Eric D. Nordmoe
Journal of Statistics Education Volume 15, Number 2 (2007), http://www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v15n2/nordmoe.html
Copyright © 2007 by Eric D. Nordmoe all rights reserved. This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the author and advance notification of the editor.
In the hopes of addressing the shortcomings of the project assignment, I modified the course in the spring of 2002 to encourage students to engage in service-learning projects by leveraging existing relationships with community partners or through the development of new partnerships with the assistance of the director of the institute for service-learning located on our campus. Following the small-group model, students continued to work in groups of 3 or 4 but were collaborating with community partners on problems of broader interest and, presumably, greater impact. Students were enthusiastic about the projects and generally found them interesting and rewarding experiences. From the viewpoint of the instructor of a class of about 25 students, the move to service-learning projects in small groups solved one set of problems while introducing new ones. Effectively overseeing the collaborations of six or more groups with different community partners proved unworkable and led to several cases in which substantial misunderstandings arose between the student groups and the partners.
To ensure a successful service-learning experience, I determined that suitable projects with a community partner (CP) must meet several essential criteria. First, service-learning projects should be both interesting and useful to the CP. Projects that are simply “make work” projects identified by the CP to provide something for students to do would not be suitable as they would not be compatible with the service goals of service-learning. The second important criterion for a project was that it be accessible to students in an introductory statistics class. That is, the project must be within reach of students studying elementary techniques of experimental design and sampling and basic descriptive and inferential statistical methods. The third criterion is a consequence of the quarter system followed by Kalamazoo College: the project must be sufficiently simple, well-defined and limited in scope so as to be completed in a single 10-week quarter. Given the focus of Math 260 on methods for describing and analyzing quantitative (rather than qualitative) variables, I imposed a fourth criterion that the primary response variable of the project be quantitative. Without this criterion, students might spend a significant portion of their time and efforts learning and using methods to which they had not yet been exposed in the classroom.
With these four criteria in mind, I worked with my CP to identify an appropriate project for a service-learning experience. Based on patient complaints, health care provider schedules, and other internal tracking information, management of the center believed that waiting time experienced by patients could be unacceptably long. In particular, the CP was concerned that patients might seek health care from other immediate care facilities such as hospital emergency rooms, thereby disrupting the continuity of the patient-provider relationship. A first step in addressing the problem of excessive waits would be to carry out a comprehensive study to measure the extent of the problem and to identify any specific process bottlenecks. Given that the primary response variable of interest was quantitative (waiting time) and that the objectives were primarily descriptive, a patient waiting time study seemed an ideal service-learning project for introductory statistics students.
The project began with a classroom visit by the community partner who presented an overview of the agency and discussed the project with the students. Next, students visited the health center to experience the atmosphere of a community health center and to be trained to carry out the data collection phase of the project. Over the next three weeks, students worked in pairs to visit the center once each week for two hours to observe and record patient waiting times and comments about their experiences. The logistical challenge of transporting students to the center was simplified by two factors: 1) the center is located just 5 minutes’ drive from campus; 2) we arranged the student data collection pairs so that each had at least one driver with a car on campus. (In other service-learning projects at our campus, circumstances have warranted use of a College van for transporting students.)
At the end of data collection (week 7), students submitted a short paper describing observations and reflections on their experiences at the center. By the end of week 7, a student assistant and I had entered the project data into an SPSS data set for subsequent analysis. To ensure all students had a chance to participate in the analysis, I broke the overall objective of understanding patient waiting times into smaller questions that could be addressed via relatively simple statistical procedures. Each group was assigned a different research question. For example, one group was assigned to investigate the relationship between patient waiting times and day of week while another group studied how waiting times varied across providers. During week 9, each group submitted a preliminary “data description” pertaining to their assigned research question that served as the basis for an in-depth discussion with me. With direction from our progress discussion, each group completed a written analysis of the data set focusing on their assigned question. During exam week (week 11), the groups presented and discussed their finished analyses in a workshop session with the CP. Also, each group submitted to me a written final paper for evaluation and course credit.
From the student perspective, the service-learning study appeared to be more meaningful and engaging than previous group project assignments. Upon completion, the 45 students participating in the project were surveyed regarding their attitudes about it. Specifically, they were presented a list of 15 attitude statements and asked to rate their agreement with each on a 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) scale. Following common survey convention and to save space, we report in Table 1 the proportion of responses falling in the top two boxes of the rating scale (percent agree or strongly agree). Of the statements presented, students were most likely to agree that the project helped them see the applicability (statement 1) and usefulness (statement 2) of statistics and that it increased their awareness of the substantive application area (statement 4) while not making excessive demands on their time (statement 14). After carrying out the study, they felt more realistic about the difficulties of fieldwork (statement 3) and more likely to be involved in their community (statement 5). Somewhat perplexing was that a fairly high percentage (71%) agreed that the project improved their ability to analyze quantitative problems (statement 6) but only 40% felt their project work directly helped them with the course material (statement 13) and just 31% said the project actually increased their interest in statistics (statement 15). These results, while still preliminary, suggest the link between the service-learning activities and the core statistical concepts of the course could be improved. One approach for doing so would make more extensive use of data collected from the project to illustrate and/or motivate statistical techniques introduced in the classroom.
|Statement||% Agree or Strongly Agree (n=45)|
|1. This project helped me see how statistics could be applied to a real-world problem.||96|
|2. This project helped me see how statistics could be used in everyday life.||81|
|3. This project increased my awareness of the challenges involved in carrying out real-world field research.||80|
|4. This project increased my awareness of public health issues.||78|
|5. This project increased my involvement in the community, civic and political activities.||76|
|6. This project increased my ability to analyze quantitative problems.||71|
|7. This project will benefit the community.||64|
|8. This project improved my ability to work collaboratively with others.||51|
|9. This project gave me the chance to make a difference in my community.||49|
|10. This project increased my ability to do independent research.||47|
|11. This project increased my ability to get along with different kinds of people with different lifestyles.||44|
|12. This project helped me acquire knowledge and skills applicable to a specific job or career.||41|
|13. This project helped me better understand the concepts and readings in this course.||40|
|14. This project required too much time.||37|
|15. This project increased my interest in statistics.||31|
Moore, D. S. (2003) The Basic Practice of Statistics (3rd.ed.), New York: Freeman.
Department of Mathematics
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