Mar 19

AP Statistics the Genghis Khan way 1

AP Statistics the Genghis Khan way 1

Recently I enjoyed reading Jack Weatherford's "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" (2004). I was reading the book with a specific question in mind: what were the main reasons of the success of the Mongols? Here you can see the list of their innovations, some of which were in fact adapted from the nations they subjugated. But what was the main driving force behind those innovations? The conclusion I came to is that Genghis Khan was a genial psychologist. He used what he knew about individual and social psychology to constantly improve the government of his empire.

I am no Genghis Khan but I try to base my teaching methods on my knowledge of student psychology.

Problems and suggested solutions

Steven Krantz in his book (How to teach mathematics : Second edition, 1998, don't remember the page) says something like this: If you want your students to do something, arrange your classes so that they do it in the class.

Problem 1. Students mechanically write down what the teacher says and writes.

Solution. I don't allow my students to write while I am explaining the material. When I explain, their task is to listen and try to understand. I invite them to ask questions and prompt me to write more explanations and comments. After they all say "We understand", I clean the board and then they write down whatever they understood and remembered.

Problem 2. Students are not used to analyze what they read or write.

Solution. After students finish their writing, I ask them to exchange notebooks and check each other's writings. It's easier for them to do this while everything is fresh in their memory. I bought and distributed red pens. When they see that something is missing or wrong, they have to write in red. Errors or omissions must stand out. Thus, right there in the class students repeat the material twice.

Problem 3. Students don't study at home.

Solution. I let my students know in advance what the next quiz will be about. Even with this knowledge, most of them don't prepare at home. Before the quiz I give them about half an hour to repeat and discuss the material (this is at least the third repetition). We start the quiz when they say they are ready.

Problem 4. Students don't understand that active repetition (writing without looking at one's notes) is much more productive than passive repetition (just reading the notes).

Solution. Each time before discussion sessions I distribute scratch paper and urge students to write, not just read or talk. About half of them follow my recommendation. Their desire to keep their notebooks neat is not their last consideration. The solution to Problem 1 also hinges upon active repetition.

Problem 5. If students work and are evaluated individually, usually there is no or little interaction between them.

Solution. My class is divided in teams (currently I have teams of two to six people). I randomly select one person from each team to write the quiz. That person's grade is the team's grade. This forces better students to coach others and weaker students to seek help.

Problem 6. Some students don't want to work in teams. They are usually either good students, who don't want to suffer because of weak team members, or weak students, who don't want their low grades to harm other team members.

Solution. The good students usually argue that it's not fair if their grade becomes lower because of somebody else's fault. My answer to them is that the meaning of fairness depends on the definition. In my grading scheme, 30 points out of 100 is allocated for team work and the rest for individual achievements. Therefore I never allow good students to work individually. I want them to be my teaching assistants and help other students. While doing so, I tell them that I may reward good students with a bonus in the end of the semester. In some cases I allow weak students to write quizzes individually but only if the team so requests. The request of the weak student doesn't matter. The weak student still has to participate in team discussions.

Problem 7. There is no accumulation of theoretical knowledge (flat learning curve).

Solution. a) Most students come from high school with little experience in algebra. I raise the level gradually and emphasize understanding. Students never see multiple choice questions in my classes. They also know that right answers without explanations will be discarded.

b) Normally, during my explanations I fill out the board. The amount of the information the students have to remember is substantial and increases over time. If you know a better way to develop one's internal vision, let me know.

c) I don't believe in learning the theory by doing applied exercises. After explaining the theory I formulate it as a series of theoretical exercises. I give the theory in large, logically consistent blocks for students to see the system. Half of exam questions are theoretical (students have to provide proofs and derivations) and the other half - applied.

d) The right motivation can be of two types: theoretical or applied, and I never substitute one for another.

Problem 8. In low-level courses you need to conduct frequent evaluations to keep your students in working shape. Multiply that by the number of students, and you get a serious teaching overload.

Solution. Once at a teaching conference in Prague my colleague from New York boasted that he grades 160 papers per week. Evaluating one paper per team saves you from that hell.


In the beginning of the academic year I had 47 students. In the second semester 12 students dropped the course entirely or enrolled in Stats classes taught by other teachers. Based on current grades, I expect 15 more students to fail. Thus, after the first year I'll have about 20 students in my course (if they don't fail other courses). These students will master statistics at the level of my book.

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