedback Descriptions of different types of writing

3 Assignment Creation Clear definition and articulation of assignments  Specify RAFT criteria: Role, Audience, Format, and Theme/Task/Topic (adapted from Bean, 2001)  Include a grading rubric (make expectations clear to students) “When planning assignments, teachers need to consider not only the learning goals they have set for their courses but also the thinking and writing processes that they want to invoke in their students as learners.” (Bean, p. 77)

4 Revision and Feedback Importance of revision  “Research indicates that when teachers make remarks on papers and return those papers to students while offering them no opportunity to revise, the remarks have little effect on subsequent papers.” (Dohrer, 1991) Student misunderstanding of the revision process  Students typically think of revision at the micro- or editing-level (e.g., finding the right word, correcting grammar), whereas experienced writers believe revision involves macro-level changes (e.g., restructuring, additions, deletions) (Sommers, 1980)

5 Revision and Feedback The message your feedback sends to your students Feedback mistakes (see e.g., Sommers 1982, Bean 2001)  Too vague (comments that are not specific to the student text and give no guidance for change)  Too many (give no sense of priorities for revision)  Too micro-level (give the impression that revision really is simply an editing process)  Too negative (important to additionally point out what a student has done well)

6 Revision and Feedback Potential time savers  Thoughtful assignment creation (well-planned assignments are easier and more enjoyable to grade)  Smaller microthemes (Bean, 2001)  Ways of marking (put simple check marks next to lines that contain grammatical errors—Haswell, 1983; put a straight line under sentences that are especially well written and a wavy line under passages that are problematic—Elbow, 1997)  Peer review of writing (see e.g., Holt 1992, Bean 2001)

7 Types of Writing Informal versus formal writing (see e.g., Britton 1975, Elbow 1997) “If we are not so much teaching writing as using writing to teach something else, it makes particularly good sense to use lots of minimal and low stakes response.” (Elbow, 1997)

8 Examples for the Statistics Classroom Informal/low-stakes writing assignments  In-class, free-response writing in answer to a question (e.g., “Why is the variability of the sample mean smaller than the variability of individual observations?”)  Journal writing (e.g., responses to class reading, activities, homework problems, or experiences with statistics outside of class)  Minute papers at the end of class

9 Examples for the Statistics Classroom Formal/high-stakes writing assignments  Press release summarizing, in layperson terms, the results of a complicated experimental study  Letter home in response to a statistics question from a parent  Letter to the editor in response to a newspaper article that makes use of statistics  Statistics project report (intro, methods, results, discussion) or just one focused part of the report  Mathematics or statistics autobiography  Meaningful paragraph (write about statistics terms appropriately in context)

10 Examples from my Classroom Assignment #1 Suppose you receive the following letter from your dad: Hey Kiddo, I am worried about Grandma. Remember that she was diagnosed with high blood pressure? Well, she’s currently taking the medication Makemewell to lower her blood pressure. At the time of Grandma’s diagnosis, her doctor said that a randomized, double-blind experiment had been conducted and that Makemewell was shown more effective in lowering blood pressure than a placebo. To be honest, I have no idea what any of that means, but I believed and trusted the doctor. Now I’ve heard two stories that make me think differently. Larry, our next-door-neighbor, was taking Makemewell and he got a terrible fever that put him in the hospital. Also, my co-worker, Sally, actually had her blood pressure go up while she was taking Makemewell! I’m now very suspicious of this medication. I know that you’re taking a statistics course at college. Based on the information I’ve given you, do you think Grandma should stop taking her medication? Whatever your opinion, will you please explain yourself thoroughly and clearly? (I will draw on your responses when I talk with the doctor.) And please don’t use any statistics mumbo-jumbo that I won’t understand. I really appreciate your help with this. Love, Dad Your assignment is to type a 1-2 page letter (single-spaced, 12-pt. font) responding to your dad.

11 Examples from my Classroom Assignment #1 Grading Criteria (25 points possible) ____The explanation to your dad convinces me (your teacher) that you understand the following: what a randomized, double-blind experiment is; what anecdotal evidence is; and which of these data collection methods is appropriate for decision making. (10 points) ____The explanation to your dad is thorough, well organized, and clear. (5 points) ____The explanation to your dad is presented in non-technical terms that he will understand. (5 points) ____You successfully paid attention to accepted conventions of language use (syntax, spelling, grammar, readability, etc.) (5 points)

12 Examples from my Classroom Assignment #2 Suppose you receive another letter from your dad: Hey Kiddo, Thanks so much for your response to my last letter. I now understand what a randomized, double-blind experiment is, and I feel better about the money I’m spending on your college education. Grandma is still taking Makemewell, and we’re monitoring her progress. I got more information from the doctor about the Makemewell experiment. The doctor said that 40 high-blood-pressure patients took Makemewell and 40 patients took a placebo (and the patients were all around Grandma’s age). The average reduction in systolic blood pressure was 19.5 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) for the Makemewell group and 9.1 mm Hg for the placebo group. This much I can understand. Then the doctor mentioned significance testing (and hypotheses), and she said the difference in average blood pressures was statistically significant based on a p-value that was less than 0.001. Do you know what the doctor is talking about? What are all these terms, and how can they help me understand the effect of Makemewell? As before, please explain yourself thoroughly and clearly, and don’t use any technical language. I’m really glad you’re taking a statistics class this term. Your knowledge has been very helpful. Love, Dad PS I’m enclosing a check to get you through the rest of the term. Your assignment is to type a 1-page letter (single-spaced, 12-pt. font) responding to your dad.

13 Examples from my Classroom Lessons learned from letter-to-dad assignments  Modification of the rubric for assignment #1 (from “you understand the statistical concepts involved in the assignment” to something more specific)  Assignment #2 illuminated more student misperceptions than did assignment #1  Even though the assignments were focused microthemes, the grading load was still too large for me (true confession: I haven’t yet truly learned the time-saving methods I previously mentioned)

14 Examples from my Classroom Elaine Backus, an entomology professor at the University of Missouri, created a writing assignment called a “meaningful paragraph” She defines a “meaningful paragraph” as one continuous piece of writing that uses all of the words from a given subset and in which the sentences make sense and hang together

15 Examples from my Classroom Meaningful Paragraph Assignment #1 Write a meaningful paragraph that includes the following terms: correlation, causation, regression line, predicted value(s), scatterplot, residual(s), and outlier(s). (The paragraph you turn in should be typed, not hand written. Furthermore, please proofread your paragraph before turning it in.) A “meaningful paragraph” is one continuous piece of writing, which uses all of the listed words and in which the sentences make sense and hang together. That is, the ideas in the paragraph must illustrate you understand the new terms in a way that allows you to write meaningfully about them in context. You may not simply write seven sequential sentences, for example, that merely define the terms; sentences must demonstrate appropriate relationships between the terms. Example Meaningful Paragraph (For the terms mean, median, distribution, standard deviation, outlier, and skewed) The CEO of a local company said the mean annual salary for the company’s employees is $57,000. Upon further investigation of the data, though, the distribution of annual salaries appears severely right skewed. Hence, the median (rather than the mean) is really a better measure of typical annual salary, since the mean is pulled up by the high salaries in the long tail of the distribution. Because the mean is not the best measure of typical salary, the standard deviation should not be used as a measure of the variation in the salaries (since it measures the spread from the mean). The CEO thought the high average value might entice workers to apply for jobs at the company. In fact, the CEO’s salary ($840,000) is an extreme outlier in the distribution (it’s well outside even the long right tail), and her income value inflates the average company salary in a misleading way.

16 Examples from my Classroom Meaningful-paragraph terms used in next three assignments:  bias, nonresponse, parameter, population, random sample, statistic, and undercoverage  sampling distribution, population mean, sample mean, normal distribution, sample size, and probability  statistical significance (or statistically significant), probability, population mean, sample mean, P-value, and practical significance (or practically significant). Positives about the meaningful paragraphs  Much less time grading  Gives students the opportunity to be creative, yet also clearly shows students’ misperceptions

17 General Suggestions Heed the advice of the writing-to-learn literature (yet adjust to your course goals and teaching style) Purposefully design writing tasks to meet learning goals (and consider the thinking process associated with the writing exercise) Start small (always good advice) and make appropriate adjustments along the way Find colleagues to join you on your journey (e.g., teaching circle)

18 A Few Resources Bean, J. (2001), Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A., Rosen, H. (1975), The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18), London: MacMillan. Dohrer, G. (1991), “Do Teachers’ Comments on Students’ Papers Help?” College Teaching, 39(2), 48-58. Elbow, P. (1997), “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” in Sorcinelli & Elbow (eds.), Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines (pp. 5-13), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Emig, J. (1977), “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” College Composition and Communication, 28(2), 122-128. Fulwiler, T. (1982), “Writing: An Act of Cognition,” in Griffin, C.W. (ed.), New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Teaching Writing in All Disciplines (pp. 15-26), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Haswell, R. (1983), “Minimal Marking,” College English, 45(6), 600-604. Herrington, A. (1981), “Writing to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines,” College English, 43(4), 379-387. Holt, M. (1992), “The Value of Written Peer Criticism,” College Composition and Communication, 43(3), 384-392.

19 A Few Resources Langer, J.A. and Applebee, A.N. (1987), How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning, National Council of Teachers of English. MacAllistar, J. (1982), “Responding to Student Writing,” in Griffin, C.W. (ed.), New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Teaching Writing in All Disciplines (pp. 59-65), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Radke-Sharpe, N. (1991), “Writing as a Component of Statistics Education,” The American Statistician, 45(4), 292-293. Rose, B. (1989), “Writing and Mathematics: Theory and Practice,” in Connolly & Vilardi (eds.), Writing to Learn in Mathematics and Science (pp. 15-30), New York: Teachers College Press. Samsa, G. and Oddone, E. (1994), “Integrating Scientific Writing into a Statistics Curriculum: A Course in Statistically Based Scientific Writing,” The American Statistician, 48(2), 117-119. Sommers, N. (1980), “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers,” College Composition and Communication, 31(4), 378-388. Sommers, N. (1982), “Responding to Student Writing,” College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 148-156. Stromberg, A. And Ramanathan, S. (1996), “Easy Implementation of Writing in Introductory Statistics Courses,” The American Statistician, 50(2), 159-163.

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