This summer, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on analytics. I’ve been trying to get a better feel for what I can expect of my research students and where I can better train them. I think that my research students are now getting to the point that they can often (but not always) generate meaningful figures on their own and interpret them properly. Can I expect more? Should I expect more?

Over the summer, I’ve seen a high number of papers and blogs related to the problem in reporting p-values in published research without some estimate of an effect size (of which, my favorites include the February write-up in Nature and the very recent post on FiveThirtyEightScience). I’ll be honest: I’ve been slow to get on board with reporting effect sizes in ** my own research** and I’ve done a worse job incorporating this into the way I train my research students. In part, I’ve not done this because the simplest forms of calculating effect sizes (e.g., Cohen’s d) don’t always explicitly translate to the type of statistics that I use with my data (i.e., multiple variables that are analyzed using regression based statistics such as mixed-effects models) and obtaining, and correctly interpreting, things like beta coefficients from these types of models is difficult [at least in R]. Nonetheless, I understand and agree with the critiques associated with the search for p < 0.05… but do we properly train or students in statistical interpretation or are we facilitating the problem in the way that we teach statistics?

In a brief “survey” on this topic via Twitter and Facebook, a few [N=5; admittedly low power] of my colleagues from Allegheny and other institutions chimed in and I was happy to see that 3 of them stated that they have at least 1 lecture in which they explicitly teach basic effect sizes using Cohen’s d and/or the use of confidence intervals; 1 stated that there is an emphasis on devaluing on p-values when reported alone. However, I imagine that if I were to choose a Biology student at Allegheny and provide them with a figure and a p-value of 0.03 and asked them to interpret the figure, they would proudly exclaim, with little hesitation, that there is a significant difference between treatment x and treatment y [and I have a hunch that this type of answer would extend to Psychology students and probably Economic students as well]. I’d be very surprised if they ever questioned statistical power or even brought up anything close to a critique on the result because of the lack of an effect size.

So, for those of us who do not teach stats, how do we emphasize the importance of effect sizes with our research students? Is it something that we attempt train them with? I can’t imagine even one of my better students sitting down and running a mixed-effects statistical model, such as a zero-inflated negative binomial model, on their own. Asking them to do that plus correctly pull out the standardized regression coefficients for each predictor would be insane. Or, do we train them with the concept and provide them with a completed statistical analysis?

For those of you who do teach stats, how do you incorporate this into undergraduate level statistics courses? If you do teach effect sizes, do you integrate them into every analysis or do you show them effect sizes in one or two occasions and leave it at that? If the latter, what prevents you from training students correctly?

For those of you who are faculty who mentor our undergraduates as graduate students, what are your expectations for statistical knowledge for an incoming student? What would you recommend as focal points for statistical training at the undergraduate level?

Best wishes to all of you as you start the new academic year.

-Venesky

*UPDATE (8/27)
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*Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking about stats with undergrads over the summer. Joan Strassman over at Sociobiology blogged on a similar topic earlier in August that I did not see (I was largely out of the blogging scene over the summer while working with my students).*