Using storytelling to make introductory statistics less scary: a contextualised approach

Carl Sherwood explains how imaginative, contextualised writing tasks can make mathematical concepts less abstract and more engaging for diverse student groups

Carl Sherwood's avatar
14 Mar 2022
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Key Details

This video will cover:

01:15 Why contextualised storytelling was adopted to help students learn statistics

01:50 How to implement a contextualised storytelling task to support students learning statistics

03:28 The advantages and disadvantages of MOSS Book


Hello. My name’s Carl Sherwood from the University of Queensland.

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

It’s based on a context that students choose and language a 10-year-old child can understand. It essentially requires students to use a context and story to explain statistics in simple terms and puts a focus on sense-making rather than on the maths itself. Students write contextualised short stories involving imaginative characters and objects that they create. Each story is one page of about 200 words. They submit two MOSS Book pages each fortnight using concepts from two lectures. For example, one student wrote about a squirrel who collected nuts of different weights (normal distribution lecture) only to have a village hillbilly steal them and sell them in sacks at a weekend market (sampling distribution lecture).

I designed MOSS Book with three challenges in mind.

First, I wanted to try to overcome students’ fears of statistics and make it 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” teaching approach, might help students make sense of statistics.

Research into MOSS Book has since revealed how students’ own contextualised stories are able to help them relate to and make sense of statistics.

So, if you are looking to use MOSS Book, I’d offer the following advice.

First, take your time. Teach a course at least once using story characters and objects that you create. For example, I created a fish farm context using a seagull, pelican, freaky fish and shag to show students how I made sense of statistics using storytelling.

Second, introduce MOSS Book gradually. I’d suggest that for the first task, you get students to write just two pages on two topics. Make the pages worth 5 to 10 per cent of the overall assessment. The normal and sampling distributions can be a good place to start. Examples of what students have submitted using these topics include stories about colouring-in pencils and pencil cases, pods of whales and their waterspout height, and lengths of shiny green beetles that kids collected in jars to compare with their friends at school.

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

Also, be sure to provide a task description and marking rubric. I mark each MOSS Book page based on the chosen context, characters and objects, the linkages and overall integration of ideas used to help make sense of statistics concepts.

There are some real advantages to using MOSS Book.

Most students love to discuss their MOSS Book ideas with friends. This creates a friendly, engaged, active learning environment where they can safely correct any misunderstandings.

MOSS Book also allows students to focus on sense-making rather than placing all the emphasis on doing the maths.

But using MOSS Book has some disadvantages, too.

Making connections to statistics using contextualised stories is not natural for many students. So teachers need to give students time to practise using this approach. Simply telling students to write contextualised stories is unlikely to help support their learning.

And despite most students seeming to enjoy sharing their MOSS Book ideas with their peers to get feedback, some prefer not to. I find that using smaller group settings such as a tutorial helps students to feel safe enough to speak up, share their ideas, refine their stories and make sense of their learning.

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

This video was produced by Carl Sherwood, a senior lecturer in the School of Economics at the University of Queensland.

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