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Hi, I'm Professor Andy Field. I'm Professor of Child Psychopathology and I teach Research Methods and Statistics in the school of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

What is it like learning about statistics in Psychology?

Learning about statistics at the University of Sussex is really not as scary as you might imagine, so in Psychology for example, we don't assume that anyone coming onto our degree programme has any prior experience of statistics and really we're geared up to teaching you from first principles and just assuming, basically, you know nothing and we're going to teach you everything that you need to know.

We also have a lot of good support mechanisms in place, so the typical structure of the teaching is you'll have a lecture from someone like me, a member of faculty, and then they're supported by lab classes where you'll be taught by postgraduate tutors. So even if you find the idea of being taught by a professor kind of scary, which it's obviously not because we're just normal (well, relatively!), our postgrad tutors are only a couple of years older than you, some of them have been through our degree programme before and they're now doing further study, and they're really nice, friendly people and they can really empathise with the fact that you might be a bit scared about doing statistics and they'll give you lots and lots of support.

We also have a mentoring scheme as well, so in your second year, for example, you can apply to be a mentor of the new first year students in Research Methods and Statistics and the role of the mentors is very much again to offer support to any students who are struggling and just to really be a body of people who can say, "Well, we did this/ it's possible to do/ we got good marks/ it's all going to be fine/ have a cup of tea/ chat about what you're going to do" and hopefully not give you the answers to the course work!

How does statistics relate to the rest of my course?

One of the things that I think psychology students are most surprised about coming into their degree is the fact that they have to learn statistics, especially if you haven't done A level psychology, your perception of psychology as a subject is probably that it's not a scientific subject and, to be frank, people sometimes think that psychology is all about laying on a couch and talking about your mother or something like that, but actually psychology is a scientific discipline and we take the scientific element of it very seriously, so all of the courses that you do are based on evaluating evidence, being able to collect data about a question that you might want to answer and then drawing conclusions about what's going on. So the whole of psychology is based on statistics, research methods, doing experiments, testing out theories.

So essentially your Statistics and Research Methods course, it's the spine of the subject,

it's the spine of psychology, it's the central nervous system and every other topic in psychology stems from that basic core subject. So you cannot learn about cognitive psychology, for example, without knowing how to conduct experiments, without knowing how to test theories. You can't understand social psychology also, without knowing how to test the theories you have.

If you want to know why crowds behave differently to individuals you have to put that to the test, collect data, do an analysis on the data and then draw conclusions. So really,

Research Methods and Statistics is absolutely fundamental to the subject of psychology, you can't understand anything about human behaviour without knowing about statistics and research methods.

How can I do well at statistics?

The way to do well on your statistics' course is essentially just to practise. So, nothing that we teach is fundamentally that difficult and nowadays - you know, if you were learning about statistics fifty years ago you'd all be sitting there with an abacus or a piece of paper or something doing all these horrible hand calculations but now we have nice computer software that does all this, basically does all the hard stuff for you, so it's more about interpretation and just looking at different examples and seeing how you apply statistical methods in different situations and then how you interpret the results.

So there's nothing fundamentally that hard about it and one of the things I think that's really good about statistics, especially if you're studying it in a different discipline like biology or psychology or something like that, is it's really a topic where there's no reason at all why you can't get 100% on a statistics' paper. If the answer is right, the answer is right, you get the full marks, it's not like writing an essay where there's potentially some subjective judgement about what you've said. The answer is the answer, so you know I think in way, statistics is a topic you should embrace as one you can do very well on and many students get their best marks in Research Methods and Statistics, much to their absolute amazement because often when they come into the course they would probably think that would be their worse subject and it turns out to be their best subject.

The way to get those good marks is, as I said before, really simple it's just practise, practise, practise, it really is a case of ‘Practise makes Perfect' and we provide lots and lots of different examples that you can use. I have a website, for example, that has podcasts and demonstrations and datasets and a whole world of resources that help you to just practise using the skills that you've learnt in your lectures and your lab classes.

But also, generally at the University of Sussex, we're quite committed to e-learning, we have Study Direct sites, which is a learning environment and many other lecturers, not just me, will have resources on these sites - datasets, practise examples. So basically, you have every opportunity to really try things out, if you don't understand them go back to your tutors in the seminars and say, "Well, I was alright with this question, didn't quite understand this one", and work through it and you will all do extremely well, I'm sure.

Are there any other benefits of learning about statistics?

I think one of the interesting things about statistics that people don't necessarily immediately  think of is that it's quite an important transferrable skill because if you look at any newspaper, any TV broadcast, the news, everything really, they're always throwing numbers at you or throwing facts at you and often throwing science at you: "Scientists have discovered this, that and the other" and by learning about Research Methods and Statistics, you are in a great position (a position that many other people in the world are not in), which is to evaluate that evidence, to be able to use your critical faculties that you've developed over your degree, to actually say, "Is that right or is the media spinning me a line?"

This is a slightly trivial example: at the time we're filming this, the Football World Cup has just stopped and there's been lots and lots of stuff in the press about ‘Paul, the octopus', who allegedly can predict, very reliably, the results of games. So this octopus was predicting various matches by essentially kind of wafting over to a food tray. He had two food trays, they'd put the flags of the two countries in the match on the food trays and he would swim along to one of the boxes and that was his prediction. Now, arguably, he just had two boxes of food and he was just swimming over to one of them, but the fact is, he kept getting the answers right, so he kept feeding from the box with the flag on of the team that won the game.

And the press were making a big deal about "The clairvoyant octopus, the octopus can tell the future, he can predict matches". Presumably the octopus is going to swim off to the betting shop and earn millions of pounds with his clairvoyancy.

But the fact is, there was never any real data, there was never any evidence presented that his predictions were any more than you might expect by chance. Now, as someone who has studied even very basic statistics as part of your psychology course or your medical degree, whatever course you're on, you're in a unique position, in that if you even know a little information, just how many matches he got correct and how many matches he didn't correctly predict then you can basically ascertain, statistically, whether his predictions were more than you would expect if you were guessing. So if he was just randomly going to a food bowl how often would he get the answer right, versus how often he actually got the answer right.

There's a very simple test you can do and you would then know: are the media just getting a bit excited about this or does the octopus actually have the power to predict football games? Now obviously, being a bit of a ‘saddo', I've done this, I know the answer to the question but I'm not going to tell you unless you come to my lectures!

This page includes links to resources to help you with statistics at university. They should be used as additional material and not as replacements to attending lectures. These resources include paper based materials, videos and interactive resources.


Second year Psychology

View Veronika's student perspective


Statistics is definitely an important part of Psychology. It's a course that we have every term in every year. A lot of people find it scary but I think that that's the main problem with it is people see it as like maths and think "Oh they couldn't do it at school so they won' be able to do it". But if you think of it as a tool for analysing your data and you can actually see how it is being used then I find it easier to actually learn and understand than I did in school. And also we have tutorials every week where they actually take you through it step by step and you have a lot of help available if you really do struggle with it.

External on-line statistics resources:

Statistics HellA collection of statistics resources created by Andy Field, Professor of Child Psychopathology at the University of Sussex (see video of Andy above). This link page links to introductory statistics materials for Psychology students.
Statistics videos and lectures

A series of You Tube video tutorials and recorded lectures created by Andy Field.

HyperStat Online Statistics Textbook
This is an online textbook which covers a range of topics, including, probability, confidence interval and hypothesis testing.
Statistics Glossary
This glossary is ideal to have as an additional resource to use while you are learning statistics.
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