A Repetitive Hate for Statistics

When I tell people that I’m a graduate student in Statistics, there are two responses that I get more than any others. The most popular of the two usually goes something like this.

Oh man, I hated statistics in college. The professor totally sucked and I never knew what was going on. All I remember is mean and some… curve thing? I don’t know. What’s standard deviation anyways?

I threw that standard deviation bit in for effect. No one actually asks about it, and I’m pretty sure most people don’t even remember ever hearing about it. It’s that whole selective memory thing — blocking out the bad and remembering only the happies.

So anyways, every time someone tells me they absolutely hated statistics in college, I die a little inside and start bawling like a two-year-old whose lost her bottle. No, no, I’m kidding, but the first thing I think is, “Gee, thanks for letting me know that! Like I really wanted to know that you hate what I study. You know what? I think I hate you a little bit now.” I’m exaggerating a tad, but it’s slightly frustrating after hearing it so many times.

But why do so many people hate statistics?

Bad Teachers

If the person went to Berkeley or UCLA, I immediately ask him who his professor was for introduction to stat. Sometimes, after I find out the who, I understand the why. I’ve had my share of bad professors (particularly in electrical engineering) who are great researchers, but poor teachers. Some just don’t care. Others don’t know how to communicate.

Good Teachers

So how can we improve the bad teacher situation? There are plenty of journals dedicated to answering this question, but two professors come to mind.

There are two professors who have helped me appreciate statistics, have influenced the way I think about data, and most importantly, make me want to learn more. One professor was always super-prepared. He had clearly gone through his notes the night before and really didn’t even need his notes while he taught. The other professor was almost never prepared and had clearly just finished typing up his notes before getting to class.

That’s how they were different, but it’s their similarities that made them good teachers. They both knew the material they were teaching really well; they both were always excited to spread their knowledge; and they both knew down to their very soul that the stuff they were teaching was worth learning. There were also really pertinent and current projects that students could really sink their teeth into.

I think a lot of people are served their first taste of statistics by poor teachers, and so after that intro course, they never want to try it again. If you got served nasty canned spinach as a child, you’re probably going to have a strong aversion to spinach even if it is fresh and oh so tasty.

Hence, improve the intro teaching and less people will hate. I know, it’s very very much easier said than done, but I can hope, right? Then maybe one day I’ll tell someone I’m a graduate student in statistics, and they’ll reply, “Oh wow, that’s awesome.” Or even better, “Yeah? Me too.”

Any guesses on the second most common response?