When in Doubt, Write it Out!


When I mentioned university teaching, a friend of mine told me the story of sitting in a class for many weeks diligently reading the textbook about “z-scores” and listening to the professor talk about “cee-scores”, only to realize a few weeks in that the two terms both referred to the same statistical test. Knowing that there was only one computation made deciding which to use no longer an issue and simplified assignments and tests.

A common challenge in teaching statistics is the uses of Greek letters that may not familiar to English-speakers: a Chi-square test and the symbol χ² seem very unrelated. A similar obstacle is faced by students in courses with non-English words (especially non-Roman alphabets), including linguistics, languages, history, religion and others. My partner, for example, remembers having difficulty in a course on Chinese religions matching what the instructor was talking about and the concepts discussed in the readings.

An easy solution is to write key words and formulae on the boards beside the projection screen, embed them in your PowerPoint slides, or list them in handouts. Unless the instructor’s goal is for students to develop the skill of using trial-and-error for matching verbal and written representations, the most effective approach for teaching the Chi-square test is to connect the spoken “Chi-square” with the symbol and then talking about the mathematical basis and practical uses of this statistical test.

Chi-SquareThere are three benefits of writing out unfamiliar words and symbols that I would like to highlight:

1) Reduce confusion

Just as the examples illustrate, there is a risk of a disconnect between spoken names and symbols. What do students mis-hear or mis-write in your discipline?

2) Demonstrate the importance

In addition to clearly pairing written and oral representations, writing on a board draws students’ attention through the movement and your expenditure of time and effort. It shows the symbol-verbal match matters to you and to your discipline’s dialogue, and it should matter to them. What symbols and words are part of your discipline’s conversations?

Einstein's blackboard

3) Enable multiple ways of learning

Writing and speaking has the added benefit of communicating often complex terms, formulae or steps through multiple modalities. Not only does using multiple modalities help students with particular preferences for oral or for written, it benefits all students as everyone learns best when information is presented and then reinforced through multiple modalities.

In short, writing out symbols when speaking them is good for students from diverse speaking backgrounds, good for students with accessibility needs, and good for all students!

Chi-Square picture courtesy of Carolyn Hoessler.
Einstein’s Board picture courtesy of Garrett Coakley.