Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks

Andrew Gelman and Deborah Nolan

Published by Oxford University Press, 2002.
Click here to order


Anyone who cares about teaching statistics should own this book. It is the fruit of years of collecting, inventing, experimenting, and hard thinking by two classroom veterans who are also leading statisticians. Buy it, read it, use it: if your reaction is like mine, you'll find lots of things that you want to try.
George Cobb, Mt Holyoke College

Gelman's and Nolan's class demonstrations sound so fun and instructive they make me want to build a stats course around them. Why are students in larger than average families? Why are there fewer baby girls in China? After students secretly put sequences of real and made-up random coin tosses on the board, how can Gelman and Nolan tell which are which? How could students who have worked together on such problems not be fascinated with the explanations?
Frank Morgan, Williams College

Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks by Gelman and Nolan could have also been appropriately named "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Teaching Statistics, but were Afraid to Ask"! Much more than just a collection of engaging activities and examples, it also includes informative discussions of pedagogy and practical tips on everything from course organization to effectively integrating activities into the classroom to maintaining interest and motivating students. Both new and experienced teachers of statistics will find this book to be a valuable resource.
Roxy Peck, Cal Poly

Gelman and Nolan have constructed a tour de force of clever demonstrations that will permit all who use them to communicate more effectively many of the deepest ideas of statisitical thinking.
Howard Wainer, Distinguished Research Scientist, National Board of Medical Examiners

Don't be misled by this title. 'A bag of tricks' suggests a miscellaneous collection of tips for teachers, an impression that is far removed from the truth. Yes, it is a collection of ideas for enriching the teaching of statistics, but these ideas are presented in a systematic way with careful suggestions for their use.

The authors state that the book is aimed primarily at teachers of statistics in colleges and high schools (in the American sense), with some additional ideas for teaching at a more advanced level. They also stipulate that the activities are suited to classes of 60 students or fewer. I would argue that most of the suggestions could be adapted fairly easily for use with both younger students and those on advanced courses, and in some cases for larger lecture groups. For example, there are ample ideas here for work on university service courses, including one section on 'Ethics and Statistics' that I found particularly interesting. Most teachers are, of necessity, masters of ingenuity in taking good ideas and tailoring them to their own situations. After all, no two groups of students are alike! There is ample scope for this here.

The book is divided into four parts, an introduction, a section containing a comprehensive collection of activities, a section on how to integrate these into teaching and a final section on more advanced topics. Within each section there are clearly labelled sub-sections that permit easy location of the relevant material. This is clearly a book that users will want to dip in and out of, and the structure supports this approach with a good subject index as well as an author index. In addition, as early as the introduction there are tables linking concepts and activities.

The activities themselves include demonstrations, examples and project ideas. The authors freely admit that many of them are not new ideas, but this is the first time I have seen so many collected together in one resource. Certainly I have come across some of them before, but at the same time many are new to me (something that does not happen very often when you have been working in this area as long as I have!). They are presented clearly and simply as suggestions, without any prescriptive rules but supported by the authors' own experiences in using them. They are intended to enrich more usual approaches such as textbooks, lectures, homework, quizzes and tests, rather than replace them.

The advice on implementation in Part II is practical, sound and encouraging, with no suggestion that here is the answer to all the reader's problems, just lots of help and inspiration.

It is certainly a book that I will come back to time and again!
Margaret Rangecroft, review in the magazine, Teaching Statistics

This book . . . addresses head-on the problems and pitfalls commonly faced by teachers of introductory statistics classes. Moreover, the book is filled with literally hundreds of teaching tips, classroom demonstrations, student projects, and exercises designed precisely to help alleviate student confusion, anxiety, and misunderstanding of the application and interpretation of statistical methods. Importantly, the "bag of tricks" they provide is meticulously documented such that teachers could incorporate these activities into the classroom relatively easily . . .

Nearly all of the activities the authors suggest can be completed within a single classroom period and most of the activities can be completed in a matter of minutes. Also, since the activities they propose usually involve collaboration, their tricks allow for interactive learning . . .
Bradford Jones, review in the newsletter, The Political Methodologist

The book . . . provides us with a new, rich and extremely useful reference book on the methodology of teaching statistics. . . . The main instruments used and advertised by Gelman and Nolan are demonstrations, which involve active student participation, examples, presented by the instructor, and projects, which require a coordinated activity of both students and instructor. . . . "Teaching statistics: a bag of tricks" is a welcome and novel addition to the "bag" of tools of statistics instructors.
Fulvio De Santis, review in the journal, Metron

Teaching Statistics is a first-rate book that should be on the shelf of just about every statistics instructor.
David Booth, review in the journal, Technometrics

This American book has I think more than the subtitle might suggest; it contains much more than a 'bag of tricks'. The authors write for teachers of college and high school statistics courses, and aim to provide a wide variety of real examples which can be used to introduce or illustrate the standard areas within probability and statistics. . . . The style is very readable, though by its very nature this is a book to dip into, with the help of the index. The authors do claim that the emphasis on student involvement, rather than being didactic in teaching, is one which has truly worked for them and their students. No doubt a user of the material will find their own happy medium in this respect. . . . In short, this is a useful companion to have to hand, with fresh and relevant ideas.
Rex Watson, review in the journal, Mathematics in School

Statistics instructors have often heard students lament that they see no practical use for statistics. Some researchers have found that students' negative attitudes toward statistics create a major obstacle to successful learning . . . The very first chapter of this book tackles these issues and following chapters provide strategies that help the instructor address the attitudes that block students' effective learning. . . . This is a book that leaves the reader with a desire to include more activities that will illustrate and reinforce teaching, and several ideas to pursue in teaching statistics to add to the "bag of tricks" started by these authors.
Abbot Packard, review in the journal, Education Review

Many, if not most, of the introductory statistics courses in the U.S. are taught by mathematicians who were not trained as statisticians. They-and the statisticians, too-will find this book an absolute gold mine of tested ideas for in-class activities, demonstrations, and group work for such a course, as well as for student projects.
Paul Campbell, review in the journal, Mathematics Magazine

More information

  • Table of contents and the index.
  • List of errata.
  • Ordering the book

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