The new trimester started on Monday and I’m teaching a class called “Designing Experiments and Studies.” It’s a statistics class, so we’re starting with a bit about normal distributions. Most of the students in the class are juniors, but they’ve had very little instruction in statistics. They didn’t get it from me last year, so any knowledge that they might have is probably from middle school.

Today, I posed this question:

And then I gave them some time to work it out. Here’s what happened in the class discussions (a bit condensed – the actual discussions took about 15 minutes in each class):

S1: The boy would weigh more compared to other boys because the boy is 0.25 pounds away from being one standard deviation above the mean, while the girl is 0.5 pounds away from being one standard deviation above the mean. Since the boy is closer to being one standard deviation above the mean, the boy weighs more, compared to other boys.

S2: But, 0.25 lbs for the boys is not really comparable to 0.5 lbs for girls because the standard deviations are different. I agree that the boy weighs more, but it’s because the boy is about 92% of the way to being one standard deviation above the mean, while the girl is only 75% of the way to being one standard deviation above the mean.

S1: What does that matter?

S3: It’s like if you’re getting close to leveling up (I know this sounds really geeky), but if you’re 10 points away from leveling up on a 1000 point scale, you’re a lot closer than if you’re 10 points away from leveling up on a 15 point scale. Even though you’re still ten points away, you’re a lot closer on that 1000 point scale.

S4: But you’re comparing boys to boys and girls to girls. You’re not comparing boys to girls.

S2: Yes, you actually do have to compare boys to girls, in the end, to know who weighs more for their own group.

Me: How did you figure out that the boy was 92% of the way to being one standard deviation above?

S2: Well, the boy is 2.75 lbs more than the mean weight and 2.75 / 3.0 is about .92. I did the same thing with the girl and got 75%.

At this point I showed them a table of z-scores, kind of like this one and we talked about percentiles. Looking at the table, they determined that the boy was at about the 82nd percentile, while the girl was at about the 77th percentile. Therefore, the boy weighed more, compared to other boys, than the girl weighed, compared to other girls.

I have two sections of this class, and this recreation of the conversation happened in both classes. I’m so happy when my students make sense of mathematics and reason through problems. I never had to tell them the formula to figure out a z-score, or why that might be useful or necessary. They came up with it.