Recent PhD's in Statistics Education

Joan Garfield
University of Minnesota

Newsletter for the Section on Statistical Education
Volume 7, Number 2 (Spring 2001)


Statistics Education is a relatively new discipline that is growing in interest and activity. People conducting researches in statistics education come from a variety of different areas and often have very different backgrounds, coursework, and training. Over the past year I became interested in learning more about graduate students who have decided to pursue degrees in statistics education. I conducted email interviews with eight current doctoral students and recent PhD's whose dissertation research focused on statistics education. I wanted to learn about their coursework, their training in research methods, and the topic of their dissertation study. I was also interested in finding out the nature of their experience designing and completing a degree that focused on statistics education. These eight individuals shared with me their reflections on the process of earning a doctoral degree in statistics education and offered advice to future graduate students interested in pursuing this path.

Through word of mouth and personal contact, I obtained the names of these eight individuals who had recently graduated or were in the dissertation process, and all agreed to be interviewed. Each individual has a different story about how they came to be interested in statistics education, how they designed a program that would allow them to develop the expertise needed to do a dissertation in this area, and how they were able to complete the requirements and overcome obstacles along the way.

The names of the people interviewed, where they did their graduate work, and their dissertation topics, are listed below:

Most of the people interviewed came to statistics education because of their experience teaching statistics. Many expressed their enjoyment teaching statistics, but also expressed a concern over difficulties students have learning statistics, solving statistical problems, and using statistical thinking, which led them to study and pursue research in this area. Only one person chose this area because of her advisor's research interests. Two people indicated that they specifically planned to teach statistics at the college level and thought that this degree would best prepare them.

These eight individuals entered graduate programs in statistics, mathematics education, or educational psychology programs. Based on their experiences, it appears to be somewhat easier to design a statistics education focus within a mathematics education department than in other departments. Many students outside of mathematics education either had to combine programs (e.g., statistics and education) and have co-advisors, or switch advisors to find one that approved of a dissertation in statistics education.

One interesting distinction between students in the three different areas has to do with the type of job preparation they receive. Most mathematics education programs are focused on teacher education (i.e., teaching those who will prepare math teachers) while the combined programs of statistics and education are focused on training individuals to be teachers of statistics themselves, typically at the college level. Students in Educational Psychology are prepared to teach quantitative methods (to graduate students in Education) and to conduct research in the area of educational statistics.

The coursework taken by these people varied according to the type of department they were in. For example, students in Educational Psychology programs took mostly courses in that department (e.g., statistics, measurement, and learning) and were less likely to take courses in mathematics education. Students in mathematics education programs appeared to have more varied programs with courses in educational psychology and statistics in addition to mathematics education. Several people found their coursework in psychology or learning and cognition to be the most helpful in preparing them to do research in statistics education, while others noted their coursework in statistical methods was particularly valuable. Most of the students across programs valued preparation in both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

Getting a dissertation topic approved was often a hurdle, and a few students experienced reluctance from their advisor to agree to a focus on a statistics education topic, feeling that this would limit their job possibilities. In the cases where students had co-advisors, getting approvals from two advisors and two departments was often challenging and took extra time. Most of the people interviewed were the first person to design a statistics education program and dissertation. One person commented: "My biggest obstacle was that since no one had done this before I was on my own for a lot of it in deciding what courses I should take and what an appropriate dissertation looked like."

Being connected to the wider statistics education community via meetings and newsgroups has been very helpful to many of the people interviewed. One person commented "I would especially like to acknowledge how wonderful the statistics education community has been about welcoming me into the fold. I have met some terrific people and made some great connections and look forward to continued work with these people."

Others wish there could be more recognition of and validation for statistics education as a legitimate area for study and research. "As more students pursue degrees in statistics education it is important to identify faculty members as advisors who have comfort and expertise in both fields, education and statistics." "While looking for a job, I was asked a few times what exactly a statistics education degree was. I had the most success in answering this question by saying that it was like a mathematics education degree."

Those who have finished degrees are teaching in a variety of settings, and appear quite satisfied with their decision to focus on statistics education. One person remarked, "I am very happy I chose the field I did. My teaching and my research feed off each other, which is very meaningful to me... I'm excited by the 'newness' of the field. There are so many directions in which we can go and I am happy to be near the beginning of that exploration."

Since conducting these interviews I have learned of at least two other graduate students, both in departments of mathematics education, who are working on dissertations focused on statistics education. These studies examine middle school or high school teachers' knowledge and understanding of statistics, an emerging area of interest to statistics education researchers. With more formal programs in statistics education beginning to be developed (see the article on the new program at the University of Minnesota in this newsletter) the statistics education community should begin to provide a more consistent and complete training to prepare and support future teachers and researchers in this emerging discipline.


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