Monday, March 7, 2011

In Which We are Much Calmer

A few weeks ago I tried to chew through three chapters of Statistics in one weekend. I had two chapters legitimately assigned to me and I was trying to make my way through the third since I had to attend a conference the next weekend. It didn't go well and I spent the all the time between then and last night that wasn't already spoken for (which wasn't much) freaking out about Statistics.

Why were they making me try to understand all this math? I understand that as a business school student I should know something about statistics, but I didn't see how this Greek alphabet soup* they were throwing at me was going to help me understand anything useful.

Now I'm not dumb and I'm no longer a flaky undergrad who spends the afternoon reading Dykes to Watch Out For instead of doing her homework. However, if I find the subject matter I'm supposed to be reading impenetrable I have a really hard time staying focused. In addition I was feeling like I needed to do all the problems NOW! last week end or dire consequences would ensue.

But the biggest problem I was having is that I *can't* learn math by reading about it. I learn math by doing it. In order to do it, I have to understand it well enough to give it a shot and if my only tool for understanding "how to do it" is a textbook I'm going to have a few problems. I'd been aware of this before, but it didn't really become a fuse-melter until I tried to do 3 chapters of work in two days (and oh by the way the exam's next Monday.)

Last Sunday I was sitting in Gulu Gulu in Salem (a cafe where some of us go to get work done--having a study buddy keeps you honest even if your study buddy is doing something completely different than what you're doing) and I expressed my frustration to my study buddy.

"Take some time off."
"I can't-I'm out at a conference half the week already."
"Call that woman who tutors statistics."
"Unless she's free this very minute I'm SOL."

So I panicked, when I had time to think about Statistics at all. How was I going to get through this week's chapter *and* relearn the first 5 chapters before Monday the 7th? But then I finally got to talk to someone who knew something about statistics-in this case my dad. I had been reticent to ask Dad for help, even though he's taught statistics. For starters I'm 35 years old. I've kinda gotten out of the habit of asking my parents for help on my homework. The last time I asked him for help on Statistics I was in 9th grade. I'd ask him a question and he would answer it, but he'd give me the answer that one of his graduate-level psychology students could use and I was doing Fisher Price statistics. So he was less than helpful. However when he called to help me with Statistics this time things worked out much better than they had when I was a freshman in high school.

"Hi Dad, I hate Statistics."
"Well then they're teaching it wrong. Gimme a question to answer-gimme a hard one."
So I gave him the question I had spent 8 hours over the course of several days trying to understand. It was question number one on how to use Z scores on a normal distribution."
"Um, that's not a hard one, Cantabridgienne. That's as basic as it gets. If you're having trouble understanding that.."
"Yeah, I know I gots a learning disability I'm really, really bad at math."
"Well but if you can't get that concept.."
"Oh i get it *now*." If you spend 8 hours trying to learn how to do something, by the time you've figured it out you understand it well and are not likely to forget how to do it.
"Gimme another hard one."
"Okay what's a binomial distribution?" This was a concept that I had failed to grasp because it involved as many Pis as a bake sale.
"Oh that's where you have a coin and you want to know what the probability of getting 4 heads is if you toss it four times."
"Oh that? I know how to do that." (The probability of getting heads is always 1/2. To know what the probability of getting four heads you just take (1/2)^4. I bet even my poet friends know that.)
"Okay gimme another hard one."
"What about Poisson distributions."
silence for a few seconds. "Why are they teaching you *that*?"

Talking with Dad helped. For one thing, getting to discuss these concepts with someone who knew something about Statistics proved to me that I wasn't as hopeless as I'd thought I was (no matter how frustrated I'd been over the past week.) It also validated, to me anyways, that my inability to understand the material presented might have something to do with the textbook instead of it all being down to me being a bit dyscalculative. And it reaffirmed that having a tutor-someone with whom I could discuss these things and ask for help-would go a long way to alleviating my distress.

It was too late to engage one before this exam, but I have started the tutor engagement process.

In fact, after one conversation with Dad in which he clarified one concept to me and (inadvertently) showed me that I *did* in fact understand another concept I had no problem studying for the exam I took today. The problem sets that had taken me all day to go through the first time around took me maybe an hour, or an hour and a half apiece to finish on the second try (even the ones that had made me yowl like car-adverse cat on the way to the vet.) Once I gained some confidence and stopped being in learned-failure mode it all wasn't that bad. For starters, now that I was no longer panicking (I need to understand this right now because I have no time the rest of the week to work on this problem set) I noticed that while the textbook did present all sorts of nasty formulas involving e square roots I never had to do any actual math more complicated than A*B+C!/X*Y. Anything more complicated than that and Excel would do all the heavy lifting for me. While this is not a perfect solution (knowing how to use EXPONDIST doesn't mean you understand exponential distributions) it made me less panic-prone.

This experience reminded me of a few things I aught to know about myself by now.
1) Math is one of those things I learn by doing--reading about it doesn't help. There are other things I learn by doing that I can learn with a textbook (how to do cool things in Excel or Access) math isn't one of them. I need human help.
2) If at first I don't succeed I panic. This has been a constant theme in my graduate school career.

In general,if I can say such a thing I'm actually pretty comfortable operating in panic mode. I provide tech support to a small company. A good deal of that involves being crisis mode. I thought I was just going to run a couple of reports today, but no suddenly I need to upgrade the software on five different computers and when I'm done with that I need to call Comcast and yell at them about their failure at upgrading our service and when I'm done with that I need to talk to the Compliance Officer/The Bookkeeper/The IT vendor. So I'm used to panicking. It's normal for me.

However I'm experiencing problems because of my propensity to panic. Last December I was sure that I'd flailed Accounting. I got a B. Here I was sure that I was going to have to drop Statistics and re-take it (with proactive appointments scheduled with a tutor) and I got a B/B+ on the exam I took today.

I think some of this is a case of(to quote American Gods) "The kind of behavior that works in a specialized environment, such as prison, can fail to work and in fact become harmful when used outside such an environment?"(Shadow, American Gods Neil Gaiman 2001)

I don't mind panicking a bit if it gets me to study. What I *do* mind is having my perception of reality be entirely out of whack with actual reality. I like to think that I have a good grip on reality. But if my outlook on reality is that of Marvin the Depressed Android all the time I'm going to have problems progressing in my business life and my personal life.

Furthermore I have come to the conclusion that my tendency to panic is not entirely a result of my work environment. I just happen to work in a place (tech support in a small business) where the ability to work well while panicking is a good skill to have.

So to sum up. I am not failing Statistics. I am working on engaging a tutor and I really do need to do something about my propensity to panic. Other people might find it weird.

*Mmmm. Greek Alphabet Soup--garnished with feta and baby spinach.

1 comment:

dtm said...

Learning mathematics by reading most explanations of it is a bit like reading an SF short story collection and then trying to sell to Asimov's.

If you're lucky, your book will contain a lucid explanation that is the end result of a long "try this, no that didn't work; try something else" cycle that lays all the steps out in order as though choosing what to do next is as natural as breathing. If you're unlucky, the explanation will become forced and unnatural in it's adherence to a strict methodology that the authors made up themselves, and that they mistakenly think is just the one true way to do this kind of math.

In neither case are you going to be given an understanding of the path to the final explanation and the many revisions and reworkings that happened on the way to building the chain of logic that now marches from A to B. Nor are you likely to get much discussion of other viable routes from A to B or other routes that seem good initially but that must be abandoned for one reason or another.

So *of course* you need to do math yourself in order to learn it. Nothing else is going to get you to feel out the conceptual territory that lies right next to the territory of the book's tidy paths so that you can find your own way when you need to later.