The order of learning, or does it matter in what order you learn things?

As a newbie to textbook authoring I am confronting the issue of the order of learning. Should you learn about a student t-test before an F-test? Pearson's product moment correlation co-efficient before Simple Linear regression? Perhaps it doesn’t matter in these cases but I am currently dealing with contradictory pieces of feedback regarding the chapter on presentation of data.

Initially I put it early on the book. I reasoned that things like bar graphs and scatterplots would be pretty familiar to students, and that the main aims of the chapter would be concerned with choosing appropriate ways to display data. After all my seven year-old knows about bar graphs. However, the risks of producing confusing, misleading or inappropriate graphs and charts is a real one. Moreover, bad graphics are highly entertaining.

Two people who saw early drafts felt that chapter 3 was too early for this chapter. After all, how you present statistical data if you don’t understand the statistics referenced?

Having moved it towards the end of the book, the latest feedback has been to move back to about chapter 3. In defence of early inclusion most of the material does not reference any particular statistical test, but is focused on principles of presenting data as clearly and unambiguously as possible.  Items such as boxplots which use medians and quartiles can be forward referenced.

Of course the learner can read the chapters in any order they like (or the teacher can assign chapter 20 to be read before Chapter 3). Yet at the same time I like the idea of book where the chapters build on each other. This is my ‘baby’ and I’m pretty precious about it all. “Could students go straight into the chapter on the t-test without having to read the other stuff?”,  I have been asked. I suppose they might be able to, but it depends on what they already know, and what they actually expect to learn from the process. None of the language learning books I have come across open with “Lesson 1: Forming the subjunctive.”

One of my aspirations for the book is writing something that fits together well as a learning journey. The journey is not just being able to ‘do’ something, but hopefully being able to understand and appreciate why you are doing it.

But back to the subject of order not everybody learns the same things in the same. I’m not a child development expert, but know from my own boys (n=2) (and their friends) that they do not reach the same milestones in the same order. On the other hand when the time comes for them to learn to drive (still a long way off…) I’m pretty confident that they will learn to drive forwards before they learn to drive backwards.

Either way the question of whether this particular chapter should come near the beginning or near the end (or indeed in the middle) is one I wish to ponder further.


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