Teaching and Learning Institute

Helping students become critical consumers of information in POL 300

Ann Karreth, Assistant Professor, developed a new and innovative course on Research Methods in the Politics and International Relations Department. 

As a graduate student, Karreth had taken many courses on quantitative and qualitative methods of political science research.  She had learned the particulars of using different software packages to construct complex statistical models of the political phenomena she studies, and had even spent five consecutive summers at the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research’s Summer Program in Quantitative Methods of Social Research, as a student and teaching assistant.  But, as she notes, when it came to teaching these methods she knew so well to a different audience—undergraduates with no prior knowledge of methodology or statistical literacy—she “felt a bit intimidated.” 

Thanks to a grant from the Teaching and Learning Institute, she spent a part of her summer preparing to teach this course to Ursinus undergraduates. The grant allowed her to purchase a number of helpful texts that presented innovative ways to present abstract statistical concepts to students unfamiliar with such material.  These texts—like Andrew Gelman and Deborah Nolan’s “Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks”—also offered engaging classroom-based activities that make learning statistics fun. For example, as Karreth describes, “to help my students understand the foundational statistical concepts of uncertainty and estimation, I gave groups of students a simple task: estimate the number of school buses currently operating in the United States. After making initial guesses, we discussed what factors would help us refine our guesses.” And to help students understand the concept of statistical bias and variance, Gelman and Nolan suggest an amusing activity: distribute pictures of well-known political figures or celebrities, have students guess their ages, and then tabulate how far from the “true” age their guesses were. Karreth explains how important this kind of approach is: “Bias and variance are key challenges in inference, and therefore approaching them through practice rather than theory from the onset is particularly useful for students. I am looking forward to trying this out in my classroom.”

These texts not only helped Karreth prepare everyday class material, but also made her think more deeply about the overall learning goals of this course. The purpose of the course is to help students develop the particular skills needed to conduct independent research on political phenomena of interest to them, but it also aims to give students the knowledge they need to evaluate the validity of scientific studies they may encounter. To that end, she emphasizes, “these texts were instrumental for me in developing pedagogical tools that help students think more critically about the information they consume, both inside and outside of the classroom.”