Rhonda Amsel

Faculty of Science

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

My students come from a variety of backgrounds and departments and take the statistics course as a required part of their program. They are often nervous about taking statistics. I start at a very basic level and offer some review sessions outside class time to make sure that all students are well prepared and have a common footing so they can participate in class. Then I try to make the material relevant to them so they can see why the course is useful. I try to keep the examples real by using current events and research in progress.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

A lot of my informal assessment can be made on the basis of class discussions, questions that are sent by e-mail, or that come up during office hours: the increasing sophistication in the way students evaluate research is obvious in those contexts. Often students will spontaneously comment on changes in how much they are reading and how they are assessing the journal articles for their other courses. Formally, I use assignments and short-answer, problem-based exams because I am more interested in the process than the final answer. I also ask the students to submit a draft assignment in order to give them individual and group feedback before their final submission.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?

The answer is the same for students in Psychology as it is for those from other disciplines: the answers to scientific questions have to be based on evidence.

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

That is what the statistics course is all about. We talk about the way research questions are framed, and about the variety of ways questions can be answered; we discuss what the researcher’s choices say about the researcher and the research. I model how I think about problems, too. Even for simple examples, I tell the students what I’m looking at, what I notice about the methodology, the results, and the discussion. Sometimes, I put an article on the document camera and we talk about the methods, results, and limitations of the research.

Also, I do my own survey at the beginning of the course. I ask the students 15 questions, for example, How old are you? Do you learn best in the morning or the afternoon? What characteristic should a professor have to help you succeed? Then I tabulate the results and review them, both as a way of demonstrating how data are tabulated, and to help students become comfortable with each other in this large class. I let the students analyze the survey data for their first assignment because it is interesting for them. I show them what to do about outliers because they often occur in this context: you offer a scale of 1 to 10, and somebody responds 200. One student reported that he was ten feet tall. What do you do with data like that? The fact that some of these responses are funny helps to make the lesson memorable.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

Don’t try to perfect the whole course at once. If you do, you’re not going to want to change anything later. If you get the basic structure right at the beginning and have an idea of where you are going, you can refine it over a number of years and move in a direction that helps the students to learn. For this and other things you need feedback from the students. You actually have to get to know the students and their needs to be in a position to decide what changes need to be made.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

First, be curious about things, even about things that you are not interested in or are afraid of initially. You might be surprised. Sometimes success in a challenging course can open up new possibilities and encourage you to challenge yourself again. Second, be skeptical and question everything. Don’t just accept information. Ask, “Why is this true? Is it always true?”

Why do you teach?

Part of it, of course, is the topic. Statistics can be found everywhere and are often misused, accidentally or deliberately. It is essential to be able to evaluate a numerical argument comfortably.

The other motivator is the students: I enjoy getting to know them, thinking about how best to introduce material to them, and being able to make changes each year to improve learning. Although many students are resistant to taking a math course, by the end of the introductory course, some have begun to use what they’ve learned in contexts outside the classroom. It is also important for students to see that they can succeed in understanding mathematical material, despite initial anxieties. Hearing a student say, “I’ve succeeded in stats; now I feel I can do anything” is enough to keep me here year after year.


Photo by Owen Egan

Contact Information
Email address: 
rhonda.amsel [at] mcgill.ca

Hearing a student say, ' I’ve succeeded in stats; now I feel I can do anything' is enough to keep me here year after year.

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