Faculty Experiences - John Zaller

John Zaller - photoJOHN ZALLER

Political Science

Interview Topics

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?


Analyze data

Learn by doing

Work with real data

Working in parallel


Computer classroom/lab

Class web site


Teaching Statistics By Doing Statistics

My use of computers is not cutting edge. It's like an old car that I use to drive around to get where I need to go. This is a lot faster than walking but not as fast as the fastest cars can go. It's being able to teach a class in a lab setting where students are able to follow along. I came to the decision not from a love of technology but from seeing that the traditional way was not working.

I began teaching statistics in 1988 and initially felt good about what students were learning. Gradually, however, I realized that they weren't doing so well after all. This feeling was based on the type of questions they were asking as they prepared for the final exam. They were still just doing things mechanically to get through the test. They had little understanding of what they were doing. I felt guilty about it and wondered if I should teach the class at all. I decided that the class needed a lab. So I taught the class using a lab in Social Sciences Computing. The idea was to teach statistics by doing statistics on real political data. The problem, however, was that many students didn't know enough about real world politics to analyze political data.

I happened to be talking to a professor who was teaching an introduction to comparative politics course, and he was having the same problem I was having, but from the other side. He was teaching the subject, but they couldn't understand the statistical analysis side--simple tables, data plots, etc. The students were in the class for comparative politics, not statistics purposes, which made him have to reteach those concepts at different times of the course. We got the idea that if we combined our classes, it would work out really well. So, last year that's what we did. We had a linked class of Political Science 106 and 150. Students had the same TA for both classes. Sections were planned to match assignments and materials.

I teach my class in the computer lab. The students follow along and do what I do. They do some kind of data analysis. They learn with their fingers as well as with their minds. The fingers are easier to teach. The problem with statistics is that if students see statistics as an abstract thing they won't get it. Statistics is about some problem in the world and how it is related to that problem or has the ability to describe it. We combined the approach of using both classes to complement each other and integrate the material. Today my undergraduate students are able to do some things better than some graduate students. Attendance in my class is very good-- about 90-95%. I only had two students drop the class which is very good.

I use the web site to post partial class lectures, data sets, and I respond to e-mails. I answer each e-mail by sharing it with the whole class. I haven't used discussion boards yet. Before assignments are due is usually when there are a lot of questions and traffic on the site.

Oral Interview, May 9, 2003


In the Fall Quarter of 2005, John Zaller was one of the five faculty members who volunteered to participate in OID's pilot course webcasting initiaive, now know as BruinCast. He again elected to have his course webcast in Spring 2007.

Prof. Zaller has generously made his lectures freely available to anyone interested.