A New Visualization for Probabilistic Situations Containing Two Binary Events: The Frequency Net

In teaching statistics in secondary schools and at university, two visualizations are primarily used when situations with two dichotomous characteristics are represented: 2 × 2 tables and tree diagrams. Both visualizations can be depicted either with probabilities or with frequencies. Visualizations with frequencies have been shown to help students significantly more in Bayesian reasoning problems than probability visualizations do. Because tree diagrams or double-trees (which are largely unknown in school) are node-branch structures, these two visualizations (in contrast to the 2 × 2 table) can even simultaneously display probabilities on branches and frequencies inside the nodes. This is a teaching advantage as it allows the frequency concept to be used to better understand probabilities. However, 2 × 2 tables and (double-)trees have a decisive disadvantage: While joint probabilities [e.g., P(A∩B)] are represented in 2 × 2 tables but no conditional probabilities [e.g., P(A|B)], it is exactly the other way around with (double-)trees. Therefore, a visualization that is equally suitable for the representation of joint probabilities and conditional probabilities is desirable. In this article, we present a new visualization—the frequency net—in which all absolute frequencies and all types of probabilities can be depicted. In addition to a detailed theoretical analysis of the frequency net, we report the results of a study with 249 university students that shows that “net diagrams” can improve reasoning without previous instruction to a similar extent as 2 × 2 tables and double-trees. Regarding questions about conditional probabilities, frequency visualizations (2 × 2 table, double-tree, or net diagram with absolute frequencies) are consistently superior to probability visualizations, and the frequency net performs as well as the frequency double-tree. Only the 2 × 2 table with frequencies—the one visualization that participants were already familiar with—led to higher performance rates. If, on the other hand, a question about a joint probability had to be answered, all implemented visualizations clearly supported participants’ performance, but no uniform format effect becomes visible. Here, participants reached the highest performance in the versions with probability 2 × 2 tables and probability net diagrams. Furthermore, after conducting a detailed error analysis, we report interesting error shifts between the two information formats and the different visualizations and give recommendations for teaching probability.

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