Is There a Human Side to Statistics?

Is There a Human Side to Statistics?

UCLA Anderson’s Elisa Long helps students relate to data and decision making

Associate Professor of Decisions, Operations, and Technology Management Elisa Long’s goal in the classroom is to distill information for students in the most relevant possible way

  • The goal of Elisa Long’s class is to learn to translate the data that every business, leader or manager has access to and apply it to meaningful decision making
  • The course helps students think more critically as consumers of statistics and data
  • Long balances the rigors of the coursework with reminders to connect on a human level and maintain well-being

Elisa Long, Associate Professor of Decisions, Operations, and Technology Management, teaches the introductory Data and Decisions course at UCLA Anderson. Her goal in the classroom is to distill information for students in the most relevant possible way, “whether it’s reading a newspaper article with a different perspective, or creating a model to help decide whether to buy or lease a new car,” she says. It’s proven to be one of the school’s most popular courses. Long, who once used her understanding of statistics and probability to win two cars on the The Price is Right, uses classic game show examples to demonstrate that probability is a field in which your intuition can often lead you astray. “You must take into account your prior state of beliefs and what new information is presented, before calculating the probability of observing some outcome. This is as true for a game show as for interpreting a genetic test result.” What MBA candidates learn from television game show strategy, Long says, could be applied in careers ranging from real estate investing to entertainment analytics.

Q: What are the goals of your Data and Decisions class and what do you hope that students will get out of it?

The overall goal of the course is to be able to take the data that every business leader or manager encounters and translate it into meaningful insights for an organization. We cover a range of topics, starting with some descriptive statistics and a small introduction to probability theory. Then, we jump into a lot of tools that I think every MBA student should be familiar with. In fall 2020, I did a big course overhaul while remote-teaching for the first time.

Q: What are those tools?

I tried to modernize the curriculum by focusing more on data analytics, requiring students to use the R programming language, while including more recent business contexts, like digital platforms. I also introduced some classes on equity, diversity and inclusion, including examining data on the gender pay gap and racial diversity in Hollywood. I am always trying to improve the course, and I very much appreciate feedback from students about what works — and what doesn’t.

Q: What kinds of hands-on topics most effectively help you meet the goals of the course?

We cover topics like A-B testing, which has become ubiquitous across industries. Essentially, they are micro-experiments. A firm like Airbnb will send out different promotions to customers to see which one leads to more clicks or more bookings. A-B testing allows companies to very quickly test different strategies, before implementing them on a wide scale. And, as customers, they’re all around us. Every time you sign on to your Uber app, you might be A-B tested without even knowing it.

The interesting thing is that A-B testing is just hypothesis testing, which is an old tool in statistics. But it’s sort of been rebranded. When I used to just teach hypothesis testing, students would ask, “Where am I going to use this? Why is this relevant to my career?” I’ve tried to repackage it and show students that A-B testing is hypothesis testing. As soon as you explain this, they immediately understand the importance of it and the usefulness of it. That’s a general teaching strategy that I try to employ across a range of topics: How can I connect material that, on its own, can be quite esoteric? How do I make it interesting and relevant to them for their career? That’s one big goal.

The second big goal is to help our students think more critically as consumers of stats and data.

I’ll give you an example: In my very first class, I start with this story that was on NPR’s Planet Money a few years ago, making the claim that investing in horror films is the “best deal in Hollywood.” They looked at data for the top 100 highest-grossing movies and found that a disproportionate number were horror films. So, I ask my students: “Is that a valid argument, to say that this is the best deal in Hollywood?”

Some students will get it right away, while others have to think about it. The punch line is that you cannot only look at the top 100 films. Those are, by definition, the extreme outliers, and before you make a film, you don’t know if it’s going to be hugely successful or not. So, what you really need to do is look at the universe of all films and then ask yourself, “What are the chances it turns out to be a high-grossing film?” We go through the data and we show that, in the end, horror films no longer look like the best deal in Hollywood.

In teaching this way, my hope is that after their time here at Anderson, when they encounter a story like that, they think critically about it — and think what could be an alternative explanation.

Q: What are some of the requirements of the class?

In non-pandemic times I do a midterm, a final and homework assignments. I adjusted things because I wanted to remove some of the stress of testing and, practically speaking, I don’t like online tests.

For homeworks, I emply a grading scheme — probailistic — that some students like and others do not. Each homework has six questions, and on the day the homework is due, in class we roll a big red die. I have the students roll it twice, and whatever they land on, those are the two questions we grade. It keeps it fun. And, of course, in real life, things are uncertain.

Q: What else do you discuss in class that helps MBA students relate statistics to real life?

A few years ago I went on The Price is Right and I won two cars and the showcase showdown. I used to show the clip in class. It actually really relates because the roll-the-dice game we play is sort of like a game show, so I got this reputation for being the Price is Right professor. Groups of students often get tickets to the show, and I would help them prepare and strategize before going on. The last few years, I haven’t brought it up, but some enterprising students will find clips somewhere and they’ll mention it. I have also shared my personal history of surviving breast cancer, and how I used data to make informed decisions about my own treatment. I find that this humanizes statistics in a way that I think students really appreciate. In every class, I start the first day by going around and asking everyone their name, where they’re currently living and, on a scale of 1 to 10, how they’re doing (if they feel comfortable sharing). It’s a small thing that I think reminds our students that we’re all in this pandemic together. At the end of the day, a class is just a class. A grade is just a grade. Your health and your well-being are the most important things. I try to always keep that in perspective, both inside and outside the classroom.