Context as Action in the Teaching of Statistical Concepts: An Activity Theory Perspective

Context as Action in the Teaching of Statistical Concepts: An Activity Theory Perspective

Helen Harth (Loughborough University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2026-9.ch022
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The teaching of statistics at university to non-majors is an under-research area of statistics education. This chapter investigates what characterizes the context of teaching statistics at tertiary level. To do this, the chapter takes an activity theory perspective to situate the teaching of statistics within the activity of learning. The data consists of observations of statistics lectures from one statistics for Psychologists module and interviews with the lecturer. The data was analyzed using activity theory as an analytical tool and theoretical perspective. As expected, context in this statistical module was about the scenario or story relating to a dataset used in problems, exercises or examples. In addition, the lecturer moved between multiple (or parallel) contexts with different, possibly conflicting rules, tools and communities. The findings add to the work on understanding context in learning statistics and provide insights into its complexity and multi-faceted nature.
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Literature Review

This study sought to address key issues related to the theoretical perspectives described in this section in relation to the observations of lecturers teaching statistics. This section therefore presents the theoretical bases of this study investigating the teaching context in statistics education based on cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) known as activity theory. It starts with explaining the concept of activity within activity theory followed by a brief presentation of the components of an activity system and the concept of contradictions that characterize it. Finally, this section proposes a conceptualization of context within this theoretical perspective. The theoretical constructs in this section are used to justify the analytical tool based on activity theory for analyzing this qualitative dataset described in the next section.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Inferential Statistics: Makes predictions about a population of scores using only the information contained in a sample of scores. A t-test for example would estimate if the difference between two samples is real, i.e. too large to have occurred by chance. The information required are the mean score of the research variable, the variance and the sample size for each of the two samples.

Statistical Investigation: It has as goal learning within a context-situation which involves processes such as synthesizing existing and new ideas from a context to better understand the statistical analysis and possible emerging interpretations.

Activity System: From an activity theory perspective, an activity system is the minimal unit of analysis for understanding human actions. The components of an activity system include the subject (individual or group) from whose point of view the activity is analyzed and the object (the individual or group who is acted upon) and the dynamic relations among them mediated by various artifacts (sings, tools, instruments). This basic structure (subject, object, artifact) has been expanded to include other meditational elements of rules, community and division of labor.

Context: In this paper, context has multiple meanings. First, it may refer to the macro-level environment, situation or circumstances outside the lecture-theatre or classroom seen as a nested set of societal, cultural, historical and institutional influences on the teaching and learning of statistics. Second, the macro-level context influences and gives meaning to what is happening at the micro-level context, within the lecture theatre where the lecturer and students interact with the artifacts (e.g. lecturer discourse, slides, statistical techniques, problems, software, other people). At the micro-level, the statistical tasks, problems or examples may be set in a context-scenario. The lecturer’s teaching of statistics in the lecture theatre takes intellectual and affective meaning from all the separate contexts in which it is intertwined to result in meaningful learning by the students, who are also actively engaged in the activity. In summary, context is about the relations between the teaching and learning of statistics within the environment of the lecture theatre, at the micro-level and the influences on these relationships from outside the lecture theatre, at the macro-level.

Lecturing: In this paper, lecturing is about teaching by giving a talk on inferential statistics in front of a class or a group of students. Lecturing is also about all the lecturer’s actions in the lecture theatre, the discourse, gestures, interactions with students, content and teaching materials (including slides) used in the lecture theatre. Lecturing may be synchronous (e.g. students assimilate concepts and ideas during the lecture) or asynchronous (i.e. students work on materials before or after the class).

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) or Activity Theory: A theoretical framework with origins in several disciplines (psychology, philosophy) for studying the culturally, historically and socially mediated processes of how humans purposefully and continuously transform natural and social reality, including themselves.

Vygotsky: A Russian developmental psychologist who was the founder of the cultural-historical activity theory. One of his main arguments was that human development is mediated through signs and symbols (tools, artifacts, instruments) that encompass the history of the relationship between a stimulus S or a subject and a response R representing an object.

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