Statistics, a Tightened Brain, and Teaching

I walked into the first day of statistics with my amygdala pinging away. Nearly five years into teaching and after studying the brain in graduate school, I recognized the signs. My brain’s alarm system had spotted danger. This is why my amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped mass of gray matter behind my eyes, had sounded the alarm.  Now stress hormones surged through my blood causing my heart to pound, my palms to sweat, my knees to shake, and my brain to tighten.

Looking around the room, I could tell I wasn’t alone. Grim expressions, hunched shoulders, and crossed arms showed that others, too, were fighting statistics anxiety.

The professor stood in front of us and for a long moment took in the room. Then she opened class with the sweetest words I could imagine from a statistics professor.

“I failed graduate statistics,” she said. “Twice.”

Our eyes moved from our desk tops to her.

“And when I finally passed,” she went on, “I decided to teach statistics.”

She lifted her chin.

“And I’ve figured it out. I know how to teach statistics to you so that you won’t fail.”

She had us.

And she kept us.

All through probability properties and discrete distributions and univariate transformations and convergence of random variables, she safeguarded our confidence, making a way for our logic. She used analogies and humor and shared the blame when we were confused.

“Let’s go at this a different way,” she’d say. “I’m going to try harder.”

So we tried harder, as well.

And though the class was tough, with fear removed, I could grasp statistics.

But I learned something besides statistics, something I still carry with me—to actively fight fear in the classroom. With fear gone, the brain can reason. And clear thinking is what statistics—and all of learning—is about.

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