Idea Changer : Scott Maxwell



For those students who think statistics promises a dreary class filled with mathematical equations, Scott Maxwell offers a bit of a surprise. “Statistics is really a different way of viewing the world,” the Matthew A. Fitzsimon professor of psychology says.

Maxwell thinks that statistics classes are too often taught as a set of formulas. “Ideas get left out,” he says. Statistics can change ways of thinking, he points out, because they offer mathematical “proof” of certain beliefs. “It’s a logical method for changing your ideas,” he says.

As a quantitative psychologist — one who specializes in designing the mathematical work for research projects other professors wish to pursue, Maxwell says he has “the best of both worlds. Creative faculty experts come up with questions, and I contribute the methodology to answer the question.”

And sometimes in the course of designing projects with other faculty members, he does change his own ideas. He and fellow psychology professor George Howard, for instance, have done several studies on the validity of student ratings of teacher effectiveness. For one project that compared the validity of rating teacher effectiveness by five common methods — ratings provided by current students, former students, the instructor’s self-report, a colleague’s report and trained observers — Maxwell says, “I had expected that trained observers might be best.” To his surprise, the study revealed that students and former students provided more valid ratings than the trained observers.

“You need to collect data to really understand something,” he points out. And while he cautions that a single study should not affect policy decisions, he believes that the common university method of relying on trained observers to evaluate faculty for tenure decisions might need to undergo some changes, perhaps to give the student evaluations similar weight with the trained observers.

It’s this and other studies that make Maxwell so fond of his job. “I’m in many ways a generalist,” he says. “I really like the diversity it brings.”

He also likes the balance at Notre Dame between research and teaching. “In my previous job, the only thing that mattered was research,” he notes.

Now he tries to show students how psychology and statistics work together, how collecting data can provide answers to many knotty issues. And there’s a moment in every semester that provides the payoff. “I try to get the students to say, ‘Aha, I understand that now,’” Maxwell says. “That’s exciting.”

He’s also excited about the movement in colleges and universities to show the relevance of statistics, their broader importance. “To be an educated consumer,” he says, “you really do need to understand about statistics.”

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