Martín Jacinto, Department of Sociology
In a farewell piece as editor of Teaching Sociology, Stephen Sweet writes that teaching sociologically, “requires understanding teaching as a social act that is conducive to study, vigilante empathy to understand the lifeworlds of students, and building our own character as we attempt to build the character of students” (2019: 257). Indeed, it the mission of professors of sociology to teach sociological frameworks that elucidate the web of structures, cultures, organizations and ideologies borne from our own social relations. Students that do not recognize a link between their own substantive interests and sociological frameworks fail to grasp the important concepts of the discipline.
One area where there is a wide disconnect between students’ interests and their appreciation for sociology is in learning and teaching quantitative methodology. Like many other universities, UC Irvine’s sociology undergraduate program requires completion of at least three courses in statistics. When teaching statistics, professors and Teaching Assistants (TAs) encounter significant challenges that stem from students’ limited mathematical skills and their anxiety over statistics. Studies show that these challenges do impact the students’ capacity to learn and appreciate statistics in the social sciences (for overview of the literature, see Delucchi 2014).
Anxieties in Learning Quantitative Analysis
In my own experience, during my first year as a PhD student, I had constant anxiety about my academic performance while I was undergoing the three-quarter sequence of graduate statistics courses. When I reflect on this period, I recognize that my anxiety from these courses greatly compounded my overall stress that comes with grad school. I am certain that this concoction of stress and anxiety coupled with impostor syndrome adversely affected my learning. At the end of my first year, I was so disenchanted with graduate school that I contemplated quitting and vowed never to do quantitative analysis. Strangfeld (2013) suggests that this anxiety stems from students’ belief that they will learn a skill that comes with extreme difficulty.
Challenges in Teaching Quantitative Analysis in Sociology
As of this moment, I have worked seven academic quarters as a TA for undergraduate and graduate statistics courses in sociology and am a proud quantitative sociologist close to finishing the doctoral program. Due to my own experience, I am empathetic to the majority of my students who are anxious about undertaking statistics courses and how that may affect their learning in general. As such, I strive to learn and implement innovative teaching approaches that aim at reducing students’ anxieties about learning quantitative methodologies. Below, I discuss how active learning-based approaches enhances effectiveness of teaching statistics in sociology. I then offer recommended practical strategies for fellow quantitative sociologists.
Incorporating Active Learning-Based Approaches
The American Sociological Association promotes curriculum that promotes platforms where students engage as active practitioners of the field. A number of studies provide evidence of benefits from designing a course that prepares undergraduate students to undergo independent research in which students generate research questions, review literature, obtain and analyze data, and then compile all of this into a comprehensive academic paper (see Senter 2017; Strangfeld 2013; Wollschleger 2019). In this format, students search and obtain real-world data that they then learn to analyze, which students then use to compose an academic paper. Senter (2017) finds that these assignments not only positively influence student learning and interests in statistics, but that they also have a positive impact on how students think about careers and employment. These assignments focus more on the process rather than solely on the outcome. With further research and development, these types of approaches can be sharpened and reduce student anxieties about learning statistics.
Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on December 3rd, 2019.