Three Fun Activities for Teaching Statistics

A MiddleWeb Blog

We will soon be under a new set of standards for mathematics in my state. The new standards focus heavily on statistics, so naturally statistics has been a popular topic of conversation in our math communities lately.

I have heard so many teachers say they’re nervous about teaching statistics. I understand the feeling – I felt the same way when I started teaching AP Statistics about six years ago. At the time, I didn’t realize how great and useful and fun statistics could be. (I might be a little biased!)

Tried and True Activities to Make Statistics Fun

Knowing some teachers feel uneasy about teaching statistics, I thought it might be helpful to share activities I like to use. Although I teach AP Stats, many of the CCSS-related standards covered in AP Stats are also found in 6th, 7th and 8th grade in a more simplified form.

Measures of center (mean and median) and measures of variation (range, standard deviation, etc.) fall into that group. So do box plots, histograms, and dot plots. I think the activities I’m recommending here will transfer well to the middle grades.

Allow Students to Create their own Data

All of the standards mentioned above require students work with sets of data. The temptation when teaching these topics is to give students a set of numbers, which is quick and easy. That is exactly what I did for the first few years of teaching statistics.

I wasn’t sure what activities I could use that would tie into our standards and grab my students’ interest. It took about three years to build up a catalog of activities that required some trial and error.

Some activities I thought my students would love have not worked out (I’m looking at you, fruit roll-ups linear regression activity). But I learned early on that students are much more invested when they can create their own data, so I kept searching and trying out different ideas.

What I am sharing below are the activities that met the double test: they helped my students learn about statistics, and they had fun doing it.

A Word of Caution: After working through many data collection activities, I have learned that some activities can embarrass students or make them feel self-conscious. I now steer away from activities that divide students by gender, or anything to do with height or weight, for example.

SKUNK

(Useful for discussing basic properties of probability. Data collected from game can be used to create box plots, histograms and stem and leaf, and to calculate mean and standard deviation.)

I learned about this activity from our state science and math center when I was doing my student teaching. SKUNK is a game where students accumulate points when rolling a pair of dice. The teacher rolls two dice. (I use dice on my Smartboard – if you don’t have an interactive white board here is a website that simulates rolling dice.)

We play 5 rounds, one for each letter of S-K-U-N-K. At the beginning of each round, all students stand up and I roll the two dice. As long as a student is standing they earn the points rolled, so if I roll a 2 and a 3 they earn 5 points. BUT if the number one is rolled, any student who is standing loses points for that round. If I roll double ones and a student is standing, the points for all rounds are lost.

So a student will stand until they feel like a “bad roll” is coming (a one or double one). Once they sit down, they won’t lose any points but they won’t accrue any more points either.

This is a great game for discussing probability, but I l also like to use it to gather and describe data.  We can use the points they earn during the game to gather classroom data to create boxplots, dot plots, stem plots, or histograms. I recommend doing this activity the first week of school – it’s a good kickoff and you’ll be able to use the data throughout the year. This year Skunk is one of the few activities I felt safe doing in person because students were standing at their own desks and could still stay socially distanced from each other.

(This NCTM page for grades 6-8 explains the game of Skunk and provides additional resources.)

Blind Stork Test

(Create box plots, stem plots and histograms. Useful for discussing outliers)

I found this activity on Sarah Hagan’s blog, Math=Love. The activity requires students to time how long they can stand on one foot with their eyes closed. Simple right? I wasn’t sure how my students would respond but they loved it! They got very competitive. The students wanted me to do it too, and it’s harder than it sounds!

In my class, we used the data they collected to create box plots. On Sarah’s blog she explained that she had her students create a box plot, dot plot, stem and leaf, and histogram. If you decide to do this activity, you can visit Sarah’s blog where she has files that accompany the activity that you can download. As a bonus, this activity can also be done while social distancing. When we did it in my class this year, the students stood at their desk and timed themselves with their cellphones.

Dollar Store Puzzles

(Useful for calculating z scores or using the data to create box plots, histograms, or dot plots)

Another activity my students loved was timing themselves putting together simple puzzles. I went to the dollar store and bought 30 of the cheap $1 puzzles (they don’t have a lot of pieces), and then the students timed themselves putting the puzzles together.

My students were super engaged! I was actually surprised to see high school students enjoying putting together puzzles meant for much younger kids. We used the times they recorded to compute z-scores, but the data could be used to make box plots, histograms, or dot plots.

Statistics + Fun Activities = Engagement

I really love teaching Statistics and my students enjoy it too. But it’s taken a few years to find activities that really engage them and also reinforce the statistics standards they need to learn. I hope you can use one of these ideas in your classroom. And if you have great Stats activities that you are using, please share in the comments below.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell (@michel1erussel1) is a math teacher at Florence (AL) High School. She began her career as a student teacher in middle school and has taught students from 7th to 12th grade. For the past 13 years, she's taught high school math, including Algebra IB, Algebraic Connections, Pre-Calculus, AP Statistics, Algebra with Finance, and Algebra 2 with Trigonometry. In her free time, she enjoys reading books about math education and following other teachers on Twitter.

2 Responses

  1. Michelle, I’m a science teacher, but reading your article makes me want to teach math. I wish I had had a math teacher like you along the way. I think it would have changed my relationship with math!

  2. Michelle J Russell says:

    Thank you so much! I love teaching stats because you can do all these fun activities.

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