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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Attitudes towards statistics of graduate entry medical students: the role of prior learning experiences

Ailish Hannigan12*, Avril C Hegarty3 and Deirdre McGrath12

Author Affiliations

1 Graduate Entry Medical School, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

2 Centre for Interventions in Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

3 MACSI, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:70  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-70

Published: 4 April 2014



While statistics is increasingly taught as part of the medical curriculum, it can be an unpopular subject and feedback from students indicates that some find it more difficult than other subjects. Understanding attitudes towards statistics on entry to graduate entry medical programmes is particularly important, given that many students may have been exposed to quantitative courses in their previous degree and hence bring preconceptions of their ability and interest to their medical education programme. The aim of this study therefore is to explore, for the first time, attitudes towards statistics of graduate entry medical students from a variety of backgrounds and focus on understanding the role of prior learning experiences.


121 first year graduate entry medical students completed the Survey of Attitudes toward Statistics instrument together with information on demographics and prior learning experiences.


Students tended to appreciate the relevance of statistics in their professional life and be prepared to put effort into learning statistics. They had neutral to positive attitudes about their interest in statistics and their intellectual knowledge and skills when applied to it. Their feelings towards statistics were slightly less positive e.g. feelings of insecurity, stress, fear and frustration and they tended to view statistics as difficult. Even though 85% of students had taken a quantitative course in the past, only 24% of students described it as likely that they would take any course in statistics if the choice was theirs. How well students felt they had performed in mathematics in the past was a strong predictor of many of the components of attitudes.


The teaching of statistics to medical students should start with addressing the association between students’ past experiences in mathematics and their attitudes towards statistics and encouraging students to recognise the difference between the two disciplines. Addressing these issues may reduce students’ anxiety and perception of difficulty at the start of their learning experience and encourage students to engage with statistics in their future careers.

Attitudes; Statistics; Graduate entry; Medical education; Difficulty; Prior learning