Statistics as a Second Language? A Model for Predicting Performance in Psychology Students

Article excerpt


The purpose of this study was to test a model for predicting the performance of psychology students in statistics. Previous research in this area examined statistical performance in relation to three classes of variables: anxiety, attitudes, and ability. These variables are the essential components of an educational model developed by Gardner within the context of second language learning. It is argued that learning statistics is analogous to learning a second language, and that Gardner's model provides an integrative framework for understanding and predicting statistical performance. Measures assessing mathematical aptitude, math anxiety, and attitudinal and motivational variables were administered to volunteers from two introductory statistics courses in a psychology program. A causal model linking these variables was proposed and tested using a LISREL analysis. The results, which generally supported the model, are discussed in terms of their theoretical and practical implications.


Le but de cette etude etait d'evaluer un modele pour la prediction de la performance d'etudiants en statistiques. Les etudes anterieures ont examine trois types de variables en relation avec la performance en statistiques: l'anxiete, les attitudes et l'habilete. Ces memes variables sont a la base d'un modele d'apprentissage de langue seconde developpe par Gardner. Il est possible que l'etude des statistiques soit analogue a l'apprentissage d'une langue seconde et que le modele de Gardner soit utile pour la comprehension et la prediction de la performance en statistiques. L'aptitude pour les mathematiques, l'anxiete envers les mathematiques, les attitudes et la motivation ont ete evaluees chez des etudiants de psychologie qui prenaient un cours d'introduction aux statistiques. Un modele causal reliant ces variables fut evalue avec une analyse LISREL. Les implications theoriques et pratiques des resultats de cette recherche sont discutees.

One of the most prominent courses for many students of psychology is the introductory statistics course. While undergraduate programs differ in the number of methodological and statistical courses they require, virtually all of them have one course that involves basic descriptive and inferential statistics. The title of the course and its content may vary from program to program, but from the perspective of the student the course is commonly referred to by many as "stats" and by a significant minority as "sadistics". It is the latter perception that has led teachers to develop curricula designed to help students acquire an appreciation and understanding of the use of statistics in psychology (Dilbeck, 1983; Hastings, 1982; Greer & Semrau, 1984; Lovie & Lovie, 1973), and researchers to address the processes involved in learning statistics. In our experience, and that of other teachers (Hastings, 1982; Ray, 1962) it has been beneficial to conceptualize the learning of statistics as analogous to the learning of a language. In this paper the critical variables that have been examined by researchers studying the learning of statistics will be examined in a social psychological model of learning that has been developed within the context of second language learning.

The research examining factors contributing to the successful acquisition of statistical knowledge mirrors much of the research addressing the learning of other subject matters such as mathematics and second languages. Most of the variables that have been examined fall within three broad categories: anxiety, attitudes, and ability. We will introduce these variables separately, since only a few studies have looked at all three classes of variables in relation to performance in statistics (Adams & Holcomb, 1986; Feinberg & Halperin, 1978).


Any teacher of statistics can attest to the significant number of students experiencing apprehension with regard to their ability to perform well in the course. …