Storytelling school

Use narration to make intro stats less scary

Salvation. My name is Carl Sherwood from the University of Queensland.

I was invited to discuss an authentic assessment task I designed for first-year introductory statistics students called MOSS Book: My Own Statistics Story Book.

It is based on a context that the students choose and a language that a 10 year old can understand. It essentially forces students to use context and story to explain statistics in simple terms and emphasizes the search for meaning rather than the math itself. Students write contextualized short stories involving imaginative characters and objects they create. Each story is one page of approximately 200 words. They submit two pages of the MOSS book every fortnight using concepts from two conferences. For example, a student wrote about a squirrel who picked up nuts of different weights (normal distribution lesson) only to be robbed by a village hillbilly and sold them in sacks at a weekend market. (course on the distribution of samples).

I designed MOSS Book with three challenges in mind.

First, I wanted to try to overcome students’ fears of statistics and make them less scary.

Second, I wanted to use an authentic assessment task that would appeal to a diverse group of students.

And third, I wanted to explore how storytelling, rather than a “process and procedure” approach to teaching, could help students make sense of statistics.

Research on MOSS Book has since revealed how students’ own contextualized stories can help them understand and comprehend statistics.

So, if you are looking to use MOSS Book, I offer the following tips.

First, take your time. Teach a lesson at least once using story characters and items you create. For example, I created a fish farm background using a seagull, pelican, weird fish, and shag to show students how I made sense of statistics using storytelling.

Second, gradually introduce MOSS Book. I would suggest that for the first task, you ask students to write only two pages on two topics. Make pages 5-10% of the overall rating. Normal and sampling distributions can be a good starting point. Examples of what students submitted using these topics include stories about coloring pencils and pencil cases, whale pods and their waterspout height, and lengths of brilliant green beetles that the children have collected in jars to compare them with their friends at school.

And third, don’t be too rigid about the writing style. For example, a comic book layout or rhyming sentences are great for connecting ideas and demonstrating meaning making.

Also be sure to provide a task description and a grading rubric. I grade each page of the MOSS book based on context, characters and objects chosen, connections, and overall integration of ideas used to help make sense of statistical concepts.

Using MOSS Book has real benefits.

Most students enjoy discussing their MOSS book ideas with friends. This creates a friendly, engaged and active learning environment where they can safely correct any misunderstandings.

MOSS Book also allows students to focus on finding meaning rather than emphasizing math.

But the use of MOSS Book also has disadvantages.

Making connections to statistics using contextualized stories does not come naturally to many students. Teachers should therefore give students time to practice using this approach. Simply telling students to write contextualized stories is unlikely to help support their learning.

And while most students seem to enjoy sharing their MOSS book ideas with their peers for feedback, some prefer not to. I find that using smaller group settings, like a tutorial, helps students feel safe enough to express themselves, share their ideas, refine their stories, and make sense of their learning.

So, in summary, if you’re looking for an assessment task that motivates your students to engage in introductory statistics, I’d recommend something along the lines of MOSS Book. That is, designing an assessment task that allows students to create real or imagined contexts, characters, and objects that help open pathways to make sense of statistics in ways that are relevant to them.

This video was produced by Carl Sherwood, Senior Lecturer at the School of Economics in the University of Queensland.

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