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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

Learning Statistics at the Farmers Market? A Comparison of

Academic Service Learning and Case Studies in an Introductory

Statistics Course

Bridget Hiedemann

Stacey M. Jones

Seattle University

Journal of Statistics Education Volume 18, Number 3 (2010),

www.amstat.org/publications/jse/v18n3/hiedemann.pdf

Copyright ? 2010 by Bridget Hiedemann and Stacey M. Jones all rights reserved. This text may

be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without

express written consent from the authors and advance notification of the editor.

Key Words: Business statistics; Experiential learning; Community; Attitudes.

Abstract

We compare the effectiveness of academic service learning to that of case studies in an

undergraduate introductory business statistics course. Students in six sections of the course were

assigned either an academic service learning project (ASL) or business case studies (CS). We

examine two learning outcomes: students? performance on the final exam and their perceptions

of the relevance of statistics for their professional development. We find no statistically

significant difference between ASL and CS students with regard to final examination

performance, but students who participated in the ASL project as opposed to CS were less likely

to agree that ?[they] will have no application for statistics in [their] profession[s].? The

estimated relationship is both large and statistically significant (p &lt; 0.01).

1. Introduction

To demonstrate the relevance of statistics, introductory statistics courses frequently include

projects in which students use statistics to analyze a real-world issue. In business schools, for

example, case studies (CS) are often used to illustrate the use of statistical analysis in a business

context. As an alternative to case studies, instructors are increasingly including academic service

learning projects in their courses to engage students in a real-world project. Phelps and Dostilio

(2008) usefully summarize the trend toward the incorporation of active learning and real world

experiences within the teaching of statistics. Hydorn (2007) presents a variety of models for

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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

incorporating academic service learning (ASL) in statistics courses. In an ASL project, students

apply newly acquired knowledge and skills to address an issue currently facing the community,

often working in partnership with a local non-profit or government agency. As noted by

Anderson and Sungur (1999), service learning is especially well-suited to statistics courses

because so many community organizations have data in need of summary and analysis. ASL

projects have the potential to increase students? appreciation of the usefulness of course material

by engaging students in a real-world project whose benefits extend beyond the classroom to the

community at large.

As the phrase ?academic service learning? suggests, instructors assign ASL projects both to

enhance student learning and to provide a valued service to the broader community. The existing

literature on the use of ASL in undergraduate statistics courses generally finds that participation

in ASL projects has a positive impact on student learning outcomes. Based on their experiences

with an optional service-learning project in an introductory statistics course, Root and Thorme

(2001) conclude that a service-learning pedagogy increases students? engagement, their

willingness to explore nuances, and their understanding of the material. Evangelopoulos,

Sidorova, and Riolli (2003) investigate the relationship between participation in ASL projects

and students? perceptions of the usefulness of the course material, their attitudes toward the

course, and their intentions to use statistics in the future. Their results suggest that service

learning enhances all three dimensions of students? attitudes toward statistics. Phelps and

Dostilio (2008) find that students who choose service-learning projects experience greater

enjoyment, social responsibility, and personal growth than those who choose traditional projects.

Nordmoe (2007) reports that participation in a service-learning project increased most students?

understanding of both the applicability and the usefulness of statistics. In a paper describing

their experiences incorporating service-learning projects in an advanced undergraduate statistics

course, Anderson and Sungur (1999) describe numerous benefits of this pedagogical approach;

for example, service learning ?stimulates inquiry-based learning? (p. 135) and highlights the

relevance of the course material.

The goal of this study is to assess the relative effectiveness of ASL and CS in achieving two

learning outcomes: 1) mastery of course content and 2) appreciation of the relevance of statistics

to a student?s own professional development. Our paper makes three main contributions to the

literature on the effectiveness of ASL in undergraduate statistics courses. First, the paper

directly compares the effectiveness of academic service learning (ASL) with that of case studies

(CS), a widely-used method of bringing real-world examples into the business statistics

classroom. By comparing the effectiveness of ASL to that of case studies, we are able to assess

whether the community service dimension of ASL has pedagogical benefits above and beyond

the case study.

Second, our methodology controls for several student characteristics in order to isolate the

impact of ASL. In particular, our models control for students? mathematics competence at the

onset of the course and demographic characteristics that might influence their performance in the

course or their attitudes toward statistics. With the exception of the structural equation model

presented in Evangelopoulos et al. (2003), our paper presents the only multivariate analysis in

this literature.

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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

Finally, our methodology limits the possibility of selection bias. While several studies have

found ASL to have a positive impact on student learning, in nearly all of these studies,

participation in the ASL project was optional, not required (Root and Thorme 2001; Phelps and

Dostilio 2008; Evangelopoulos et al. 2003). These studies therefore risk self-selection bias: if

only those students who found the subject matter of the ASL project compelling or only those

students already more engaged in their studies chose to participate in ASL projects, it is not

surprising that these students would ultimately express more favorable attitudes toward statistics.

Teaching several sections of a course in a single year provides a rich opportunity to compare the

effectiveness of different pedagogies. The data used here to compare ASL to CS come from six

sections of introductory business statistics taught across three academic quarters in 2008 by the

authors. In four of the sections, students were required to participate in ASL projects; in the

other two sections, students were required to participate in CS projects. When registering for

courses, students had no information about the type of projects they would be assigned; hence

there was no opportunity for self-selection into ASL or CS sections. One of the authors taught

both ASL and CS sections in the same quarter; the data thus include results from students

enrolled in sections that were near-identical in all respects other than the assignment of ASL or

CS projects. Once enrolled, no students in the study elected to change from one section to

another. The design of this study therefore permits us to compare ASL to CS quite cleanly as

compared to most previous studies in which students self-selected into service learning projects.

In comparing the learning outcomes of ASL students to those of CS students, we find large and

statistically significant differences between the two groups with regard to their perceptions of the

relevance of statistics to their professional development. We do not, however, find a statistically

significant difference between ASL and CS students with regard to mastery of the course

content. In particular, students who participated in the ASL project displayed significantly lower

odds than their CS counterparts of agreeing that ?[they] will have no application for statistics in

[their] profession[s].?

2. Course Projects

Case studies (CS) and academic service learning projects (ASL) require students to apply

statistical concepts and techniques to the analysis of real or hypothetical questions that they

might encounter in the business world. Our CS assignments ask the students to imagine

themselves as business professionals or statistical consultants charged with the task of using

available data or statistics to make a recommendation or provide information to a client or an

organization. One assignment requires students to act as statisticians hired to consult executives

of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. concerning allegations of gender discrimination (Konrad and Mark

2004a, b). With descriptive statistics on earnings, performance reviews, and job titles, students

address questions such as: Does the evidence suggest that the company has systematically

discriminated against women? What additional information might be requested by a judge or a

member of the jury in the class-action gender discrimination suit? Without access to the raw

data, students need to think critically about the statistics provided and what other statistics might

inform the various parties. Another assignment asks students to act as a financial advisor for a

client deciding whether to invest in one of two individual stocks or a portfolio consisting of the

two (Bryant and Smith 1998). The case provides 50 years of historical returns for the two

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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

stocks. Successful analysis of the case requires students to determine which methods are

appropriate for analyzing a portfolio of stocks and to apply these methods using Microsoft Excel.

As these two examples illustrate, the CS assigned in this course emphasize real-world

applications, interpretation, critical thinking, and communication to a non-technical audience.

The academic service learning project involves working with the Neighborhood Farmers Market

Alliance (NFMA) on a price comparison study. The NFMA is a non-profit organization whose

mission is to support Washington?s small farms and farming families by providing effective

direct sales sites for the region?s small farmers and by educating consumers about local farm

products and the benefits of buying directly from local farmers. ASL students work in

partnership with the NFMA to conduct a study comparing prices of organic produce at local

farmers markets to the prices of comparable produce at local grocery stores and food cooperatives. The NFMA aims to attract more shoppers by providing evidence that farmers

markets provide competitive prices as well as high-quality produce. At the beginning of the

quarter, a representative of the NFMA visits the ASL classes to introduce the organization and to

familiarize students with the issues of local food production and farmland preservation.

Following this visit, the class collects data on prices at the farmers market, grocery stores, and

food co-operatives over a two-week period. Students work in groups, with each group

responsible for gathering data at one location. Students then conduct hypothesis tests to

determine whether the prices at the farmers market differ from those in the stores and co-ops.

ASL students are given the option of reporting their results in one of three forms: a research

report to the NFMA, an article suitable for publication in the NFMA newsletter, or a

combination of a poster and a brochure for the class display at the farmers market. After

completing their projects, students return to the farmers market where they present their results

to the community. Media interest in the project has also at times provided opportunities for the

students to present their results to newspaper reporters and in radio interviews. The ASL project

thus includes working with the community partner to design the project, data collection, analysis

of the data based on concepts learned in the course, and verbal and written presentations of the

results to a non-technical audience.

3. Theoretical Framework

The experiences documented in this paper provide an opportunity to contrast the impact of

academic service learning (ASL) with that of case studies (CS). Both pedagogical methods are

arguably built on the theoretical foundation of experiential learning (Kolb 1984; Kreber 2001;

Silberman 2007). The experiential learning cycle involves four phases: concrete experience,

active experimentation, abstract conceptualization, and reflection. Learning comes about

through the integration of abstract conceptualization and concrete experience, coupled with

reflection on the experience.

Kreber (2001) argues convincingly that the case study represents an effective form of

experiential learning. An effectively taught case study engages students in a ?particular real life

situation as it happened in the past or as it could happen in the professional life of the student?

(Kreber 2001, p. 222). Case studies have the potential to allow students to apply new skills and

knowledge in an area of business or policy unfamiliar to them, going beyond course content to

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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

engage a specific, real-world issue. This concrete experience forms the basis for active

experimentation and the application of the concepts and theories being learned. The learning

experience is bound together through reflection, for example, when the case study forms the

basis of in-class discussions or student writing. Because the experience is generally confined to

the classroom, case studies allow students to experiment with new skills and take risks in ways

they might not in a professional setting.

Academic service learning shares with case studies a pedagogical foundation of experiential

learning. The student?s experience in the community, like a well-designed case study, provides a

concrete, experiential base for skill application. However, there are several important

differences between ASL and CS. First, in ASL, the concrete experience that provides the

background and motivation for the subsequent statistical analysis is real and present; in CS, the

background and motivation are often hypothetical or historical (although some instructors may

involve their students in real and ongoing business case studies). The ASL experience may

therefore be more vivid and engaging for the student. The real-life application of concepts may

make students more receptive to the methodological content of the course (Anderson and Sungur

1999).

Second, ASL students generally enter into a professional relationship with a community

organization, often a non-profit or government agency, in carrying out their projects, while CS

students remain in a student-teacher relationship with their instructors. ASL students often

interact directly with the organization and community members that benefit from their efforts.

ASL students may feel a degree of professional accountability to the organizations or individuals

with whom they work. If the project is not completed on time, or is not coherent or

understandable, the organization and individuals involved are ?noticeably and tangibly affected?

(Godfrey 1999, p. 372). ASL students may therefore be more motivated to perform timely or

quality work because the stakes are higher.

Finally, ASL projects produce both student learning and a valuable service for the community.

Students with little intrinsic interest in statistics per se may nonetheless be motivated to learn

statistics because it enables them to provide a valued service to others. Feldman, Moss, Chin,

Marie, Rai, and Graham (2006) and Keith (2005) emphasize the reciprocity between the

university and the broader community that underlies ASL. The design of the project, for

example, is motivated not only by the organization the class works with but also by the

pedagogical needs of the professor. The farmers-market project described here, for example,

was designed jointly by the professor and a local farmers market organization. Students may

come to see statistics as more useful because they see that their work serves the broader

community.

Do these additional attributes of ASL relative to CS?increased concreteness, professional

accountability, and service to the community?influence learning outcomes? Explicit course

objectives tend to focus on the mastery of course content. The syllabi for the statistics course

described in the paper list objectives such as developing ?a robust understanding of the

fundamental concepts of statistics? and ?the ability to communicate the results of statistical

analysis accurately and concisely.?

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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

Many colleges and universities, however, explicitly aim at achieving not only course content

learning, but the personal and professional development of the student. There is an institutional

hope that by some sort of synergy the overall college experience of students will be greater than

the sum of its parts. For example, Seattle University?s mission reads, ?This university is

dedicated to educating the whole person, to professional formation, and to empowering leaders

for a just and humane world.? The phrase ?professional formation? presumably involves both

the mastery of course content and the appreciation of the relevance of that content within one?s

chosen profession.

The aim of many universities to provide an educational experience that results not only in the

mastery of skills and knowledge but also in professional formation highlights the importance of

understanding whether ASL or CS is more effective in achieving this aim. For this reason, we

evaluate two broadly framed propositions:

1. As compared to CS, ASL is more effective in promoting the mastery of course content

learning?that is, learning related to course-level knowledge and problem solving skills. While

both CS and ASL represent forms of experiential learning, ASL arguably involves a more

concrete experience and greater professional accountability, as well as service to the wider

community. Does the additional concreteness, accountability, or service to the community

improve course content learning, as measured by final examination performance?

2. As compared to CS, ASL is more effective in enhancing students? appreciation of the

relevance of statistics to their professional development. CS projects are typically carried out in

class or submitted as a writing assignment for a professor. While students may be asked to play

the role of an expert or statistical consultant, this experience is simulated, not real. ASL,

however, puts students into a real setting where they are asked to use their newly acquired skills

to perform a service that benefits the community at large. Does the experience of seeing

statistics used to benefit the community enhance students? attitudes concerning the usefulness of

statistics and its relevance to their professional development?

4. Data

We rely on several sources of data to examine the relative effectiveness of academic service

learning (ASL) and case studies (CS) with regard to students? mastery of course content as well

as their perceptions of the relevance of statistics for their professional development. In

particular, we use responses to a background survey, scores on a mathematics competency exam,

responses to Schau, Stevens, Dauphinee, and Del Vecchio?s (1995) Survey of Attitudes Toward

Statistics (SATS), and final exam scores.

We administered the background survey and the mathematics competence exam at the beginning

of the quarter. The background survey includes questions concerning a student?s demographic

characteristics and academic background; the mathematics competency exam consists of 30

questions designed to assess students? proficiency with algebra and pre-calculus at the outset of

the course. The two surveys are included as appendices.

The SATS assesses four dimensions of students? attitudes towards statistics: affect, cognitive

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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

competence, value, and difficulty ( Gal, Ginsburg, and Schau (1997). Confirmatory factor

analysis based on a sample of undergraduate students provides validity for this structure (Schau

et al. 1995; Gal et al. 1997). For the purposes of our analysis, we converted the seven-point

Likert-type items from the SATS to five-point items to reduce the likelihood of small cell sizes.

Thus, in our version of the SATS, possible responses range from ?strongly agree? to ?neither

agree nor disagree? to ?strongly disagree.? We administered the SATS at the beginning and at

the end of the quarter.

As discussed in more detail in Section 5.2, our analysis of students? attitudes concerning the

relevance of statistics for their professional development focuses on responses to two items on

the SATS. The first of these items is positively framed, namely ?Statistics should be a required

part of my professional training;? the second is negatively framed, namely ?I will have no

application of statistics in my profession.?

We use responses to the ?post? version of the SATS to examine the relative effectiveness of ASL

and CS with regard to students? perceptions of the relevance of statistics for their professional

development. We use responses to the ?pre? version of the SATS to examine whether there were

any systematic differences in initial attitudes between students enrolled in ASL sections and

those enrolled in CS sections.

We collected background information, mathematics competency scores, and statistics attitudes

for students enrolled in six sections of the course over three academic quarters in 2008. As

illustrated in Table 1, four of these sections included an ASL project; the other two sections

included CS assignments. Professor B taught all of the ASL sections and one of the CS sections.

Professor A also has considerable experience teaching this course but taught only one of the six

sections offered in 2008.

Table 1. Characteristics of the Six Sections

Quarter Professor Form of Experiential Learning Enrollment

Winter

A

CS

35

Winter

B

ASL

39

Spring

B

CS

34

Spring

B

ASL

37

Fall

B

ASL

30

Fall

B

ASL

30

Most of the students enrolled in these six sections?201 out of 205 or approximately 98.0%?

completed the course. After excluding 28 observations with missing responses to one or both of

the SATS items used in our analysis and nine additional observations with missing mathematics

competency scores, the resulting sample includes 164 students. About 63% of the sample (104

students) participated in an ASL project and about 82 percent of the sample (135 students) were

enrolled in one of Professor B?s sections.

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Journal of Statistics Education, Volume 18, Number 3 (2010)

The design of this study limits the possibility of selection bias? due to students selecting into

ASL or CS sections or due to students choosing to leave or switch sections based on the type of

project assigned. Since students had no information when registering for classes whether ASL

or CS projects would be assigned, and since all students in a particular section were required to

participate in the same type of project, students had no opportunity to self-select into ASL or CS

sections. In addition, once students had learned about the type of projects they were assigned, no

students chose to switch sections. With regard to attrition, withdrawal rates were low in all

sections (two out of 136 or 1.5% of students enrolled in ASL sections and two out of 69 or 2.9%

of students enrolled in CS sections did not complete the course). Therefore, although the

assignment of students to sections was not randomized, no students were able to select into a

given section on the basis of the type of project assigned, and only a very few, if any, selected

out of a given section on the basis of the type of project.

As shown in Tables 2 and 3, the sampled students are diverse in terms of their mathematical

competence at the onset of the course, gender, and native language. Scores on the mathematics

competency exam range from 8 to 29 out of 30 possible points with a mean of about 22 points

and a standard deviation of over 4 points. Almost half (approximately 48.2%) of the students are

female and almost one fourth (approximately 22.6%) do not speak English as their native

language.

Table 2. Means and Standard Deviations of Mathematics Competency Scores

Variable

Full Sample

CS

ASL

P-Value

Score on 30-Point Math

22.24

21.82

22.49

0.35

Competency Exam

(4.44)

(4.34)

(4.50)

NOTES: St...

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