Development of a measure on statistics anxiety in graduate-level psychology students

Development of a measure on statistics anxiety in graduate-level psychology students

Chris Piotrowski

Mathematics anxiety has always maintained a central focus in the education literature. However, there has been a recent focus on “statistics anxiety” as experienced by undergraduates. This paper presents the development of an instrument that assesses “statistical anxiety” in psychology graduate students. This measure was administered to 10 students enrolled in a graduate statistics course in an effort to refine the measure via student feedback. The refined instrument could be used as a screening tool for psychology students prior to taking graduate–level statistics course work; Such evaluation can assist instructors in identifying remedial need or counseling intervention.


Over the past several decades, there has been a high level of research interest in how college students approach the study of mathematics-related topics or coursework (Bessant, 1995; Schoenfield, 1987). Since 1970, much of this body of research has been published in the Journal of Research in Mathematics Education. In addition, several measures have been developed for the evaluation of students’ concerns toward mathematics, such as the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (see Richardson & Suinn, 1972). The high level of stress experienced by students taking mathematics course work is evident by the large percentage (about one- third) of students who consult university-counseling centers for “math-anxiety” concerns. (Richardson & Suinn, 1972).

For students in the social sciences, concerns about mathematics usually remain dormant until the first undergraduate “statistics” course that is a degree requirement. Most of these students manage to pass this challenge after some trepidation, tutorial assistance and perseverance. However, for a sizeable minority of students, the experience of in their introductory or basic statistics course is, unfortunately rather onerous and anxiety-laden. A sizeable number of undergraduate “social science” majors pursue graduate-level education in the field of psychology, with required course work in research design and graduate-level statistics. Therefore many of these psychology students experience high levels of stress in anticipation of successfully completing the statistics component of their graduate curriculum. Although several authors have developed instruments to assess “statistics anxiety” such as the Statistics Anxiety Scale (Pretorius & Norman, 1992) and the Mathematics Information Processing Scale (MIPS; Bessant 1997), there still is a dearth of studies in the literature that addresses this issue.

The purpose of the present study was to design and refine a measure that would assist instructors in the identification of graduate-level psychology students who harbor negative feelings and anxiety toward statistics prior to the commencement of coursework. Such an evaluation could prove to be useful and constructive to both students and instructors in the advisement of a) prerequisite coursework, b) remedial self-study, c) tutorial assistance, and/or d) counseling.


We undertook the initial development of the questionnaire based on our academic experience as mathematics professor (R.H.), statistics professor (S.C.B), and instructor in psychology (C.P.). This version of the questionnaire was comprised of three main sections:

i) Prerequisite courses that were completed during high school, during undergraduate preparation, and graduate-level, in mathematics and statistics;

ii) Anxiety-level regarding statistics;

iii) Potential didactic strategies for the successful completion of the graduate statistics course.

The second phase involved the administration of the initial questionnaire to 10 psychology students who were already enrolled in a graduate statistics course at the University of West Florida during the summer of 2001. Our objective here was to obtain feedback from these students on the relevance of the various queries. In addition, we asked the participants to offer suggestions on any specific area of concern that was not covered in the questionnaire. This latter strategy was particularly useful in improving questionnaire content as these were actual psychology students who had experienced the anticipation and subsequent enrollment in a graduate statistics course. Based on this feedback, we refined the instrument and present the final version in Table 1.


Despite the fact that statistics is probably the least favored area of study for most graduate psychology students, it is our position that the ultimate responsibility for conveying the subject material in a clear and understandable fashion rests with the instructor. Therefore, it is imperative that instructors attempt to allay any concerns and anxiety on the part of incoming students by conducting an evaluation survey prior to commencement of the class. Such evaluations should be individual in nature since different student have different needs. The measure presented in this article could serve as a foundation for such evaluations.

Instructors and students will be well served when the learning of difficult subject matter such as statistics is enhanced. Recent research on the topic of teaching statistics to psychology students seems to corroborate our position (Dolinsky, 2001; Peden, 2001). This seems most pertinent in a field that, unfortunately, has failed to inspire generations of psychology graduates. In fact, a recent survey of psychology interns found that competence in statistics was the lowest rated skill in terms of competence (Huntley, Schneider, & Aronson, 2000). However, we concur with the authors who state, “The fact that psychology interns regardless of gender, were distrustful of their skills in statistics suggests the need for innovation with teaching of statistics” (p. 10).

Table 1. UWF Statistics Anxiety Survey Form

To the best of your recollection, please list the high-school

mathematics courses you have completed:

–: —

–: —

–: —

Have you completed an introductory or basic statistics course

as an undergraduate student?

[] YES [] NO

How would you rate your experience in the above-mentioned


— Very comfortable — Confortable — Not comfortable

List any statistics courses beyond introductory or basic

that you have completed as an undergraduate student:

–: –: –:

Have you completed a course on Research Design as a

graduate student?

[] YES [] NO

How would you rate your likeability of statistics?

[] Liked it very much [] Liked it [] Neutral

[] Disliked it [] Disliked it very much

How would you rate your level of anxiety in anticipation of taking

the required statistics course in your curriculum? (please check)

[] Low [] Moderate [] No anxiety [] Somewhat high

[] Very high

How would you rate your level of anxiety while taking the required

statistics course in your curriculum? (please check)

[] Low [] Moderate [] No anxiety [] Somewhat high

[] Very high

If it is applicable to you, what do you find most apprehensive about

taking a graduate level statistics class: (lease describe)

1. —

2. —

3. —

4. —

Could you provide a practical suggestion on how statistics anxiety

can be lessened for psychology students?

Listed below are strategies you might employ when you are in a

statistics class. Check the strategies that would be beneficial

to you when taking the class:

[] Spend more time studying [] Come prepared to class

[] Plan to study in groups [] Hire a tutor

[] Consult with instructor [] Other, please list

outside class hours

Would you be interested in taking additional statistics courses

during your graduate study?

[] YES [] NO [] Not Decided


Bessant K.C. (1997). The development and validation of scores on the Mathematics Information Processing Scale (MIPS). Educational and Psychological Measurement, 57, 841-857.

Bessant K. C. (1995). Factors associated with types of mathematics anxiety in college students. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 26, 327-345.

Dolinsky, B. (2001). An active learning approach to teaching statistics. Teaching of Psychology, 28,55-56.

Huntley, D., Schneider L., & Aronson H. (2000, Fall). Clinical interns’ perception of psychology and their place within it. The Clinical Psychologist, 53(4), 3-11.

Peden, B. F. (2001). Correlational analysis and interpretation: Graphs prevent gaffes. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 129-131.

Pretorius, T.B., & Norman A. M. (1992). Psychometric data on the Statistics Anxiety Scale for a sample of South African students. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 52, 933-937.

Richardson, F. C., & Suinn R. M. (1972). The Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale: Psychometric data. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 19, 551-554.

Schonfeld, A. H. (Ed.) (1987). Cognitive science and mathematics education. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dr. Chris Piotrowski, Dr. Subhash Bagui, and Dr. Rohan Hemasinha, Faculty, University of West Florida.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Piotrowski, U.W.F. 11000 University Parkway, Pensacola, FL 32514.

COPYRIGHT 2002 George Uhlig Publisher

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group