Getting students to engage with media accounts of statistics: Editorial assignment

Getting students to engage with media accounts of statistics: editorial assignment

Emily Clough, Newcastle University

One of the goals in training students to understand and use quantitative methods in the social sciences is to get them to engage more critically with the statistics they encounter in everyday life.  I attempt to encourage this throughout the module, frequently using articles from mainstream newspapers to illustrate how sample design, confidence intervals or graphs have been distorted or misrepresented.  Given the importance of this skill, I thought it was important to assess them on it.  In order to do this, I have them write a critique of the use of statistics in the news media

Approaching the problem

As part of my required second year module in quantitative methods at Newcastle University, I ask students to write an assessed 500 word critique.  The critique is worth 15% of their overall mark.  It is due in the 9th week of the semester.  The prompt is as follows:

As we have discussed in class, the mainstream media frequently misrepresents data, numbers or quantitative research.  This assignment asks you to find an example of numbers or data being misused or misrepresented with relation to politics in one of the following news outlets: Independent, Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, BBC, Evening Standard, Metro, The Times.  The example must be from the last month (ie 3 November-3 December).  Problems could include, but are not limited to: graphs, polling results, and discussions of research and reports.

In 500 words, explain how the news article misrepresents or misreports numbers.  How might this misuse of numbers have affected the reader’s view of the issue being discussed?

At my previous job in the US, I did a variety of this that focused on visual misrepresentations, after a thorough study of Tufte.  I narrowed the scope of the assessment to mainstream media sources because I wanted students to get a sense of how statistics could be misinterpreted even in sources with gatekeepers.

What went well?

Generally, performance on the assessment is quite good—there is evidence that students can engage critically with news sources.  Students critique a wide variety of problems that they find in the newspaper.  Most students also find a way to correctly criticise some of the issues they are seeing.

Lessons learned

One of the biggest challenges of this assignment is that most British students do not have experience writing critiques, and the new form of writing initially caused quite a bit of upset.  Despite the critique’s short length and relatively low weighting, students often commented that it was the most difficult and time-consuming assessment they had to do.  After talking to some students in more depth, I decided it would be most effective to provide some training in how to write a critique.  Students in the UK often seem very cautious and conservative about writing in a new form, and I believe that is where a lot of the anxiety was coming from.  I got in touch with our university’s writing centre and asked if they would be willing to lead a session on how to write a critique.  I had an in-depth discussion with the woman from the session about the assignment, as well as the more general skills I was hoping the students would come away with.  My goal was that students would not just learn how to write a critique for my class, but to write a critique more generally.  Last year (2016) was the first year I did this.  While I don’t have systematic before/after evidence, students expressed fewer concerns, both in person and on the module evaluations.  A few even ventured positive comments regarding the assignment.

Another issue is that the assessment is premised on the notion that students read political news in the mainstream media.  From informal discussions with students about the assessment, this idea may be outdated/misguided.  Many of them will look at the listed news sites for this assessment, but they do not seem to regularly read these news sources on their own.  In the past, I have considered critiques of sources like Twitter to be too much low-hanging fruit, but I am considering whether it is sensible to open up the options to allow students to examine the claims made by advocacy groups via twitter or other means.