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Teaching statistics in a medical school during the Covid-19 pandemic

Dr. Chao Huang, FHEA, CStat, Senior Lecturer in Statistics, Hull York Medical School

The Problem

As a senior lecturer in statistics in a medical school, the first thing I realized is statistics is not a popular topic for medical students. When year 3 and year 4 students were given opportunities to choose their research projects, research topics not requiring statistical analyses, such as undertaking a systematic review or qualitative study were preferable. Conversations with students and project supervisors indicated that the students were less confident in handling data and undertaking statistical analysis.

In this sense, basic training on handling data and undertaking statistics analysis would be beneficial. I fully understand that some students may think statistics are too complicated and that they may think statistics is not a subject relevant to medicine. Well, it is true that statistics is not a straightforward subject. However, it is indeed very relevant to medicine. Nowadays evidence-based practice has become essential in a clinician’s day to day work. When seeing a patient, clinicians identify, appraise, and apply the current best evidence to inform the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. This means our next generation of EBM-oriented medical students should be equipped with necessary quantitative knowledge and skills.

But how do we make learning statistics more enjoyable?

At first, we need to recognize that the learning outcomes for medical students are quite different from those for maths students. They are more concerned with the practical usage of statistics rather than statistical calculation and proving. Also, medical students would like to link usage to the clinical world.

I therefore used this principle to structure a new module with lectures in statistics and practice sessions. I chose to teach students on how to use SPSS for statistical analysis, which is a comprehensive data analysis package, and quite user friendly. Essentially, it is an appropriate choice for beginners with limited knowledge in statistical software and computer programming. I set this course in a computer lab-based classroom, aiming to provide supportive learning environment. Each session starts with a lecture on statistical concepts, followed by practice on how to undertake these analyses in SPSS.

This module was embedded into our Scholarship and Special Interest Programme (SSIP) Phase I programme for 2nd year medical students, which was firstly delivered in the 2019-2020 academic year. Because of the extraordinary 2020, the first-year teaching of this module was deemed not ordinary, for which I would like to share my experience as follows:

  1. Mentimeter is useful. I first heard about Mentimeter from our university’s e-Bulletin in the summer of 2019. It was announced as a real time interactive tool that can collect student answers and feedback via a live webpage. So, I experimented with it using pre-session quizzes, during which I prepared questions on what had been taught in previous teaching sessions. It helped me to assess the learning outcomes and resulted in good student recall and retention on key learning concepts. Most importantly, the students liked it! The student answers were totally anonymous, and the aggregate answers can be collated for teaching quality assurance and future module refinement.
  2. The students like real world practice. To facilitate students in understanding statistics and orientate them to interpret statistical results, real research datasets were adopted as working examples. Also, we organized a mini conference to practice on presenting statistics. This was scheduled at the end of term 2 as a formative assessment. To imitate the academic environment, this assessment was carried out as an invited session in a research conference. I acted as the session chair and each student acted as an invited speaker, who was given 10 minutes to present, with 2-5 minutes question time. The mini conference was well received by students who welcomed this new more authentic assessment approach.
  3. As a consequence of the pandemic, all the sessions in semester 3 had to be swiftly moved online, which caused anxiety and confusion at the beginning. After receiving the notice, the first thing I did was to find the instructions on how to install SPSS into personal laptops and pass it to students. I then followed the imminent guidance to build a student cohort in Microsoft team and inform my students the new arrangement of lessons through Microsoft teams. At that point none of us had used it for teaching and learning. So together with colleagues who were teaching in semester 3 we arranged a test session in advance, which proved to be very helpful. I was less worried but still concerned on whether the student would join the first online lesson. It turned out that all the students attended the first online session without any technical issue (except one student who lost the signal at the end of the session because her father accidentally turn off the wifi!). My experience demonstrated that the students are quite capable of handling online teaching techniques as least the same level as lecturers, if not better.

At the end of this module student feedback was collected. In general, they felt the course was comprehensive and easy to follow. One constructive suggestion was to provide a template for the formative presentation, which has been incorporated into the module this year.

Photo by Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash

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