K. Slootmaeckers

Why are social science students afraid of statistics? In society numbers are omnipresent. Media, corporations and politicians overwhelm people with quantitative information. Numeric skills are important to avoid deception and to function in society. By consequence, these skills are also important for social science students to grasp and understand social reality. We see, however, that these students tend to avoid quantitative methods and even fear them. If quantitative skills are becoming more important in society and social science, how can we understand this statistics anxiety? And more importantly, to what extent is this statistics anxiety a barrier preventing students from developing a constructive and critical attitude towards data?

In light of the ‘Educational Project on Overcoming Statistics anxiety’, – initiated in the Political Science department of our university – we conducted a survey with all students enrolled in the political science programme. This survey contained the Survey of Attitudes Toward Statistics (SATS) scale. For the third year of the Bachelor programme and for the Master programme a measure of quantitative skills was included as well; this data is used to map statistics anxiety and its covariates. In addition to merely identifying the anxiety-inducing factors for the whole population, we will compare the different years in the program. This also gives a perspective on the evolution of statistics anxiety throughout the program.

In the second and main section of the paper, the focus shifts from statistics anxiety as dependent variable to statistics anxiety as an independent variable and as a barrier to learning statistics. Many studies on the effects of statistics anxiety focus on the relationship between attitudes towards statistics and the grades obtained for statistic courses. The inclusion of a measure of quantitative skills for students one or two years after their last statistics course enables us to expand the focus and to test the effects of statistics anxiety on long-term retention of statistics. This cross-sectional study will provide new insights into statistics anxiety as a barrier to long-term learning of quantitative methods.

This paper, a first step in a longitudinal analysis of statistics anxiety, contributes both to the understanding of the origin and the effects of statistics anxiety. Furthermore, it provides first insights into the evolution of statistics anxiety throughout the programme and more importantly, into statistics anxiety as a barrier to long-term learning. A longitudinal follow-up study will test the causality of these findings.