Recently I was in a meeting with one of my supervisors, already feeling out of my depth as we were editing my first paper. I nodded obediently as it was suggested that I should use a non-parametric test instead of what I had done. Then I was asked a question that startled me out of my comfortable yes man role,
“since the environmental variables are not normally distributed which test should you use for the discontinuous data?“.
“ungh…err..” I valiantly replied
“you have done statistics courses, right?“
I conceded I had but I wasn’t sure what test to use*
I had undertaken statistics courses, several in fact, but I have never been particularly good at retaining abstract ideas unless I could practically applying them.
As I sweated through the meeting I berated myself, If I know I’m no good at statistics and maths, why oh why didn’t I take more courses to improve before undertaking a PhD?!
Well the answer was obvious, I wanted to pass.
If a student wants to achieve high scores and have a chance at a scholarship or to get into postgraduate study, there is a strong incentive to only choose subjects they are good at. Choosing subjects a student finds difficult has limited short term academic benefit aside from personal development, as there is no difficulty bonus points for taking harder subjects. Choosing a harder subject will also require spending more time on the perceived harder subject to pass, which will consequently siphon time from other subjects impacting those scores.
So how can these costs be overcome?
Potentially a different system of subject selection is required. Although grading subjects has it’s uses and provides incentive to work hard, it is also a part of the problem. To overcome this, universities could consider introducing a system whereby students can nominate at least one subject that is not graded, but purely marked on attendance.
This would provide an incentive for students to choose subjects that they may be interested in, or know they may eventually need, but are hesitant to choose these subjects as they may require too much time commitment, or the student fears they have little chance of passing. This system could also facilitate cross-disciplinary learning as it would allow the selection of a subject purely for interest, rather than concern for learning the key areas of a students course.
Now if you excuse me, I need to read this statistics book.
*(It was a Mann Whitney U test for those playing along at home)