Students love this correlation vs. causation lesson, because -- once they've grasped it -- they begin to see this phenomenon all around them.
The first time I taught this lesson was eight years ago during an election year when political commercials were all over the place. After this lesson, the history teacher (yes, this is also a history standard in most states) pulled up some of those commercials and we had great discussions about the difference between causation and correlation and how advertisers assume we don't know the difference.
Students that did not love math were coming into my classroom to have high-level discussions around this subject, and healthy and educated debates began to take place. Real learning was happening.
The Statistics CCSS Standards
S.ID.9 - This is the main standard that we discuss during this lesson.
High School: Statistics & Probability » Interpreting Categorical & Quantitative Data » Interpret linear models » 9
Distinguish between correlation and causation.
This standard is a great example that will prepare our students to decipher and interpret information in their lives.
The Lesson Opener
I like to begin this lesson with some great graphs from co.design, but make sure your students' maturity can handle the content. These graphs make it evident that -- even though the graphs match -- the information is not a causation.
The conversation then can move into the definitions of causation and correlation with context and meaning. The discussion will help all of your learners connect the learning to previous understanding so they retain the information. The power in this is incredible and will immediately increase confidence. You will know this is true when you hear them saying the lesson was "easy."
Both of these websites are perfect for showing students the ridiculousness of the assumption that correlation always means causation.
- Fastcodesign.com: No, margarine consumption did not impact divorce rates in Maine.
- Correlation or Causation: Showing the misrepresentation of news headlines and actual facts.
Now, for the Activity!
The fun part of this activity is that the students will find data with a common independent variable (usually time) and show a correlation, trying to trick people into believing causation. The process of thinking through and considering the data can be a bit rough, but remind your students that simply recognizing a positive or a negative trend may be enough.
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