Understanding data, understanding society: using quantitative narratives to embed evidence, argument and data within the undergraduate curriculum

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences


Repeated reports by the ESRC have pointed to the shortage of social science undergraduate students with even basic quantitative methods skills. This is a situation that is harmful to the on-going viability and vitality of the UK's research base and to its economy. It also limits the ability of these otherwise well educated citizens to contribute to social debates framed numerically and/or statistically, a situation that hinders participatory democracy. It is a problem that is self-reinforcing. As fewer students engage with quantitative methods so there is less opportunity for knowledge transfer in these methods to the next generation of students.

The solution to this fragile situation cannot simply be more stats classes if these fail to overcome the participants' fear, anxiety or scepticism of quantitative methods. It simply is not enough to insist that such methods are important and should be learned. Their value and power as a tool for generating credible evidence and informing social debate must be demonstrated in a way that captures the students' imaginations and interests. At a foundational level it must be understood that the specialist language of statistics combines with intimidating-looking equations to create considerable learning barriers for students. The 'stories' of how statistics can be used for good or for ill in society need to be told in a more compelling way.

To that end, this project is to create a cross-disciplinary social sciences curriculum that has at its heart quantitative narratives as a way of teaching the principles and concepts of quantitative methods. A quantitative narrative is a form of shared storytelling that teaches concepts in statistics by beginning with social issues and controversies and uses those to capture the students' interests. To do so, we present the students with some relevant story and guide them through a discussion to reveal the back story - an underlying statistical concept. For example, the ballot for Olympic tickets is a good example of an experimental design that didn't generate the outcomes many people wanted and would have regarded as fair, despite it being random. It provides an ideal case study - a narrative - for an in-class discussion about how the students might have designed the process, what objectives they would value, what they understand by randomness and so forth. In this way important statistical concepts are revealed, discussed and learned.

The curriculum will be taught and evaluated as a cross-disciplinary, year 1 open unit at the University of Bristol. The curriculum will be supported by a range of e-learning material including interactive visualisations and graphics linked to core teaching datasets provided by the Economic and Social Data Service, an accompanying e-book, lecture recordings and the development of vignettes or case studies to support critical thinking and class discussion. On the basis of the evaluations investigating the students' attitudes and understanding of quantitative methods before and after the unit, the material will be adapted before being made available to other users online, at no charge and under a Creative Commons licence that permits them to be reproduced or adapted for non-commercial use.

The project draws together a cross-disciplinary team with a track record of curriculum innovation for quantitative methods teaching. It offers the opportunity to embed the host institution's internationally recognised expertise in the teaching and research of quantitative methods at an early stage of the students' learning. It makes the connections between the state-of-the-art in quantitative methods and the need to assist the students better in their learning pathways to it. By doing-so the project will build capacity in quantitative methods within the host institution and elsewhere.

Planned Impact

The ESRC Undergraduate Quantitative Methods Initiative is a response to the recognised shortage of skills in quantitative methods amongst UK social sciences students. It is amongst them that the impact of this project is targeted by giving them support and encouragement to gain interest in such methods at the earliest stages of their university learning.

Therefore, the prime and immediate beneficiaries will be the students themselves as we support them in their learning and help equip them to gain the sorts of knowledge and transferable skills that will set them in good stead for further academic study or in their careers. Our purpose is to build capacity in such methods at the University of Bristol knowing that this knowledge will diffuse outwards as these students go on to study in other institutions or find employment in a diverse range of jobs. Within three or four years our aim is for a sizeable proportion of all students studying within the social sciences at Bristol to have better understanding and interests in quantitative methods and for that expertise to begin filtering into the workplace. The ESRC recognises the links between knowledge of quantitative methods and the threats to the UK's economic competitiveness if such skills are eroded. In the long term it is society-at-large that benefits from the ESRC's initiative and it is to this goal the project will play.
Other beneficiaries will be students and their teachers at other institutions who want to take or to develop a foundational course in quantitative methods. There is no reason why access to our learning material should be restricted to those in higher education (and nor would we want it to be) so there is potential for there to be other beneficiaries, too, wherever foundational teaching in quantitative methods is sought.

We do not envisage any direct commercial benefits from the research in terms of outputs that can be packaged and sold. It is not in the spirit of the research for there to be so. The focus of the research is on improving the capacity of undergraduate students to use and to understand quantitative methods, with all the benefits to them, to society and to the economy that the ESRC has identified. In a very real sense we hope one of the main beneficiaries will be UK social science itself.


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Description This grant was funded as part of the ESRC's initiative for curriculum development to support quantitative methods teaching in the social sciences. Our focus has been on teaching statistical principles not by focusing on the methods themselves but on how data and statistics are used and abused in the media, in public policy and sometimes in academic research. In other words, we have used quantitative storytelling to try and raise the students' interest in the potential for using data to explore topics of relevance to the social sciences. Broadly this approach has worked, especially when linked to a clear curriculum focused on key readings and other 'open' educational resources (such as those provided at http://economicsnetwork.ac.uk/statistics). Discipline specific seminars in smaller groups have helped those students who feel lost in the larger classes (we hoped for about 25-30 student enrolment in total; we typically get about 100!); as also does providing very practical guidance, such as how to present data effectively. We also try to make the classes as interactive as possible and have innovative assessments such as a virtual conference, presenting research ideas based on The Guardian Datastore, which are then peer marked with feedback from other students. However, a challenge remains: despite our best efforts some students are 'switched off' by the classes and this further entrenches their belief that they cannot do quantitative methods.
Exploitation Route The unit is now fully integrated in Bristol University's Q-Step programmes: see www.bris.ac.uk/qstep.

Under the Q-Step programme we would like to develop a book from the unit - something that bridges the gap between a more populist discussion of how data are (mis)used in society to engage students but does so in a way that has a clear structure and link to clearly named statistical topics, so it still have a textbook element to it.
Sectors Education

Description This project formed part of the ESRC's curriculum development initiative with the purpose of improving students' numeracy and quantitative skills. This initiative was itself part of a wider range of initiative that are intended to address a shortfall of students with the sorts of quantitative skills required to do research, that employers look for and which are beneficial both to the economic vibrancy of the UK and for citizenship within it. Although it is impossible to make any direct link between this project and wider social impacts, to date several hundred students have taken the unit and many of them in disciplines within which they would not otherwise be exposed to the use of numbers in the media, in public policy and in academic research. We can therefore anticipate that there has been a positive educational impact. Moreover, the impact has not ended with the funding. Instead, the curriculum we developed forms part of the University of Bristol's Q-Step centre, which is itself part of a multimillion pound national initiative to provide a step-change in the level of quantitative social science learning in the UK. The impact of that is more students choosing to study quantitative methods as part of their degree programmes and, again, some of those in disciplines where they would not usually be exposed to such methods. We are also developing links between some of these students' studies and employers through internship programmes.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal