UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998


Statistical Education in Australia A Report of the Activities of Australian Statistical Educators from ICOTS-5

Brian Phillips
Swinburne University of Technology

For many years some statistical training has been included as a component in courses such as Applied Science, Engineering, Business and Psychology but it is now gaining a place in a greater number of courses in Australia, as throughout the rest of the world. For example at The University of Melbourne over 1000 students take a general statistics subject during their course while at Swinburne University of Technology all students enrolled in an Arts degree take a full subject in Research Methods and Statistics. This trend also occurs in many other institutions as the need to become more statistically literate is seen as an important part of the education of students from most disciplines, assisting them in their further studies and helping them become more employable. This article will not give a comprehensive report on statistical education in Australia, as this would be a daunting task, rather it will focus on some of the activities in Australia which were reported at a recent international conference on statistical education, as well as, outlining some of the main themes arising from the conference.


The International Association for Statistical Education, IASE, is a section of the International Statistical Institute, ISI, which aims to help people around the world who are involved in statistical education. Currently the IASE has approximately 500 members, largely made up of teachers and lecturers of statistics, applied and government statisticians and education researchers. One of the main functions of the IASE is to organise meetings and sessions at conferences, the main events being the International Conferences on Teaching Statistics, ICOTS, which are held every four years. In June, 1998 ICOTS-5 was held at Nanyang University of Technology, Singapore where there was an excellent international representation of over 400 participants with more than 200 talks given by speakers from about 40 countries. This article gives a brief overview of the main points made by the keynote speakers along with an outline of the statistical education activities in Australia which were reported. The papers have been divided into several sections for convenience of this article, but these are not mutually exclusive as many papers could have been listed in more than one section. Generally the name and institution of the person who reported the activity is listed to help facilitate contact and a list of the Australians who attended ICOTS-5, with emails, can be found on the web site

There are many other activities in statistical education occurring around the country which were not reported at ICOTS-5. Further information is available from Brenton Dansie of the University of South Australia, email, who is chair of the Statistical Education section of the Statistical Society of Australia, SSA.

Keynote speakers

One of the general themes discussed by a number of the keynote speakers at ICOTS-5 was the importance of bridging the gaps between statistical educators, practicing statisticians and others who use statistics in their work. This point came through in talks by Dr Paul Cheung, the Singapore Statistician, Professor Richard Scheaffer from the University of Florida and Mr Roger Luk, of the Hang Seng Bank in Hong Kong, China. The importance of making constructive use of technology to help formulate hypotheses was highlighted in the keynote address by Dr William Cleveland from Bell Laboratories in the USA. Cleveland demonstrated how increased computing power and the use of visualization packages which produce trellis graphic displays can be used to help uncover the structure of data even when complicated interactions might be present. In another keynote address, the importance of understanding our historical links was stressed by Professor David Vere-Jones from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Vere-Jones spoke about differences between countries in their approaches to statistics and how the histories of the countries had influenced the aspects of statistics they emphasised. Both Vere-Jones and Scheaffer addressed issues related to the question 'Is the Statistical Profession Under Siege?' They strongly advocated that, as most quantitative sciences have a need for statistical skills, appropriate statistical training should be given at all levels of education from primary school to university and continued statistical education encouraged once in the workforce. Furthermore, they felt that greater communication was needed between schools and universities, workplaces and across departments within institutions.


One of the innovative aspects of the program organised by John Taffe, Swinburne University of Technology, was the incorporation of the conference theme, Expanding the Network, as a formal part of the program. The purpose was to establish special interest groups of people who had met at the conference so they could readily have ongoing communication. Several groups were established and a number of Internet list-servers have already been set up and are now operating. These can be found on the site

General themes

As well as the themes presented by the keynote speakers, a number of other general themes emerged from the invited and contributed sessions. A consistent point which was made in many sessions was the importance of students constructing their own statistical knowledge and developing an understanding of statistical concepts. To assist with this many activities were reported including making the best use of technological advances, giving students greater opportunities for practical real world experiences and the importance of continued research into the teaching and learning of statistics.


A number of interactive computer programs (available on CD-ROM) for the learning of statistics were discussed and demonstrated (as opposed to programs designed mainly for the doing of statistics like SPSS, MiniTab and S-PLUS). Among the excellent software packages aimed to do this was StatPlay, written by an Australian group headed by Geoff Cumming and Neil Thomason, which received enthusiastic comments from a number of participants. StatPlay consists of a set of multimedia simulations and tools which use dynamically linked multiple representations of the same phenomena. One special feature of StatPlay is a demonstration facility called Sam. This facility is used to reinforce ideas and allows both teachers and students to record, store and playback demonstrations together with a spoken commentary. For more information see

Several other Australian software developers have built excellent packages around a commercial spreadsheet. For example Robin Boyle, Deakin University, has developed PACE2000 which has been designed to assist the teaching of introductory-intermediate statistics at tertiary level, in particular for business students. This software includes a range of inbuilt routines and graphics options plus an extensive HELP system. An Excel add-in version of PACE2000 is currently under development. Further information is available from Rodney Carr, Deakin University, Warrnambool Campus, has developed an innovative workshop, 'Statistics in a Day', both for undergraduate and research students as well as for professional development programs for people in commercial organisations. Further information is available from

Another Australian software development reported was Interactive Multimedia Statistics, IMS, developed by Alan Jones, The University of Sydney and Susan Crowe, Macquarie University, which is basically a set of interactive beginning statistics tutorials. Extensive use is made of animation for motivation and the software is designed as a set of self directed tutorials aimed at developing concepts.

A further important piece of technology which is being increasingly used in statistics classrooms is the graphics calculator. For example Kay Lipson, Swinburne University of Technology, reported how she successfully uses graphics calculators in large introductory statistics courses so that modern technology can be readily integrated into the program.

Another technological project "Chance & Data In The News" is an Internet resource developed by Jane Watson at the University of Tasmania, in association with the Newspapers in Education program of The Mercury newspaper; see web page There are over 100 news articles, including photos and graphics, selected to represent aspects of the mathematics curriculum in 'Chance and Data' and 'Numeracy'. Articles are indexed both by mathematical content, appropriate for mathematics teaching units, and also by topic content, appropriate for project work in Science or Studies of Society and Environment.

Other Australians who reported applying technology to help with statistical education include Peter Petocz, University of Technology, Sydney, who has developed and evaluated effective video based packages to assist students learn some of the difficult areas in statistics. Peter Smith described how students at RMIT are given insight into statistical processes by making use of several statistical software packages. A Deakin University group, Michelle McDougall et al., have also addressed the issue of trying to help students' understanding of hypothesis testing for which they have developed a computer aided learning package.

Research in statistical education

Research in statistical education was another important topic at the conference. A number of the Australian researchers are investigating students' understanding of important aspects of statistics. These included Anne Williams, Queensland University of Technology, who investigated students' understanding of the concept of significance level and found that 'what seems simple to an experienced user is a massive hurdle for a novice' and Sue Finch, La Trobe University, who looked at students' understanding of variability and the Law of Large Numbers. In a project carried out by Kath Truran, University of South Australia, some interesting insights into children's understanding of random behaviour were revealed. Julie Jackson from La Trobe University and Maxwell King from Monash University reported results from regression models which suggested that significant factors affecting the performance of first year Econometrics and Business students included mathematical aptitude, language spoken at home, type of school attended, semester living arrangements and class attendance. John Truran, The University of Adelaide, looked at statistical writings which aimed to reveal students' understanding and attitudes, and compared Australian and South East Asian economics students. He found that all students encounter difficulty when reading reports and fail to apply principles taught in class to critical writing. Pam Shaw, Macquarie University, investigated the question "Why don't students display data?" As the result of her research, Anne Porter, from the University of Wollongong, questioned the success of many attempts which have been used to try to improve statistical education.

Other researchers included Paul Ayres and Jenni Way, University of Western Sydney (Nepean), who showed how videos have the potential to be a useful tool in probability research, and Suzanne Ryan, La Trobe University (Mildura Campus), who reported her research with problem based learning which has its base in modern constructivist views of learning. Resulting from her research, Chris Reading, The University of New England, suggested a need to modify approaches to teaching statistics to high school students so as to better take into account the level of students' understanding of statistics. An example of what can be done was reported by Hartley Hyde of Wirreanda High School in Adelaide and James Nicholson of the Belfast Royal Academy who are experimenting with an international exchange of data relevant to secondary students. Details of this exciting innovation can be found on Jane Watson, University of Tasmania, also reported on her research into assessment of students' understanding of media reports and found that educators have a long way to go in creating a statistical literate citizenry. Janet Chaseling, Griffith University, addressed the need for university staff to become actively involved in assisting and promoting the implementation of new high school syllabus content.

Real life experiences

A number of speakers discussed how they use a variety of methods to motivate students and give them real life experiences. Graham Wood, Central Queensland University, sees that the traditional method of teaching statistics is no longer appropriate and that we need to focus our teaching on statistical thinking about real problems. Helen MacGillivray, Queensland University of Technology, reported that as well as acquiring the essential statistical concepts and techniques, students need to gain sufficient understanding to form a basis for future development and need to be able to synthesise their knowledge and judgment in tackling aspects of real data situations. Another speaker, Neil Diamond, described how industry projects have been used successfully for many years with final year science students at Victoria University of Technology in which the students benefit both technically and professionally from working on projects for industrial, commercial or government organisations. Brenton Dansie, University of South Australia, employs collaborative learning groups using materials which reflect the wider view of statistics so students learn the role of statistical thinking as a problem solving discipline in real situations.

Distance education

With the advent of better communications, and in particular the WWW, a number of distance and web-based courses were discussed. Among these was SMART, an international collaborative approach to the production and delivery, via the World Wide Web, of training in quantitative methods. Glenys Bishop, The University of Adelaide, is developing a suite of training modules in experimental design as part of this evolving project; see

Other on-line courses are being developed such as at Swinburne University of Technology where graduate diploma courses are being developed by Brian Phillips, Glenda Francis and Marianne Hutcheson for workers in social and health statistics. Gail Godden addressed the issue of making distance education in statistics for nurses at the Central Queensland University more personalised. Her solution, which included the use of videos of the on-campus lectures, has proved very successful.

A professional development project for teachers of Grades 5 to 12 entitled, "Learning the Unlikely at Distance Delivered as an Information Technology Enterprise" LUDDITE 3, which is funded by the Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) is run by the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT), headed by Jane Watson, University of Tasmania. The project has developed a CD-ROM which it uses along with books for statistical background and classroom activities, software for data handling and probability simulation, video tapes for motivation and statistical background, and newspaper extracts for motivation, see

Another web-based activity was reported by Selva Selvanathan, Griffith University, who uses a product called The Learning Manager (TLM), a computer managed learning system from the Campus America, to teach statistics on the web site and on the university network. The students' assessments are being done on TLM which is especially useful for a large class environment, though applicable in small classes as well. The course is available on the web site but requires a password.

Other issues

A number of other issues were discussed by Australians at the conference.

Alan McLean, Monash University, stated that although texts often said that statistics is used in decision making, very few do much to illustrate this. He felt that statistics teaching at any level should be intimately concerned with models and forecasting. In particular he argued that the use of probability models and the use of prediction intervals, should be emphasised.

Robyn Pierce and Lyn Roberts from the University of Ballarat described how they run practical based introductory statistics courses for students in service courses in which students do more reading and writing and less arithmetic since they claim students in service courses need to be able to critically read and evaluate research and write reports rather than merely leave students with the more traditional 'mysterious bag of tricks'! Gail FitzSimmons, Swinburne University of Technology, has developed a program built on constructivist theories to help make statistical concepts come alive and have real meaning for vocational TAFE students who often have low self concept and a fear of statistics.

Eric Sowey, The University of New South Wales, showed why traditional printed textbooks often do not meet the individual learning needs of students, and argued the case for less conformity and greater diversity in expository styles among introductory texts, whether these texts are in printed or electronic form. Rayner and Carolan from the University of Wollongong assessed the robustness of the one-sample t-test and two-sample F-test.

From the conference as a whole, one area which is seen to be emerging as an important challenge for statistical educators is that of making a statistically literate community. This was highlighted in Anne Hawkins' closing address, a theme that also pervaded a number of the presentations including the talk by Jonathan Moritz, University of Tasmania, who addressed the issue of preparing adolescents to make informed decisions for life.


In this article it is impossible to mention in any detail all the important issues which were discussed by Australians at the conference. However what was apparent was that Australians are well to the forefront in statistical education. It is clear that the researchers in statistical education in Australia, as elsewhere, see a need for investigating students' understanding of important aspects of statistics and many are trying to devise better ways to do this. Finally it is seen that the move to making a more statistically literate society is likely to be discussed at greater length in future conferences.

The proceedings

The proceedings give the best continuing record of the conference and all people interested in statistical education should obtain copies. They are available from:
425 Race Course Road, Singapore 218671
Tel: (65) 299 8992
Fax: (65) 299 8983
The cost, in Singapore dollars, is IASE/ISI Member: $65 plus shipping/handling, Non-member: $80 plus shipping/handling


As a follow up to ICOTS-5, there will be a one day mini-conference at Swinburne AUS-ICOTS (December 2, 1998) where a forum on statistical education will be held.

The next IASE activity will be at the ISI conference to be held in August 1999 in Helsinki and the next ICOTS will be held in South Africa in 2002; see the post ICOTS-5 site and the IASE site or contact Brian Phillips at

IASE logo

Brian Phillips
School of Mathematical Sciences
Swinburne University of Technology

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UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998

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