The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Scholar Highlight: Jeffrey Starns, Reasoning in the Face of Uncertainty

Dr Jeffrey Starns is helping people make good decisions in the face of uncertainty.  Given all we are facing in the world these days with the COVID-19 pandemic, this research seems especially relevant. “Probability is a mental tool for dealing with uncertainty,” he says. “It is a way to think about what is likely to be true when you have only partial information, and a way to decide what is the best thing to do when you don’t know exactly what is going to happen. People deal with uncertainty every day, and we are trying to develop ways to teach probability concepts that help people recognize the relevance to their everyday life and apply the concepts intuitively.”

Dr. Starns, a 2017-2018 Center for Research on Families’ Research Scholar and Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences was recently awarded a 3-year, $300,000 National Science Foundation grant that he developed during his CRF Scholar year. Starns is developing methods for teaching people how to accurately update their beliefs when they encounter new information, a process known as Bayesian Reasoning.  This tool of probability has become increasingly important in an age of misinformation. He says “a news story about a measles outbreak might mention that nearly half of the people who contracted measles in the outbreak had received the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. Facts like these are slippery, because most people are prone to confusing one probability (e.g., the chance that someone who caught the measles in the outbreak was vaccinated) for another (e.g., the chance that someone who was vaccinated caught the measles in the outbreak.)” This type of confusion or vague phrasing can give false impressions.

Starns and his team are developing learning modules that can be used in statistics classes which he calls, “the nerve centers for disseminating probability concepts”. The module presents intuitive spatial methods for performing probability and then guides students through exercises that challenge them to translate these spatial methods into equations. Their goal is to make the concepts so intuitive that students will be able to figure out the math without direct instruction.

Their findings, so far, are encouraging. They have collected data from people who learned spatial methods for probability reasoning from an instructional video or one-on-one tutoring. The majority of these students were able to immediately apply these reasoning skills correctly in their work. In addition, many students were able to translate the spatial methods into equations which demonstrated a deep understanding of probability concepts. Like many other researchers, his team is adapting some of their data collection approaches and timelines in response to the Covid-19 virus but they are optimistic about completing their project.

“CRF helped me see the big picture,” Starns says. Although he finds probability concepts fascinating, he realizes that most people do not. CRF faculty and fellow scholars helped him think about how to link his research to things that the broader public care about, like promoting science literacy, empowering people to be more informed about the decisions they are making, and helping a wider diversity of students succeed in fields that rely on statistical methods.

“Understanding probability is an essential part of thinking clearly and making sound decisions and is one of the most important aspects of a complete education,” says Starns. “All students should have the opportunity to learn probability concepts in a way that makes sense to them.”