I can say with 99% confidence that this class is killing me
March 28, 2013 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm struggling hard in my statistics class right now. Some of it comes from not grasping the concepts, but a bigger part is the ridiculous level of anxiety I've developed about my grades, and catastrophizing about what a low grade means. Help me attack both aspects of the problem.

I'm taking stats at my local community college right now, as a pre-requisite for eventual nursing and public health degrees. I have a previous BA and took a stats class as part of that, and just managed to scrape by with a C.

I decided to retake the class this time to improve my grade and get a better handle on the concepts, but I'm still floundering and pulling Cs. A large part of this, I think, is my anxiety and complete lack of math study skills. I was one of those students who skated through most classes with a bare minimum of work just by having good writing skills; in stats I've hit the wall of "thing I am not naturally good at and can't write my way out of, but need to be successful at anyway." (I identify with this comment about building your identity around intelligence a whole hell of a lot.) Plus, I was a qualitative social science major the last time I did school; the skills you need to study for essay tests and research papers are completely different from problem sets.

But the thing is, I badly need my grade to be good, and I badly want to understand the material. As a person who wants to do public health work, I know full well how important stats are going to be in my future, both for school admissions and for work. Although this class doesn't present it well, the actual process of study design is fascinating to me. When I get a low grade on a test or don't understand a problem in class, though, I immediately start catastrophizing to "shit, I will never get into nursing school, I will never get into public health school, what am I going to do with my life now?" At least one of the local programs I'm looking at requires a B in stats for admission, and that's not even the most competitive one.

The more I catastrophize, the more I shut down and can't concentrate on studying, the less I study, the less I understand, and the more likely I am to blank out and forget entire concepts on tests. Repeat vicious cycle. It's specifically about this class and about my understanding of statistics/math more broadly, not generalized test anxiety--I'm acing biology right now, but in stats, even on lecture days, I'm always on the verge of an anxiety attack.

I got a low C on my first test in the class, and a higher C (just a few points under a B) on the second one. My average is about five points under a B. I have two more tests and a final to bring my grade around. How can I make sure I study the concepts well and work on the anxiety issues?

Things I am already doing:
-Supplementing class lectures with Khan Academy/other youtube videos.
-Studying sometimes with a classmate who understands the material better than I do.
-Mining another textbook for practice problems. (Our official class textbook is shit.)
-Telling myself things like "A C really means average, it doesn't mean you're stupid, it doesn't reflect poorly on you as a person"
-Going to therapy

Things that won't work:
-The school doesn't offer any additional tutoring resources specifically for stats; several of my classmates have already asked about this, and apparently the tutors just aren't there.
-I don't have the money for a private tutor

Hope me please! Thanks everyone!
posted by ActionPopulated to Education (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You've probably understood this already, but your teacher is being paid to teach you stats - can you communicate with him/her? If they don't care, that's a problem. As for the anxiety, yeah, getting some counseling is probably a good idea. There's no magic bullet. The more you can think about stats instead of thinking about thinking about stats, the better.
posted by facetious at 11:59 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Like you, I do far better in humanities courses than in math. I also had to take a biostats class for the 2nd time in public health school (first time was in med school) and struggled with it. You will have to take this class again in PH school, so it will definitely pay off to try to master it now.

There are several websites I used with the course that you might find helpful. This Vassar Stats site, HyperStat online statistics book, and this Seeing Statistics site for normal probabilities.

I think there is really no substitute for a tutor. Are you sure you can't find the money for one? It seems like this is causing you a huge amount of stress and so it would be worth it... I don't know the going rate for tutors but considering the people who do it are often students themselves, I think it would be somewhat affordable.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:08 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

What is the class covering--t-tests, regression, descriptive statistics, ANOVA? That would help with identifying resources for you to look at. Check out this blog regardless, I came across it recently and thought it was pretty useful:

posted by _cave at 12:11 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was an economics major who put off the math classes until I absolutely had to. I found that reading studies and sorta taking the mathy gobbledygook on faith helped me understand the gist of what the math was trying to do.

When I finally took the stats class, they would be talking marbles, and I would say "oh, I understand how this applies to that paper I was trying to follow."

The professor can try to teach you statistics. But it's hard for him to know how to make someone else care about statistics. You already seem to know what you want to get out of it. So make that work for you.
posted by politikitty at 12:34 PM on March 28, 2013

I just took an EdX course (Statistics 2.1) that was really good but it only covers about a third of a normal statistics course (the rest is coming but probably too late for you to profit from it this semester). If you're having trouble with regression and histograms and things it might be really helpful!
posted by mskyle at 12:55 PM on March 28, 2013

Considering that the final is coming up, it might be worth it to see if there are old copies of it floating around, preferably written by the same prof. You may not do well on the Final, but you'll have some sort of idea of what the questions will be, and what to study for.

As for studying techniques, it might be worth it to just consult with a general school math tutor to get some basic studying techniques down.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:02 PM on March 28, 2013

Best answer: You must, must, must stop catastrophizing. I know that you know this.

I did this with a course back in college. I catastrophized so much that I made myself sick and cried and shook like a leaf and cold-sweated through sheets and had the worst anxiety attack of my life (it lasted through three full sleepless nights). I convinced myself that if I did poorly in the class, I would never get into graduate school, and if I never got into graduate school I would never make enough money to pay down my debt, and if I never made enough money to pay down my debt . . . you get the idea. I, too, never, ever had test anxiety prior to this specific class.

You have to make a concerted effort to stop these destructive patterns of thought. A watered-down version of mindfulness meditation worked for me. To wit: "I'm freaking out about X test! I'm going to fail! If I fail I will never get into X school, and if I don't get into X school my life will be ruined!" When this happens, stop. Put down what you are doing. Grab a cup of tea and take several deep breaths. Let yourself feel the emotions you are feeling. Acknowledge the panic and the fear and take some more deep breaths. When you are steadier, take a step back from your imagined catastrophe and examine the fallacies in your reasoning.

First, on failing. If you fail (or get a C, or whatever "failure" represents to you in this context), it is not the end of the world. You can retake and retake and retake this class until you understand it and get the grade that you want to get. Perhaps you're thinking, "But I want to get into nursing/public health school next term, and if I don't get in next term, OMG that will be horrible!" But listen, it won't be horrible. Loads of people take lots of time off between educational stages. You will be all right, and your dreams will not be trashed - just deferred for a very short while.

Second, this comment - At least one of the local programs I'm looking at requires a B in stats for admission, and that's not even the most competitive one. - gives me a whole lot of pause. I was so much like you (or at least, the part of you that this comment reveals to me) for many years. I reached and reached and worked and struggled and gave my blood and body and brain all in the quest to reach the top of my field. And you know what? I reached the top, and the most prestigious door is currently wide open to me, and I have absolutely no interest in walking through it. Now, I would give everything I have to go back and tell myself that wanting the top just to want the top, just to get the personal validation that YES I AM SMART AND CAPABLE is not the right reason to sacrifice yourself and make yourself sick over grades.

Who cares if the program that requires a B is not as competitive as the one that requires an A? What does that really mean, when everything shakes out? Your education is, in no small measure, what you make of it, and you sound so motivated where having a fulfilling career in your field is concerned. I officially give you permission to believe in yourself - really believe in yourself - and in your ability to build the life that you want, whether you are educated at the most competitive local nursing school or the least competitive one.

The pressure you are putting on yourself is fully within your control, and my guess, based on my own experience, is that it ultimately comes from a part of you that you've buried very, very deep down. It's the part that whispers shitty things to your subconscious and prevents you from ever really taking the reins in your own life, even though judging by every outward indicium you've got everything handled. Deal with the catastrophizing and the rest will click into place (as you, I suspect, already know it can).

Please memail me if you'd like to talk more.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 1:43 PM on March 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

Does your instructor hold weekly office hours? (They'll likely be listed on your syllabus, or on the course website if you have one.) If so, go to office hours religiously and ask all your questions, even the ones that go "So, [topic] … I really don't understand where to start." Having been both a student and a graduate TA, I can confirm that office hours usually end up as small-group or one-on-one tutoring.

If not, try calling, e-mailing, or speaking to your instructor before/after class, tell them you're having some trouble and really want to understand the material better, and request a weekly meeting with them outside of class. Office hours are standard practice in my experience of college-level courses, and I've definitely made use of the "free extra tutoring" aspect of them to get through tough courses.

Another thought: Maybe you and one or two other students could split the cost of a private tutor and do a small-group thing?
posted by snowmentality at 2:06 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Where is your instructor in all of this? I would definitely email your instructor with a request to set up a time to meet to go over your past exams. Also your instructor "should" be a resource for you and your classmates. It might take some experimenting to see if asking questions during class (wait... professor so do you mean X), before/after class, one-on-one, or via email is the most helpful way to get help from your instructor.

A math professor once gave me a "rubric" of sorts that you might find helpful. I would make a table with the following columns:

Things I got| Things I didn't get and didn't know| Things I didn't get and should have gotten| Points lost

This would help me sort out what I knew and didn't for the final exam.

When I have been in similar situations I try to get the big picture and break what I need to know into small steps.

Have you tried making an "outline" of the course so far? Use your syllabus, textbook (table of contents), and class notes to list the general topics (and their respective types of problems). For each type of problem write out a general "how to solve" guide. As much as possible give a reason for each step. Then, do several practice problems of this problem type. If you are having trouble identifying problem types on the tests, then put a few more example problems for this "problem type." You don't necessarily need to solve these example problems, but the idea is to see enough of each problem type to identify patterns.

Right now this class sounds overwhelming. But you are making a great start. Take a few deep breaths. You have great motivation and study habits. The stereotype threat is real.

For me the best mindset for this type of situation is the following: If you say you can't... well then you can't. However, if you say you'll try, then you will end up further than you dreamed possible (or at least further than if you never tried at all).
posted by oceano at 2:09 PM on March 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Considering that the final is coming up, it might be worth it to see if there are old copies of it floating around, preferably written by the same prof. You may not do well on the Final, but you'll have some sort of idea of what the questions will be, and what to study for.

Be careful with this; some professors/schools may consider it an honor code violation. It is often perfectly fine, and many profs will release old tests as study guides, but many others also specifically forbid looking at old exams, to save themselves the hassle of coming up with new questions every year. If you're not sure, ask your instructor.

I'll second the notion that you will likely get something out of consulting with a general math tutor, not necessarily one that specializes in statistics. If you've never seriously studied math before, your understanding of more general concepts may be what's holding you back. Are you confident in your understanding of algebra? Graphs/charts/data visualization? The concept of a function? Cartesian coordinates? Fractions and percentages? Matrices and vectors? These are all things that perfectly intelligent people frequently have trouble understanding, and which may be holding you back in your statistics class.

politikitty's advice to "tak[e] the mathy gobbledygook on faith" is good. Math is very much a language game, but a different kind of language game than you're likely used to. Mathematical definitions are very specific and rigid, and don't necessarily have anything to do with the everyday usage of words. Don't get too bogged down in terminology; ultimately, the words used to label concepts are just that, labels. If you wanted, you could call standard deviations "Freds" or "cookbooks" or "Lord Chancellors", and it would be fine, as long as whoever you were talking to used the same word.

You say you're doing well in your biology class? Wonderful! There are lots of applications of statistics in biology. Really, we couldn't have biology without statistics. Your bio textbook may have statistics problems in the exercises, or maybe even a chapter or appendix about biology and statistics (look for words like "Biomathematics" or "Biostatistics"). Tying statistics to something you understand well may help both elucidate the material and ease your anxiety.

Also, this is kind of a side note, but the following phrase jumped out at me (emphasis mine, of course):

But the thing is, I badly need my grade to be good, and I badly want to understand the material. As a person who wants to do public health work, I know full well how important stats are going to be in my future, both for school admissions and for work. Although this class doesn't present it well, the actual process of study design is fascinating to me.

This is wonderful. There are lots and lots of people in all kinds of jobs who really ought to understand statistics in order to do their jobs well, but don't, because they don't give a damn about how numbers and data actually work. The fact that you actually care about understanding the material and using that knowledge correctly speaks very well for you. A book you may enjoy is How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff; it outlines some of the most common ways people use bogus statistics, or misleading presentations of data, to push agendas. It won't help you ace your final, but it will help you understand how to use statistics correctly and ethically in your work, particularly when dealing with the public.

posted by Commander Rachek at 2:11 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Good call, Commander Rachek. I didn't even consider the possible honor code violation aspect; I've only attended schools where this was OK (and a couple of them have them on their class website!).

In that case, I'd try to set up meetings with the professor during their office hours.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:16 PM on March 28, 2013

Best answer: I second people about meeting with your professor.

Also it says you want to go into nursing or public health? Does that mean that you have to just pass this class (I'm guessing with a C) or do you have to do better to qualify for that secondary education course? - I know all schools kind of tackle that differently.

It does also sound to me like you probably DO understand the material and are working harder than most students. The majority of my math/statistics/finance/accounting classes were filled with C-grades.

Try talking to administrators, students, or counselors for the program you want to go into. You are putting tons of emphasis on this course, yet maybe you may not need it in the real world as much as you think. If this is something that they teach again in your upper courses then you will have another chance to learn it.

From my experience you don't actually use math as much as teachers say you do. There are stats programs for that where you enter your numbers and tell it to give you an answer. Therefore if you are going into work that routinely uses statistics you just need to understand the basics so you can enter it into a computer program that they probably use. Unless you are all-stats-all-the-time you won't be doing things by hand like you do in school. You are also already using some of those sources to learn it seems like.

This is also coming from someone with a BS in Business Administration, graduated with honors, and I do internet marketing which routinely deals with analytics and numbers, but guess what I don't have to calculate the percent change in visitors to someone's website, Google analytics does it for me.

Also, after you graduate, nobody cares about your grades as long as you pass and know your material. It's great to have a goal to do well but I probably could have graduated with a 3.6 or higher if I tried more but squeaked by with a 3.4. Both are graduating with "honors" at my school so in reality there is no difference. That also depends on what other education you may want to do depending on your line of Public Health.

Keep your future goals in mind and know that school is a stepping stone to those goals but your C in one class is not the Be All End All to you as a person or how smart you are.
posted by Crystalinne at 2:46 PM on March 28, 2013

Also, Stats is HARD, dude. I took a stats class at my university to fulfill my math requirement and had to late drop it because I was going to fail it. I will never forget that when the professor signed the late drop form, he smirked and said, "couldn't cut it, huh?" That guy was a dick.

But I actually aced the next math class I took and I think that part of it was because I totally changed the way I studied. I don't know if this is exactly how you operate, so if not, just disregard, but it really helped me: as a humanities major (who did great in her humanities classes, and worked hard in them), I got accustomed to being able to put off the reading. Not until the last minute, but until I was able to get to it. I could read all of it the day or so before the next class and be cool -- like you, I could basically write my way out of whatever. But with my math classes, I had to do the homework every single night religiously. It doesn't matter if my classes were only two days apart. I had to do it the same night as my lecture for it all to actually click, because the lecture would make sense in the room but then leak out of my head by the time I sat down to do the work three days later (I am not good at math). But if I did the work right after the lecture, it would sort of cement it. I remember talking to my dad about this -- he's a math wiz -- and he was like, "yes of course you do." And I was like, why didn't you tell me this when I was getting a C in algebra?!

Try not to freak out, but also work on your stats every single day. The more you study it, the easier it gets. Don't shut down, just think of it almost as like...going to the gym.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2013

Best answer: Hi ActionPopulated. I am an epidemiologist (but not, of course, your epidemiologist). Stats is a big part of every day of my job, and speaking from almost 10 years of experience in this field, I am not a statistical genius, or wizard, or whatever. I don't read a methodology article full of equations and think, "Why yes, of course, that makes perfect sense!" The biggest part of my job is applying stats to real life data, so I need to understand what models or tests to use with what type of data, depending on what exposure or outcome we are investigating. While recently, due to some fantastic mentorship on the part of my bosses, I have been learning more about the math that underpins each model we use, in reality my job is to understand what - statistically speaking - is appropriate and when. For example a binary outcome (dead, yes/no) can be modeled with logistic regression. If time to death is important, we use a Cox model. It's really basic. Working with real data is so much easier than studying theoretical stats in school.

So what I am saying is: Relax, learn what you can, focus on the big picture, and be aware that the vast majority of what you really learn will be at work, applied, and using real data. And have fun!
posted by lulu68 at 5:22 PM on March 28, 2013

This is a great link. http://www2.webster.edu/~woolflm/tips.html
posted by tiburon at 5:49 PM on March 28, 2013

I was embarrassed when my stats instructor gave me this book, but darned if it didn't help.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:57 PM on March 28, 2013

When you go to your professors office hours, tell him/her that it's not just a case of not understanding some concepts, but that you don't even know how to study for the class. I know it sucks to admit something like that, but it sounds like it is the case. And I feel I can say that because I failed my freshman humanities courses because, essentially, I didn't know how to write an essay. I had skated by in high school, but I really didn't know how, and was about as anxious about the whole thing as you sound.

Take a chapter/concept that you didn't understand, and ask him/her for suggestions on how to read the text, how to pick out what's important, how to outline it. Take an old homework problem and work through it with him/her. Hopefully your instructor isn't one of the lazy ones who hates students (they're out there), but most teachers do want to teach. I've taught Stats 101 and I appreciated when students were open with me about what problems they were having.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:39 AM on March 29, 2013

It sounds like if you are labeling your behavior "catastrophizing" you are already aware it stems from a cognitive distortion, but you are still convinced you're looking at reality-based outcomes of getting a C. If it helps to know, my close friend had quite poor math/stats grades and GRE scores, and has still gone to top 5 programs for her MPH and PhD. I recall one school admitting her conditionally, requiring a B in some math course over the summer. Other schools at the same level did not have this requirement--just because one school you like claims to strictly require a B, doesn't mean any school at or above its level requires the same. There is also the possibility of retaking stats for a better grade if you must, and many schools will look favorably upon the effort and the latter grade. Not all, but you're not looking to win 'em all here (you shouldn't: admissions can be unpredictable in the best of circumstances), just to find your way into your desired career. My friend has had very real stats understanding challenges, but has made it through her grad courses okay. Keep your head up and try some of the many study suggestions here, and when you catastrophize, counter every panicked thought with the generous interpretation of likely outcomes you would believe and tell a good friend *if* x failure even really comes to pass.
posted by zizania at 7:12 AM on March 29, 2013

When I took statistics before nursing school I had severe anxiety for all math classes. The way I got past it was to think of Stats as a game. Exam Day became Game Day. Thinking about the problem solving as a game to play made it easier at first, then after I got a little skill behind it, it became fun. Practice made me better. Just like a game.

Also you're learning another valuable skill right now that will help you a lot as a nursing student and a nurse: how to deal with large, overwhelming, catastrophic, stress. By breaking down what you need to do into immediate steps right now you're learning how to handle a crisis. What you do is only focus on the step that is immediately in front of you. Today I need to get through this chapter of the text. Right now I need to finish this problem. At this moment I need to separate this part of the problem. Things in the future like getting into nursing school, work as a nurse are far away from the problem at hand and not involved in the immediate problem to solve (or game to play).

If you think about the big picture - I won't get into nursing school if I don't get an A in this class, I'll never be a public health worker - it's too heavy and it just all closes down on you. You got to stop that thinking. All you need to think about is the immediate task at hand.

Good luck, you can do this. Just take a breath, ask yourself what's my first step, utilize your support network and ask questions. All things you'll do when you're a public health nurse.
posted by dog food sugar at 7:43 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to teach a statistics course to potential nursing students. It resembled mathematics in some ways but not the ones that made it potentially understandable.

Mathematics, at its core, is logical, but the logic behind statistics is too "advanced" to teach nursing students so instead these courses teach recipes. The goal was to be able to recognize which recipe one needed in a particular situation. You recognized it by various commonalities, not by the underlying logic.

Only they don't tell you this. Instead they talk to you as if what they're saying is understandable and makes sense. In fact, recent studies of the statistical arguments made in actual scientific studies showed that a significant percent of the inferences were invalid and the underlying tests were misused. So, you're in good company if what they tell you doesn't quite seem logical.

So start approaching the course as more of a memorization/bag of tricks type of class. Learn it by pattern matching rather than logic. It's not your fault if you don't get it because it's not presented in a gettable way. Those student who never expect to understand stuff have an advantage over those who need things to conform to minimal logical concepts because they just memorize the patterns.

I don't teach those classes any more. Now I do psychotherapy.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:35 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

This might have been mentioned already, but I'm finding this useful - it's the University of Bristol's Centre for Multilevel Modelling's online course (free but requires registration).

"Our LEMMA (Learning Environment for Multilevel Methodology and Applications) online multilevel modelling course, contains a set of graduated modules starting from an introduction to quantitative research progressing to multilevel modelling of continuous and binary data."

The first few modules are basic, not sure about later modules, and the whole thing might not be what you're looking for, but a) some of it might help, and b) in one of the questions in their faq they list some resources that might be helpful to you and you might not have come across before (under the headings 'Online Resources' and 'Books' within that question/faq entry).
posted by you must supply a verb at 8:22 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For anyone who may encounter this thread later; I did end up meeting with my professor, and she was a lot more sympathetic than I thought she'd be. If anything, the meeting gave me a lot more sympathy for her, and gave me a lot of insight as to why she seemed...not entirely on top of her game in teaching my class. (Poor woman had five sections of different classes, including my difficult stats section and a bunch of remedial classes.) Did not as well as I'd hoped but more than passing on the last test, aced the final project, walked away scraping by with a B. I'm good until biostats--yes!!
posted by ActionPopulated at 5:11 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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