Rethinking how we teach statistics from the ground up

Food for thought on a Friday morning. George Cobb, that excellent statistics educator, wrote an opinion piece for the Royal Statistical Society in August (you can find it here). His five imperatives for rethinking statistics teaching, from the ground up, were


  • Flatten prerequisites
  • Seek depth
  • Embrace computation
  • Exploit context
  • Teach through research


We’ve certainly pursued the first of these here at the University of Canberra, and the last is in fact a signature theme of the whole University. I think we’ve got a bit of work to do on the middle three, particularly around the tension between pursuing depth when small student numbers are involved. We’re in for an exciting time!

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Time for innovative teaching

James Arvanitakis, Professor of Humanities and Dean of the Graduate School at University of Western Sydney, and University Teacher of the Year, gave this interactive presentation on 3 September. He describes himself as an academic generalist and told us a couple of funny anecdotes about his own first days at University. Then he moved on to his main message – that universities are no longer the custodians of content, but are in direct competition with organisations such as Wikipedia. He described how in his own unit, Introduction to Sociology with 1000+ students, he doesn’t teach content, but teaches how to apply it to everyday life. His lectures typically start with an application (a video, a news story), then get on to the theory.

James encouraged us to think about planning a unit both at the semester level and the unit level. Semester planning could even mean starting at the end of the unit and thinking about how to get there. He encouraged us to have a semester-long story arc in the back of our minds for each unit. At the lecture level, James reminded us that 4 mini-lectures of 15 minutes will help to keep the attention levels up.

I was amused at the fun questions he gets his sociology students to tackle – the weight of the Harbour Bridge, how many chips are eaten at the MCG, and so on. These questions are highly numerate and statistical in nature and I’d like to think that my students would handle them really well.

In conclusion James encouraged us to model what we wanted out students to be like – and I believe I do demonstrate what I want my students to be. Fascinated, excited, competent, statistically literate.

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Characterisation of poor-quality antimalarials

James Grech presented his PhD confirmation seminar on 27 August. Amongst other things he has used a principal component analysis to classify regions according to weather patterns. This is important because he’ll be going on to sample pharmacies from different zones to study degradation of anti-malarial medicines. He’s got contacts in Uganda, Rwanda and Vietnam to name just a few.

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Data analytics

That title was given to me, so I had plenty of wriggle room in preparing this talk! I was one of four speakers at the University’s ICT Graduate Programme one-day workshop on 28 August. I gave a fairly broad overview of what data anlaytic is, what drives it and what experience I have had in working with large data sets. But I think the part that had most impact was in a sense an anti-example, when I read from Ivor Goddard’s article in the June 2009 issue of Significance about the perils of combining data from many administrative sources and drawing inferences. I hope I gave the graduates food for thought towards the end of a busy day.

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System for analysis of pain hemodynamic response using near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS)

Raul Fernandez is a PhD student in the Faculty of ESTeM and on 21 August he presented this seminar to confirm his research. His topic looked really meaty, there’s probably two or three PhDs in there, so he can pick and choose! He’ll be analysing data from spectroscopes to try and identify pain based on the dynamics of blood flow measured by the machinery. Lots of data wrangling not will undoubtedly be involved, and lots of thinking about the time dependence in the data too.

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Enhanced prediction of infectious diseases through routine pathology data

Finally I’ve given a talk in Goulburn, at the 28th edition of the event on 19 August! I only prepared 29 slides but they were more than enough to keep the audience questions flowing for the full 75 minutes. I had to leave out a lot of the material on chronic fatigue syndrome, so I might have to offer to speak in more detail on that project again next year. The problems I did present, on the modelling of chlamydia pneumoniae and hepatitis, were well received, and I’ve got some interesting leads to follow up around cost functions in decision trees, the interaction between random forests and support vector machines, and new accuracy measures such as the area under ROC curves.

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Goulburn 28

I’l report on my presentation at Goulburn 28 separately. The other three talks could be characterised by a solution to a specific problem that opens up further research questions. Robert Clark of the University of Wollongong spoke on “Modelling the relationship between leaf chemistry and koala population density”. The modelling included the very familiar logistic regression and linear model following a log transformation. Questions arose around ways in which the sixty-five observations could be made to go further, through further consideration of the variation in areas where data was collected.


John Newman of ten Australian Bureau of Statistics spoke on “Protecting aggregate business microdata at the Australian Bureau of Statistics”. His multiplicative model was straightforward and effective but raised issues around the uses to which the protected data could be put.


Esteban Munoz of the Universities of Hamburg and Canberra spoke on “Using spatial microsimulation for the estimation of heat demand.” He recently uploaded a library to R, implementing the GREGWT method of microsimulation. He’s using his model to estimate heat demand in German apartment buildings, and fielded a number of questions about possible extensions to his model to include random effects or a regularisation term.

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HRI networking forum

The HRI is a big grouping of researchers across the University and this forum provided the opportunity for three of its members to showcase their current projects. Regan Ashby from Science presented work in progress on the relationship between exposure to sunlight and myopia, with the clear implication that time spent outdoors mattered much more than the amount of near work children do in terms of developing myopia. Lisa Scharoun from Graphic Design described a project she had worked on to design public spaces that weren’t just shopping malls for the elderly to use or even play in. Fanke Peng, also from graphic Design, talked about her work on wearable computers that enliven public spaces with memories as you walk through them.


Even at the rate of three presenters a week it’ll take several months to get through all HRI members and I look forward to many more such forums in weeks to come!



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Statistics networking day

When a couple of statisticians start talking they realise how much statistics is going on around the campus in disconnected locations. So sixteen of the most active researchers in statistics and researchers with statistics from every faculty and research centre came together on August 6 for 10 minute talks. I spoke on multi-level modelling, channelling Gelman & Hill, Goldstein and Diggle, Liang & Zeger. Thanks also due to David Warton whose talk on 1980s approaches to ecological modelling gave me the idea about how to introduce my talk.

A few good hoary chestnuts were raised. Can you treat Likert scale responses? Is null hypothesis significance testing dead and buried? What is your favourite complex summary statistic? By the way, mine’s kurtosis, not in spite of but I think because of its demise being noted by Westfall in a 2014 American Statistician article.
It took three and a half hours for someone to mention Bayes … And it was Xavier in the context of plans to extend the analyses available in the AURIN portal.

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Research spine and linked doctoral studies

Professor Jill Adler came from South Africa / London to present this talk on 25 June. Her project on teacher development encompassed everything from quality, results, capacity and leadership. She started with a statistic – 90% of maths ed research is done on 10% of the children, in the developed world. An important concept in teacher development that Jill used was about working on the lesson, not the teacher. She also talked about the five doctoral students who worked on the project and their contributions.

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