What is the point of statistics and operations research?

22 May 2012
The End of OR at UC
5 June 2012
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Students like to ask what use something is.

What is the point of what we teach?

“But what use is this?” Through the ages, maths students have whined this to their frustrated teachers. Generally the question is a diversion tactic, to avoid work, but sometimes the question is genuine. It is helpful for teachers to have an answer worked out ahead of time. (“Be quiet and get on with your work!”, isn’t really sufficient) It is preferable to present the material in such a way that the use is so obvious as to devalue the question. And it helps if the material really is useful.

Students like to ask what use something is.

For many teachers the curriculum is a given. They teach what they teach because it is in the textbook, in the exam, in the teaching guide, in the (I’m very sad to say) standardised tests. (The evils of standardised testing are a subject for another day, and don’t really fit with this blog. See Diane Ravitch’s blog if you have any doubt.)
But I have been fortunate to be able to design my own curriculum. Designing a quantitative methods course from a green fields (or is that scorched earth?) starting point is an intriguing challenge. I didn’t have a totally free hand as we had to fit with the standards for an accounting accreditation body. But it was free enough. It made me think about what is important. What is it that I think all students with a business/commerce degree should be able to do? What attitudes would I like to inculcate? What don’t they know already, but need to? I wanted to be able to say exactly why each topic or skill was included. Interestingly the “But what use is it?” question has never come up. In five years of teaching a total of nearly two thousand students, not once has any of them questioned the worth of the material.
Our curriculum includes solving linear equations and plotting graphs, percentages,

Students like seeing things as useful

probability, data representation and, of course, inference. In each instance the practical application is taught before the abstract method. In probability, real and business world examples are used, and in inference we use data generated by the students themselves. All is taught using Excel for calculations, and we even do Pivot-tables and charts.
Quantitative Methods courses are challenging because of the wide range of prior preparation. We take in students who are very good at mathematics, and have already studied some statistics. They may need to be taught the non-exact side of it. We also have students who have been out of formal schooling for some years, and may never have felt confident with numbers. There is always diversity in attitudes, diligence, confidence, competence and prior understanding and misunderstanding.
You cannot turn someone into a statistician in one entry-level statistics or quant methods course. But you can help them to become statistically literate, and critical consumers of statistical analysis. You can demysify the whold process. There are just a few big ideas in statistics, and if students grasp them, they are well on their way to statistical literacy, and possibly statistical critical consumption. This is a good goal for a first-year business statistics course.

Operations Research course

Designing your own Operations Research course is also a challenge. The type of content can depend on the context. Is it in an MBA course, an engineering school or a school of business? Again the prior preparation of the students can dictate the level of material and mode of delivery. Our Management Science course is an optional entry-level course for business students. We spent considerable time deciding what would be of most use to the majority of students who will probably never take another Operations Research course, while at the same time enticing some of the students to do so.

Role of the textbook

The easy way to design a course and select content is to follow a textbook. This is a tried and true method, which has led to uniformity and stagnation. Textbook development is like a snowball rollling down a hill, collecting more and more material and never casting off expired and out-of-date topics and approaches. Designing a course on a textbook stifles innovation and creativity.
The unfortunate off-shoot of designing an innovative course is that the fit with a textbook can be difficult. You may end up needing parts of different texts, to write your own, or as we do, not have a textbook. In these days of bespoke textbooks, and increasingly anxious publishing companies, it is possible to have a book made which included parts of different texts. Universal electronic publishing will make this much more practical.


The payback for designing your own course is great. You know that each topic is of worth, and fits with the rest of the material. You know the Why of your course, as well as the What and the How. You can be convincing when you tell the students how important it is. And that makes a difference.

1 Comment

  1. […] so that we can project into the future, usually for economic reasons. There is no question of “Why are we doing this, Miss?”, as the purpose of the analysis is […]

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