Statistical investigations are not necessarily the same thing as teaching activities. They can be pretty close but one area where I think we could do things more awesomely is spending more time pulling students into the context for the investigation. We don’t need to start with questions and problem development right at the beginning, and then look for information to build our contextual understanding (unless of course it is a context that the students are very familiar with). We can start by building contextual understanding first with fun hands-on activities that build curiosity and a desire to find out more 🙂 My example for this is focusing on the nature of speech and in particular the use of filler words such as “um”.


When I was in Year 9, our English teacher used to make us play this “game” where one by one we would stand in front of the class and she would give us a topic to do an impromptu speech on. As soon as we said a filler word like “um” or “ah” or paused for too long, we were out. I think it was supposed to build confidence with public speaking but I always found it pretty intimidating. This activity though gives a nice introduction to this investigation. Get students to work in pairs, give them a topic to talk about, and they can time how long it takes the other person to use the word “um”. With the teachers at the plenary, our topic was “assessment”, and after a few minutes, there were still some teachers talking confidently about assessment – I guess they had a lot to say 🙂 I didn’t collect data from the teachers but you could collect data from your students and discuss the distribution of times.


How many teachers have tried making videos for students to watch outside of class? I know many are not confident at doing this, and also are worried about how they will sound when listening to themselves talking. I have made a lot of videos for students in the past and quickly realised that I used filler words A LOT in my speaking. In fact, I took a recent video I made for this blog (the one about how to use the report comment writing tool) and recorded the “time between ums” using the lap function on a stopwatch. After making students/teachers reflect on their use of the word um in speaking, it seems only fair that I share my data. Turns out, on average, I use the word um every nine seconds.  But then I am a teacher and not necessarily trained in the art of speaking…. not like actors or actresses right?


Pop culture again! Here are three actors/actresses that have won Academy Awards? Do they use the word “um” during their acceptance speech? Which one will say this word the soonest? On what basis are you making your selection? Here are the links to each video so you can watch and time for yourself 🙂

Jennifer Lawrence

Daniel Day-Lewis

Kate Winslet

Check the times that I recorded here – a nice example to discuss regarding measurement error!

And now we can develop a more specific investigative question for this context, one that hopefully the students are really interested in finding out the answer to! e.g. What is the difference between the mean time for male academy award winners to say the word “um” n their acceptance speech and the mean time for female academy award winners to say the word “um” in their acceptance speech?


Of course there are lots of investigations that could be carried out using a sample of Academy Award acceptance speeches! What about how long it takes someone to say “thank you” or to mention their mum/husband/child? What about how long they talk for? Or how fast they talk for? Do these things change when you compare gender, the year of the Academy Awards, whether someone had prepared a speech or not? Do male Academy Award winners tend to use the word “ah” and female Academy Award winners tend to use the word “um”? I would get students to list as many different things they are interested in about finding out and let them loose with the data to explore.


This investigation is also good for making students go out and get the data themselves as it probably requires them watching a video. The good people at the Academy Awards have a database which contains information about each of the acceptance speeches (including a transcript) which you can find here. The thing is you need a sampling frame – a list of every award winner that exists in the database – and a way to select winners from this list randomly. There are 100 pages of names given in alphabetical order so perhaps a systematic sampling method might be appropriate. If I find a list of all the award winners (or someone creates one and lets me know) I will put a link to that list here later.

 14Turns out, at least one other person has already investigated Academy Award acceptance speeches, but fortunately from a more qualitative perspective (and only focusing on the top five awards) so there is still a lot that students could do with this source of data even if they spend some time on this page by Rebecca Rolfe (check out the option to generate your own Oscar acceptance speech!) You can also make connections between contexts by learning about language and how people speak using the Academy Awards and then shifting to a slightly different context of the MTV VMA awards (perhaps for a follow up assessment activity). A “hook” into the MTV VMA awards could be to consider how long would Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech have been back in 2009 if she wasn’t so rudely interrupted by Kanye West? She only spoke for around 20 seconds all up which seems pretty short, considering this year when she won an award at the MTV VMA awards she spoke for around 2 minutes.

This post is based on a plenary I did for the Christchurch Mathematical Association (CMA) Statistics Day in November 2015 where I presented 10 ways to embrace the awesomeness that is our statistics curriculum. You can find all the posts related to this plenary in one place here as they are written.