Bell-Ringers: Sneaking Fun into Stats

Posted January 29, 2018

By Janet Peters

For all you stats teachers out there – this one is for you.

TLDR: Negative student attitudes towards statistics can make teaching an already difficult course feel impossible. By incorporating bell-ringers into your weekly routine, you can sneak some applied material, opportunities for practice, and a little bit of fun/humor into your class without using a minute of class time.

The Difficulty of Teaching Stats

I don’t know about you, but I love statistics. I see the concepts in every news article I read, in every decision I make, and in every Facebook quiz I take (which, according to my most recent quiz, I’m 63% Beyoncé, and only 32% Taylor Swift. Who knew?). Unfortunately, the average student does NOT feel this way about statistics (at least in my experience).

Instead, I have found student opinion regarding statistics to be an impressive amalgamation of disdain, fear, and resentment (since the course is required). Indeed, research shows that students tend to have high anxiety and low perceived utility when it comes to taking stats courses. This is the disheartening reality with which anyone who teaches statistics is familiar. If you’ve never had student resistance to statistics and are only familiar with excited, eager students, you can stop reading here, this blog post is not for you (but please email me and share your secrets).

If you’re still reading, we agree that teaching statistics is hard. We want the class to be fun, engaging, informative, useful, and applied. Unfortunately, since we have limited time with our students, we must prioritize those goals. Consequently, we focus on information and memorization, which leads our content to become dry and abstract; we forget to show students that statistics can be fun and meaningful. It is no surprise then, that we undermine our primary goal of student learning and end up driving them away from quantitative courses.

So, what can we do? Obviously, this is a complex question that requires a systematic, multi-faceted response. I can’t give you that (at least not in this short space). However, I can help you take one step in the right direction. Bell-ringers are bite-sized practice problems that are designed to be fun, applicable, and don’t take a minute of class time. No, they aren’t a silver bullet – improving negative perceptions and/or getting rid of math anxiety requires a lot more intervention, but they are small, actionable behaviors that can improve student outcomes.

Example A: This is an example of “Stats in the Wild” wherein a statistical concept is illustrated by an everyday occurrence that a student might experience. Here, you could have them interpret the shape and variability of the distribution. Fun, quick, and applied practice.

What are Bell-Ringers?

The phrase “bell-ringers” is a term I borrowed from primary education. I haven’t found a formal definition of the concept, but the general consensus seems to be that bell-ringers are activities that elementary, middle, and high-school students complete at the beginning of the class to help students get focused after break and to serve as a “warm-up” to the class content.

I was intrigued by this idea and spent the next several semesters figuring out a way to make them work in my class. I’ll spare you the details of my epic failures (in class I would call those “developmental opportunities”), but those developmental opportunities led me to finalize my idea of bell-ringers as 1-2 sentence responses to a visually appealing picture (see below for an example). Essentially, the most important realization I had is that bell-ringers aren’t exams; I don’t need to grill the students for proficiency. Instead, I want to give them a chance to practice previous content (to facilitate retrieval practice) and to improve their attitude about stats by using funny and applied content.

Example B: Around the holidays, I like to get festive with my bell-ringers. An example prompt for this image: In one sentence, explain why this is a scary Halloween decoration.

Why I like Bell-Ringers

The Logistics: How I implement “Bell-Ringers”

The Goals

  • Help students apply and engage with the material
  • Provide low-stakes opportunities for practice and retrieval
  • Added bonus: Get students to attend class (and arrive on time!)

Materials

  • Pictures, memes, or any other creative media you might find (videos, songs, etc.)
  • See the “Where to find Bell-Ringers” section near the end of this article for a list of resources to help you get started

Implementation

Below, I outline my approach to bell-ringers. I have a small class (roughly 20 students), no graduate student TAs, and typically 1-2 undergraduate TAs. The needs of your students may be different, so you should adapt this in a way that works for you and your students.

  • Set-Up
    • Each day, in the 1-10 minutes before class (as students enter the room,) I project one of the “bell-ringer” images up on the board.
    • I use jokes, memes, or even pictures from everyday life that I call "Stats in the Wild" (see example C).
    • As students enter the room and take their seats, they take the few minutes before class to explain how the image applies to concepts from class; usually just a sentence or two. By the time class starts, most students are done and have turned it in to the class TA.
    • To promote retrieval practice, I encourage (but do not require) that students complete the task from memory. 
  • Time
    • I keep the prompts very brief to ensure the responses can be completed in 1-3 minutes.
    • However, depending on the depth of the prompt, I will occasionally give them one or two minutes of class time if necessary (but I don't like to use class time unless I need to).
    • For me, this is the main benefit of bell-ringers: they sneak in practice without giving up precious class time.
  • Potential Adaptations
    • You don’t have to stick to images, you could use songs, video clips, popular novels, etc. For example, when reviewing the scales of measurement, I have a special edition “Disney Bell-Ringers” wherein the students identify the scale of measurement for different Disney scenarios (e.g., the length of Rapunzel’s hair; Ariel’s decision to be a human or a mermaid). I pull a lot from popular culture because I think it’s fun, but I make sure the prompts are written in such a way that the answer does not rely on knowledge of the movie/story/character/etc. For example, you don’t have to be familiar with the story of Rapunzel to know that length of hair is a ratio variable.
    • If you have an online class, you could post these as discussion questions to facilitate student discourse.
    • For more advanced students (an upper level stats class), you could flip the assignment, wherein the students themselves are assigned to find the images. It takes a higher level of learning to identify statistics in everyday life. 

Grading & Policies

Example C: This is one of my favorite images to use because it is so abstract – a perfect example of “Stats in the Wild” that makes students think. Easier prompt: Explain how this picture illustrates normal distributions. More difficult prompt: What course concept does this picture illustrate?
At the end of the semester, I pick 8 random days and give students a half-point of extra credit per day that they completed the bell-ringer (so they can earn up to four points).

Since the goal is to get students engaged with the content and trying to get them to think about stats outside the box, I grade these based on effort and completion. In my experience with these assignments, if the students are worried about their grades, they are less inclined to think creatively (and thus rely more on definitions, which undermines the whole goal of critical thinking and application). Plus, grading based on completion allows my undergraduate TAs to help. This is a win-win for me and the students – I can provide the students with the opportunity to practice course concepts and receive formative feedback without substantially increasing my own workload (though finding the pictures the first time through can be time consuming. Lucky for you I’ve given you a head start with access to a Google drive shared folder; see the “Where to Find Bell-Ringers” section, below).

I don’t allow make-up bell-ringers because they are extra credit and there are several opportunities throughout the semester to earn points. However, if a student is short on time, I always allow them to turn their response in later that day (to the class TA, under my office door, etc.).

Overall, I have found that the combination of formative grading, extra-credit, and flexible deadlines means I receive very few emails (complaints) about missed activities. Of course, you should use policies that work for you and your students!

Where to find these bell-ringers?

I find them everywhere – Pinterest, blogs, Reddit, Facebook, my everyday life, the list goes on. If you don’t spend as much time online as I do (and I hope you don’t), I’ve compiled some potential resources and tips to help you get started.

  • First, I created a Google Drive folder with several images I have used in the past (I rotate them based on what I find interesting, relevant, and funny). Please feel free to access this shared folder and I encourage you to contribute to it! If you are interested in contributing, I have created a “Community Bell-Ringers” file that you can add images directly into - I would love to see what you are doing in your classes!
  • Second, I follow the amazing “Not Awful and Boring Statistics” by Jessica Hartnett (she’s a genius). She updates weekly with all sorts of interesting stats content, so definitely worth following, even if you hate everything I have said about bell-ringers.
  • I also use content from Shit Academics Say (I follow them on Facebook to make it easier) and STP’s teaching website.
  • Finding them on your own
    • Pro Tip #1: Finding images is an area where you could leverage your more advanced undergraduate TAs. Assign them to find 3-5 pictures you could use – it forces them to think about the content and it helps you accumulate source material to use!
    • Pro Tip #2: You can also leverage the power of your students! Once they get the hang of the bell-ringers style, you can create an assignment that has them find their own bell-ringers related to the chapter/content that was assigned. I have received many an email over the years from students who stumbled across a stats meme or “stats in the wild” (they observe a concept related to stats in a really unique or abstract way). 

Conclusion

Teaching stats is not for the faint of heart. We do it because we love it, and it’s about time we share some of that passion and intrigue with our students! One way to do that is to incorporate funny, abstract, and visually appealing materials that force students to think outside the box and explain concepts in ways that go beyond memorizing definitions. Bell-ringers can help you do that!

Bio

Janet Peters is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at Washington State University Tri-Cities. She received her PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University. Her current research interests center on effective pedagogical practices, particularly as they relate to the teaching of Introductory Psychology, Statistics, and Research Methods.