Several times a year, students contact me to tell me that I was the worst professor ever.
To be precise, former biostatistics students contact me with the simplest, and often ignorant, statistics questions. These questions are so basic that it is clear that I have failed in my job as a stats professor.
With a basic dataset, a student might ask, “what test should I use?” Last month I had a student drop by my office with a result of p = 0.0071 to ask me to tell him whether or not his result is significant. Without a hint of irony.
If you taught comparative vertebrate anatomy, how would you feel if a recent student of yours came into your office and pointed at his biceps, and then asked, “What muscle is this?” This is how I feel when students come to me for statistical consulting.
My one-semester graduate biostatistics class doesn’t go into much depth and covers the standard, mostly univariate, frequentist statistical approaches that you find in similar courses. We spend a decent chunk of the course on probability, experimental design and why people do statistical tests and what the results mean. We spend a lot of time – and by a lot I mean a lot – on what p-values are, and the relationships among probability, null hypotheses, variance, distributions, and errors. (And when I say we spend time on it, I don’t mean that I lecture a lot about it. I mean students actively figure this stuff out. And their exams show that, at least at the time, they really understand it.) I am convinced that, at the end of the semester, that these students really understand the main concepts.
But then they don’t understand it after the course is over.
If a student came to me and said, “I realize that we didn’t learn how to do a GLM in class but from my reading I think that might be the best choice here, and I was wondering if you had the time to talk about it,” I’d ask her to pull up a chair. But when a student says, “I know I was in your class a couple years ago, but I’m looking at this dataset that I already collected and I don’t know where to start,” I’m not going to lift the paperwork that is probably occupying all three chairs in my office.
The hypothetical students-who-forgot-the-name-of-the-biceps-muscle are professional frustrations, and evidence of educational failure, for three reasons:
- They forgot something really simple. Though the name of muscle is a mere fact, is one thing you’d expect a student in a vertebrate anatomy course to remember, if not know before even starting the course.
- The students were intellectually lazy and didn’t decide to look up the answer, but instead just asked a former professor.
- The students demonstrated a personal lack of regard for the professor’s effort in teaching the course, by showing unawareness of the fact that the professor expects students to remember basic facts after the course ends and also empowered them to look up basic information. Or to put it in fake-biblical terms: the students had the temerity to think that we are there to feed them fish sandwiches instead of showing them how to fish and how to bake bread. In my view, this extends beyond personal laziness, by showing that the students don’t bother to show that they respect our role as teachers.
On the bright side, there is one positive aspect of the fact that students come in to ask me dumb stats questions. They think positively enough about my course that they think that I’m useful for statistical advice. That’s not much of an upside, but hey, it’s all I’ve got as far as I can see.
I’m long past taking this personally. I don’t get insulted when students come to me asking me to reteach a very basic concept of probability that we studied for a whole semester. I see that this is their problem, and not mine. I don’t take it home with me. There’s a 0% probability that this issue will keep me from sleeping. However, if I’m trying to be more effective at my job, then I need to confront the issue raised by these interactions. It’s a form of teaching assessment, in which I’m doing poorly. (Some students do thank me quite generously for what they learned in the course, and I’m not forgetting that input either.)
How do I handle these outrageous questions? It varies, because I haven’t (yet) developed an a priori approach to the situation. In some cases, I might simply chimp grin a bit and say something like “you really don’t recall how to test a null hypothesis?” or “So you’re telling me that you haven’t been able to find anything about what to do when your independent variables are categorical and your response is continuous?”
The bulk of the class is biomedically-oriented Master’s students who have some need for statistics with their thesis but don’t think that they’ll need to practice stats for everyday use. So, each semester, I make a point of saying at the outset, “When you design your thesis experiments, you’re welcome to consult with me about the process. But if you don’t discuss your stats with me before collecting your data, then there won’t be much I can do to help you.” I’ve had to remind a couple students of this fact, one of whom had a horribly pseudoreplicated design. And another who failed to run a necessary control.
While I’m not the most amazing professor, I don’t genuinely think I’m the worst, either. I just think that some students think it’s acceptable to offload course material from their brain as soon as the course is over, and do not feel obligated to go back to the hardware store if they lost the tools that they picked up during the course. And among students who are stats-phobic and math-phobic, which is a sizable fraction of the population in the course, they’re just glad they survived. It’s particularly frustrating because my guiding principle in this course is to teach a small number of fundamental concepts in a way that they are supposed to stick with the students for a long time. At least in this class, I know it isn’t happening, with at least some of them. I honestly don’t know what I can do, if anything, to make sure that students really remember what a null hypothesis looks like and what a p-value means. But it is clear that some of them genuinely forget it, presumably because they think it’s not important.
So, when I teach this class again in the fall, I have to find a way to make biostats personally important, with students who don’t see the usefulness of stats in their professional future. Wish me luck.