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Is Statistics Anxiety a Real Thing?

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In today’s undergraduate population, the presentation of mental health issues is rising with an increased number of reported mental health issues in the UK. A lot of these mental health issues can be caused by concerns outside of university life, such as financial worries or a troubled home life, however, there are times when the undergraduate curriculum itself can cause such issues to develop.

Statistics anxiety is a relatively new concept that I have only just started reading about. I first heard of the term when a previous research methods colleague asked me if I knew anything about it. At the time, I’d vaguely heard of the term being used but I did not understand what it was or in fact that it is a condition which is increasing in our undergraduate population.

Statistics anxiety can have multiple definitions but for the purpose of this article, I will define it as the anxiety, fear or worry associated with maths and statistics.

Statistics anxiety can begin at a very early age, such as in primary school when working with simple numbers, or it can be developed at an older age when someone may have to use maths and statistics as part of a job.

Anxiety associated with statistics can be of a concern to anyone who teaches research methods and statistics, especially those who teach this at undergraduate level. When a student studies towards a BSc in Psychology for example, a large proportion of their first and second years may be made up of studying modules that contain statistics. What teachers need to understand is that some students can find this difficult from the start and it’s not because they cannot do the work or do not want to participate – it’s because they have a genuine worry or fear of working with statistics.

When I teach any form of statistics, I tend to begin with basic words and visual images only. I try not to use complicated language so that my students get used to using more basic statistical terms before working towards that goal of being able to independently work with numbers. For me, this is mostly applicable to my current final year dissertation students. We have only just started having discussions about project planning and designing, yet a lot of the meeting conversations have been around the worry of analysing data.

When working with my dissertation students, I understand that they are all different in their statistical abilities and this is something I support each student with no matter of their level of ability. In the past, I have provided students with PowerPoints to explain statistical analyses without all of the complex terminology and I often find that this eases the anxiety a bit in my students.

The one thing I will never do is run the statistical analyses for the students as this can encourage the student to become less independent in relation to running their own project. Most of my students appreciate this level of support.

I think universities should also be able to take some form of ownership on how they support students with statistics anxiety. I am currently working in a university which has a maths and statistics support centre and it appears as though the students find this useful. I have been in other universities where no support is offered and for me, this is something that should be addressed; for instance offering a statistics workshop.

Students can become overwhelmed in a situation and this can make them anxious. Just like with any other mental health issue, a student can struggle in their academic life as well as their personal life and this can be due to not seeking or receiving support for a specific anxiety they have.

There are different strategies that academics can put into place before, and at the beginning of a module which includes a large proportion of statistics or maths.

Teachers could provide students with a statistics anxiety questionnaire to measure the level of anxiety before the module and this would then inform the academic of the general level of anxiety. Teaching materials could then be adapted accordingly to ensure that students were comfortable in the learning of maths and statistics.

One of the main strategies I put in place is just to offer the support to students, whether that be through tutorial sessions, direct statistical support or even an online chat system so that students can ask questions. I often find that if the support is offered, students will ask some questions but will then happily go away and try to work with the numbers themselves. There will always be more support that we can offer as academics, however, with an increasing number of students, this is not always physically possible.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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