Not Reading Your Stats Textbook? Award-Nominated Online Book Knows and Tells

UPDATE: Gregory Francis’s IntroStats Online did win the Software & Information Industry Association’s 2014 CODiE Award for Best Social Sciences Instructional Solution. For a full list of award winners, visit http://www.siia.net/codies/2014/winners.asp.  

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Statistics can be a hard slog for the students taking their first, and sometimes only, jaunt through this quantitative minefield. But an understanding, or better yet a mastery, of statistics is a requirement for any successful scientific or research career.

Recognizing this tension, Purdue University professor of psychological science Gregory Francis set out to write an introductory textbook that served both the needs of students, whether strugglers or savants, and of the professors trying to teach a roomful of both.

Francis already knew that most students don’t even bother to crack their textbooks –assuming they even got one. He also knew a fair bit professionally about human behavior, and how people interact with computers. So he took his textbook to the web, and the finished product, known as IntroStats Online (SAGE), debuted last year.  “One thing that drove me to write this was the students told me they didn’t read their book, or it was obvious that they didn’t read the book,” he explained; IntroStats requires engagement from the student and lets the instructor know just who’s been reading and who hasn’t.

“I don’t know if that’s a carrot or a stick,” he said with a laugh.

His efforts won him a nomination announced last week for a CODiE Award from the Software & Information Industry Association. The SIIA, the principal trade association for the software and digital content industry, hands out awards in content, software and education, and Francis’ nomination for Best Social Sciences Instructional Solution is in that last category.

According to the SIIA website, the CODiE Awards are peer-reviewed, with educators and administrators conducting the first-round review in the education division. Then judges pick finalists, which are voted on by SIIA members, with the scores used to determine the winners who will be named in May. The other finalists in the social sciences category are myNGconnect for World Cultures and Geography from Cengage Learning, CourseConnect (Pearson) and ProQuest SIRS Issues Researcher.

Methodspace caught up with Francis at the end of a busy day at the Human Brain Project at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, where’s he’s been on sabbatical since August. The American is one of the few psychologists taking part in a well-funded international effort to craft a computational neural network model of the human brain.

Francis is justifiably proud of his work, which he suggests makes native use of the medium. “There’s a lot more here than in a lot of online offerings,” he said, noting the PDF-plus-links model used in some other online textbooks. “I think it’s sort of an integrated package throughout that was thought out in advance.”

The format requires some engagement from the student, tracking how long they have the material open, quizzing them at the end of each section, and providing statistical calculators in the mix that both simplify some error-prone calculations and show how the pros do it. Questions at the end of each full chapter can be graded automatically and entered into a class grade book.

IntroStats is Francis’ first “official” textbook, although he earlier had set up an online lab experience –the well-known CogLab Online Laboratory — where students did classical cognitive psychology problems to get a sense of what authentic experiments are like. “Students would read about them in textbooks,” Francis noted, “but it wasn’t quite the same as sitting down and experiencing it.”

His new textbook was experienced in a prototype version in the last stats class he taught before leaving Indiana for Lausanne. “A lot of the examples are geared toward psychology—that’s what I teach—but in principle I think it could be easily applied to other courses.”

Methodspace: One of the most striking things about this textbook is that it isn’t a book at all.

Gregory Francis: It is an online textbook, and I think there’s a lot of advantages to having it be online. You get color for free, you get interactivity, you have immediate grading of questions, in some sense you can make certain that students are interacting with the material.

For years I used a standard textbook, and students would come a see me during office hours because there were a number of problems they had to solve, and they would say, ‘I have no idea how to compute this thing.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, if you just turn back three pages, there’s the formula right there.’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah, well I haven’t read the chapter yet.’ [Laughing] You’re in a class where there are homework problems related to the chapter – and you haven’t read it! This doesn’t make sense to me. What occurred to me with an online textbook, I can make sure that they’ve read it (or at least encourage them to read it).

So in IntroStats one of the features that I like—which I’ve never seen in any other online textbook—is that students log in, they go to a section, they read it, and the system keeps track of how long they’re on that page. And in order to get credit for it, they have to be on for a long-enough time (which isn’t that long, to be honest). At the end, they have to answer a couple of questions, very simple questions, and they get credit for the assignment. And so now if I ask that some of my students read sections 5.6 and 5.7 by Thursday, I know that they have. In some sense it’s easy points for a student to get – which in a stats class is always good! Then I can be confident when I go into lecture that students have read those required sections.

I still have some old textbooks that I saved so I could look up things later. But with this …

I still have some old textbooks, too, but I never look at them. The Internet has changed the dissemination of information in so many ways. In particular for a subject like statistics, where someone can remember ’How exactly do I do a test for two correlations? — I can’t remember the exact details.’ Fifteen, 20 years ago, I would have looked through a textbook. Now I just go to Google and browse around a few sites I like. So I think information’s available to anyone who wants to get refreshed, particularly for this kind of information. But getting refreshed is not the same thing as learning the material in the first place. So I think IntroStats Online is good for the learning process. If people need to be refreshed the information is there, fine. They could find essentially the same information many other places, but it just doesn’t help them learn in the first place.

If you could go back to the beginning of the IntroStats process right now, what would you add?

Statistics is in a lot of flux right now. In psychology—and the textbook reflects this—it’s mostly about hypothesis testing, which is a particular way of making decisions to say whether something is different from what might happen just by chance. There’s a lot of concern about that particular approach when you build theories based on those sorts of analyses. I think when I go back and do a revision I will attempt to address some of those sorts of issues in a meaningful way and reflect some of those changes that are happening. It’s actually quite curious, because in statistics most of the methods go back a hundred years or so, and so when you make a new version of a statistics books it’s not really about changing the content it’s just about changing the presentation or the style, things like that. But that’s really not the case right now. I think over the next five or six years there’s much bigger changes going on. That’s one of the things I like about the book being online, which is that I can go in and change it relatively easily.

There must be a lot of intro to stats textbooks out there. What did you think was missing, and what do you then bring to the table in IntroStats?

Really it’s just the technology, the online side of it, that I can monitor students’ activity in the book itself. I can say, read this section by this date in order to get credit for the class, and I can see if they do or they don’t. When I teach, that’s part of the course grade. I think particularly in a class like statistics, where a lot of students struggle because they’re not strong quantitatively, these are new topics, it’s strange, students need places where they get sort-of ‘gimme’ points, because they’re not going to do well on the exams and in some cases they’re going to struggle with some types of homework problems. I often look for places where I can say, ‘If you do the work, then you’ll get the grade.’

Technically, they don’t even have to read it. They can put the web browser up, play Grand Theft Auto in a different window, then once the time limit is up they can say they’ve finished the reading assignment, close the web browser, and go on their way. They don’t have to read it, but I think most students do. Anyone who goes to the trouble to set that up is going to go ahead and read it.

I looked into some previous studies about this, and apparently people have looked at how often students will buy the book, and if they then read the book, and it was almost never. Almost never! Like 25 percent of students actually read the book—and these were for introductory biology classes or introductory psychology classes—and it just struck me that this was so strange. We have authors who are taking huge amounts of time, to write textbooks that are really, really well crafted, and students in some cases are paying large amounts of money for these books, and they’re not being used. It just seems like a huge waste. And so I want to try and work around that.

It also helps them to stay up with things, instead of, ‘It’s two days before the exam and I better read chapters five, six and seven.’ Then it’s probably too late.


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