Simplified Explanation of Probability in Statistics

Do you have trouble understanding the concept of probability? Do you ask yourself why you have to read that section on probability in your statistics book that seems to have no bearing on your research? Don’t despair. Read the following article and have a clear understanding of this concept that you will find very useful in your research venture.

One of the topics in the Statistics course that students had difficulty understanding is the concept of probability. But is “probability” really a difficult thing to understand? In reality, it is not that difficult as long as you gain understanding on how it works when trying to compare differences or correlations between variables.

It simply works this way:

The classic example to illustrate probability is demonstrated using a coin. Everybody knows that a coin has two sides: the head, which normally has face of someone on it with the corresponding amount it represents or the tail, which typically shows the government bank which issued the currency.

Now, if you flick the coin, it will land and settle with one side up; unless you get a weird result that the coin unexpectedly landed on its edge or in-between the head and tail sides! (see Fig. 1). This, however, could be a possibility as there is a middle ground that will make this possible though very, very remote (what if the government decides to have a coin thick enough to make this possible if ever you flick a coin?). I just included this because it so happened I flicked a coin before and it landed next to an object that made it stand on its edge instead of falling on either the head or the tail side. That just means that unexpected things could happen given the right circumstances that will make it possible.

coins
Fig. 1. Head, in-between, tail (L-R)

I just have to illustrate this with a picture because some students do not understand what is a head and what is a tail in a coin. So, no excuses for not understanding what we are talking about here.

For our purpose, we’ll just leave the in-between possibility and just concentrate on either the possibility of getting a head or a tail when a coin is flipped and allowed to settle on level ground or on top of your palm. Since there are only two possibilities here, we can then say that there is a 50-50, 0.5 or 1/2 possibility that the coin will land as head or tail. If we would like to represent this as a symbol in statistics to show this possibility, it is written thus:

p = 0.5

where p is the probability symbol and the value 0.5 is the estimated outcome that the coin will land on either the head or the tail. Alternatively, this can be stated that there is an equal chance that you will get a head or a tail in a series of tossing a coin and letting it land on level ground.

Therefore, if you toss a coin 10 times, the probability of getting either a head or a tail is 50%, 0.05 or 1/2. That means in 10 tosses, there will likely be 5 heads and 5 tails. If you toss it 100 times, you will likely get 50 heads and 50 tails.

If you have a six-sided dice, then the probability of each side in each throw is 1/6. If you have a cube, then the probability of each side is 1/4.

Application

This background knowledge can help you understand the importance of the p-value in statistical tests.

For example, if you are interested in knowing if a significant difference between two sets of variables exists (say a comparison of the test scores of a group of students who were given remedial classes as opposed to another group that did not undergo remedial classes), and a statistical software was used to analyze the data (presumably a t-test was applied), you just have to look at the p-value to find out if indeed there is a significant difference in achievement between the two groups. If the p-value is 0.05 or lower than that, then you can safely say that there is sufficient evidence that students who underwent remedial classes performed better (in terms of their test scores) than those who did not undergo remedial classes.

For clarity, here are the null and alternative hypotheses that you can formulate for this study:

Null Hypothesis: There is no significant difference between the test scores of students who took remedial classes and students who did not take remedial classes.

Alternative Hypothesis: There is a significant difference between the test scores of students who took remedial classes and students who did not take remedial classes.

The p-value simply means that there is a 5% probability, possibility or chance that students who were given remedial classes perform similarly with those who were not given remedial classes. This probability is quite low, such that you may reject your null hypothesis that there is no difference in test scores of students with or without remedial classes. If you reject the null hypothesis, then you should accept your alternative hypothesis which is: There is a significant difference between the test scores of students who took remedial classes and students who did not take remedial classes.

Of what use is this finding then? The results show that indeed, giving remedial classes can provide benefit to students. As the results of the study indicated, it can significantly increase the student’s test scores.

You may then present the results of your study and confidently recommend that remedial classes be given to students to help improve their test scores in whatever subject that may be.

That’s how statistics work in research.

©2013 May 15 Patrick Regoniel

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