Monday, 3 November 2014

Teach the Controversy

What if we started including short (500 words, 2 pages double spaced) essay assignments into the stats curriculum?  Students could choose from various controversial topics in stats. They could be referred to a small amount of literature, such as a paper or a couple of book chapters on their chosen issue.
Essay questions could include:
- Take a side, or compare Bayesian vs Frequentist methods.
- Take a side, or compare parametric vs non parametric methods.
- ... or simulations vs real data.
- How important is parsimony vs accuracy?
- How valuable is null hypothesis testing, what does it mask?
- Should pvalues be the gold standard?
- How feasible are causality studies?
- Is multiple testing a valid remedy?
- Is imputation a valid remedy?
- Are the flexibility of ultra-complex methods like neural networks worth the fact that they can't be explained or described reasonably?
- Why do we use the mean as the basis for everything instead of the median?
In service courses, the essays could be more about social issues that statistics illuminate rather than the methodology itself.
- Discuss what multiple regression reveals about the wage gap between sexes. 
- Discuss publication bias and how asymmetric tests like funnel plots can expose it.
- Discuss the pros and cons of bar graphs and pie graphs.
- Consider [attached infographic]. Describe the author is trying to convey. Describe, as best you can from this graphic, what is really going on? How could the graphic more clearly convey this?
There are a lot of articles in chance magazine that a social studies ugrad could add their own perspective to while learning to incorporate statistical arguments into their own essays. Math background students benefit from the writing practice and wider perspective, and writing students will have an opportunity to use their strengths in an otherwise intimidating class.
The essay prompts above can be answered at multiple levels of depth, allowing them to be slotted into different courses. Finally, this gives the instructor license to remove other written questions from the remaining assignments, which can offset the change in marking load. The necessary material for writing would come at the cost of either some methods or some mathematical depth, but given the challenges in modern statistics, being able to consider questions like those above is worth that cost.

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