Teaching quantitative methods

January 18, 2011

Part of my job in teaching the the LLAS research methods workshops is to teach the sections on questionnaire design and quantitative methods. As the workshop is taught over just two days it is difficult to know what exactly to teach and how to present it. If I was teaching such a course in a regular classroom setting over the course of a semester I would probably do a short lecture followed by a two hour ‘lab’ exercise.

I feel I have quite a strange relationship with quantitative methods. I wasn’t great at maths at school, but statistics were to become an inevitable part of my A-levels subjects (business studies in particular) and my undergraduate and master’s studies in geography. Few of my fellow students seemed to enjoy these courses, but I quite enjoyed them. I even gained something of reputation for “liking stats”. If my memory serves me correctly my multiple regression model of UK population change was awarded a higher mark than anything else I studied on my master’s course.

I remember Tony Moyes, the geography lecturer who taught statistics at Aberystwyth saying that the stats course may turn out to be the most useful thing we ever learn in a geography degree (I’m sure he said it something like that anyway!). Despite using qualitative methods in my PhD thesis, it has turned out to be a very useful skill, especially working a humanities department where few colleagues have experience of questionnaire design or statistical analysis packages. My teacher at the University of Bristol was the late Les Hepple. It was only in a tribute to him that I learnt that Les’s A-level background was actually in arts type subjects. However, he not only become an expert user of statistics, but he also contributed to the theory of spatial statistics.

In all honesty, I still find stats quite hard and like everything else in life there is always more to learn. However, I have managed to find some good resources from the US which have given me lots of ideas about the best way to teach quantitative methods. If you would allow me to generalise the broader curriculum in the US means that teaching non-specialists is a normal part of the teacher’s job. A couple of years ago whilst browsing my (Canadian) sister-in-law’s bookshelves I found an old edition of David Moore’s Statistics: Concept and Controversies which struck me as a book which was written for the exact audience I intended it for. His verbal reasoning approach to statistics seemed to be perfect for the humanities audience. Today I came across the lectures of Dan Judge on YouTube. So far I have only watched the first three parts of lecture 1, but I love the approach he takes. It’s a lecture by a guy writing on a white board but he makes it so engaging using language to which his audience can relate. I will definitely be recommending these to our workshops participants.

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