Data analysis is essential to many fields, but there are often instructional barriers in the social sciences which prevent its teaching.
The Ithaka S+R report “Fostering Data Literacy: Teaching with Quantitative Data in the Social Sciences,” authored by Dylan Ruediger and Danielle Miriam Cooper, examined the use and teaching of data analysis in the social sciences. Ithaka S+R is the research arm of the ITHAKA not-for-profit which aims to help “the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.
“Some social sciences disciplines have long been dominated by quantitative research. In others deeply-ingrained traditions of qualitative research have coexisted, with varying degrees of tension, with quantitative research methods,” the report reads. “As a result, undergraduates enrolled in social science courses have significant opportunities to practice quantitative and data analysis at increasing levels of sophistication.”
The report, released in September, based its findings on interviews with social science faculty, and found that the instructors often decide what methods and software to teach students based on necessary career skills.
“Encouraging students to see complexity and nuance, and perhaps as importantly to recognize when arguments are built on biased, distorted, or even malicious data, was repeatedly described as an essential pedagogical goal by instructors,” the report reads.
The process of teaching students how to use analytical software and locate data requires hands-on learning and large amounts of instructors’ time. Teaching assistants and liaison libraries were also cited as influential in instructing students how to locate information and apply analytical software due to the intensive nature of the subjects.
“Perhaps the most common hurdle students face is their anxiety around math, a barrier that instructors tackle with a combination of empathy and carefully designed assignments that allow students to develop confidence over time,” the report reads. “When seeking assistance outside the classroom, students favor informal resources such as web tutorials and data competitions to the formal resources offered by various university units.”
The report recommends that libraries create resources, guides and courses, as well as hold events, for students to be able to learn essential skills, and that departments explore the possibility of altering curricula to include research methods, as well as continue to allow for opportunities for experiential learning.
Dylan Ruediger is a senior analyst with Ithaka S+R’s Libraries, Scholarly Communication and Museums program.
Danielle Miriam Cooper is the director for libraries, scholarly communication and museums at Ithaka S+R.