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Dreaded Statistics Class: Because It's Challenging Doesn't Mean It Has To Be Hard

By Keith Morelli

Ron Satterfield

TAMPA (July 7, 2017) -- There are students – a few – who actually relish the chance to enroll in a business statistics class. They enjoy the cold comfort of hard-and-fast numbers, how those integers relate to one another and the clarity they possess when fully understood.

There are students who excel in statistics classes – a few – who take that knowledge and apply it in their professional and maybe even personal lives.

But most students cringe at the thought of having to take a statistics class. Some break out in a fevered sweat reminiscent of being called up to the middle school blackboard to solve an unfamiliar algebra equation. Their only hope is that they get lucky and scratch out a passing grade for the credits needed to graduate.

"I sometimes tell people I teach the stuff that nobody wants to take," chuckled Ron Satterfield, instructor in the Information Systems and Decision Sciences department in the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business. He is making it his personal mission to transform statistics into something a bit more warm and fuzzy for undergrads, master's degree and MBA students as well as doctoral candidates.

Satterfield is the first to admit statistics can be difficult for some, who find they have to go over the subject matter a couple of times before it sinks in.

"Sometimes," he said, "you just have to marinate yourself in it for a while, so it does help if the delivery is friendly, fun and relevant."

"I was very nervous about taking that class," said Laura Kneski, a marketing graduate student who earned an 'A' in Satterfield's stats class this past spring. "I hadn't taken a math course since the 11th grade and this was my first ever master's class.

"I was expecting the professor to be stern and unwilling to put up with somebody falling behind. I thought, if I'm struggling, it's all on me. I didn't know if I could talk to anybody in there, if I could get any help.

"Professor Satterfield comes off very kind; he makes jokes throughout his lectures and that eased the tension," she said. "He explained everything very clearly and talked about it several different ways, making it easier to sink in. He not only explained the math, but the reasoning behind it."

Making a difficult course one that is relevant and maybe even a little enjoyable is Satterfield's goal.

He admitted he was not always a whiz with numbers.

"As a kid, I hated math," he said. "I was convinced that they were making this stuff up as they went along. But over time, I found out that the reason I hated it was because I was seeing a lot of haphazard teaching. Very few of my instructors took time to explain a concept in more than one way; or to help me understand the practical uses of math; why I needed to know it. So, it came off as just so much gibberish to me.

"I try to be careful about those points in my teaching," he said. "I always explain not just the 'what' of an analytical technique, but the 'why' too," he said. "That helps students understand how business professionals make use of statistics and applications and how they, the students, can use it as well.

"I also recognize that when people come into my classroom, they are scared," he said. "They have had bad experiences with math instruction in the past and only a few might actually be looking forward to my class. So, I try to ease everyone into it. Just because statistics is challenging, doesn't mean it has to be hard. It doesn't have to be dry. It doesn't have to be humorless."

To help, Satterfield also posts his lectures online so that struggling students trying to complete assignments can refer back to those talks for answers. He also goes light on the theory and the mathematics of stats and heavy on the methods of application.

"When people walk out of there," he said, "I want them to have something they can apply to their jobs or lives immediately."

Statistics, for the most part, is a field in which little changes.

"I'm teaching some things that are several hundred years old," Satterfield said. "What is changing these days are the applications of statistics. Data analytics now is giving us new ways to apply the numbers to reach fast solutions to complicated problems."

Besides statistics, Satterfield teaches courses in operations management – his main field of study – supply chain and process improvement. His students include undergraduates, MBA and Executive MBA students, master's degree and doctoral candidates.

"The first day of stats, I was terrified," said Danielle Clark, a Doctor of Business Administration candidate and an adjunct professor at Nichols College in Massachusetts. Though she teaches critical thinking and business communication at the graduate level, she, too, was nervous about taking a statistics class. "My head was filled with doubt, anxiety and fear.

"Fast forward to an hour into Ron's class and I was literally tearing up with 'happy tears' because I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude," she said. "Not only was Ron warm, friendly and funny, he was also a fantastic teacher. I was easily able to follow what Ron was saying and immediately began to see how my newfound knowledge would apply to my dissertation and profession.

"The entire class," she said, "was fun, informative and practical."

Satterfield earned a PhD in operations management from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and an MBA and bachelor's degree in operations management from Eastern Illinois University. He joined USF in 1993.

"In the beginning, I was definitely intimidated," said Payton Gary, an undergraduate accounting major. "But (Satterfield) explained things so well and, for the first time, I actually felt like I understood statistics. I now search for statistics in news reports and am able to understand them more fully. And it's all because of this class."

Satterfield's teaching philosophy, when it comes to the very complex subject of statistics, is not all that complicated. After all, he said, statistics is not rocket science.

"What I do is just what I do," he said. "That is to try to keep it as simple as I can. One of our DBA students once told me he liked my 'kitchen table' approach to statistics. That's a good way to explain it, I think, like I'm talking to you over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. Keep it as simple as possible and focus on the practical use.

"And I try to keep it fun."