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Students’ experiences of learning statistics in a threshold concepts-enriched tutorial programme.

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Fear and anxiety often characterises students’ feelings towards studying statistics. As such, high failure rates and concerns about the quality of learning and teaching in introductory statistics is a preponderate concern in the extant literature. Set against the backdrop of the South African educational landscape, these concerns may be compounded by the challenges posed by the gaps evident in students’ key academic literacies. There is a need for deep qualitative understanding of students’ learning in statistics, and of ways in which it may be facilitated. This calls for an alternate framing than the one inherent in the quantitative investigations of performance that predominate in statistics education research in this country and internationally. Therefore, this study adopted the threshold concepts framework (Land, Meyer, & Flanagan, 2016; Meyer & Land, 2003) - a theoretical perspective that offers an encompassing view of disciplinary learning not previously used in this context – in order to explore statistics students’ learning in a higher education tutorial programme. This qualitative, interpretive study, was informed by social constructivist principles in teaching and learning as well as research methodology. The case study was set in a threshold concepts-enriched tutorial programme based in Business Statistics II at the Durban University of Technology, and attended by seventeen volunteers from the mainstream class. Interactive Qualitative Analysis (Northcutt & McCoy, 2004) was used to generate and analyze data through a rigorous protocol involving focus group generated affinities (themes) reflecting students’ learning, from which a system diagram was constructed. The characterisations or fundamentals of the affinities were elaborated in individual interviews, supplemented by participants’ written reflections. Elements gleaned from the discussion threads posted on the study participants’ WhatsApp group chat served as a source of data-triangulation and confirmability of the IQA protocol generated data. Together the data provided rich descriptions of learning in the voices of the student participants. The primary driver of learning was the Tut Group affinity — pedagogies and peer interactions in the tutorials— which influenced the other affinities: the Journey of Understanding through cognitive and metacognitive constructs to the Personal Journey participants related, and the Emotions which permeated and influenced the course of disciplinary learning. The comprehensive nature of this representation of learning and the influences among its features offers an idiosyncratic mind map of the complexity and variation in students’ experiences of disciplinary learning. The thesis offers a visually rich and in-depth conceptual representation of the experiences and processes of disciplinary learning in the threshold concepts-enriched tutorial programme. This study’s findings, abstracted from participants’ descriptions, offers a tentative model which depicts disciplinary learning as a challenging and transformative process - a pedagogical pilgrimage - bringing on cognitive (mind) and affective (soul) shifts in students’ disciplinary learning journeys. In this case study, the multiplicity of pedagogies used in the tutorial programme - small peer-group learning, the use of real-world, relatable activities which incorporated the generation of real data, the keeping of reflective journals, being handed the solution to tutorial activities; and teacher immediacy – collectively supported the ‘DNA’ (cognitive and affective constructs) of disciplinary learning. Moreover, if the discipline, as experienced, elevates students’ sense of self, students will aspire to engage in deeper, more meaningful interactions with disciplinary concepts, and will harness their inner psychological resources to sustain academic commitment, thereby facilitating cognitive and metacognitive shifts. This view of learning can open up a vista of understanding of what it means to learn and to teach in statistics, in particular, and in higher education, in general.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.