Learning R With Education Datasets

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Ryan A. Estrellado is a public education leader and data scientist helping administrators use practical data analysis to improve the student experience.

Timothy Gallwey wrote in The Inner Game of Tennis:

…There is a natural learning process which operates within everyone, if it is allowed to. This process is waiting to be discovered by all those who do not know of its existence … It can be discovered for yourself, if it hasn’t been already. If it has been experienced, trust it.

Discovering a new R concept like a function or package is exciting. You never know if you’re about to learn something that fundamentally changes the way you code or solve data science problems. But I get even more excited when I see somebody use new R concepts. For example, I learned about random forest models when I read about them in An Introduction to Statistical Learning (ISL). Then I imagined myself using them when I watched Julia Silge fit a random forest model to predict attendance at NFL games. I need the reading to give me language for what I see data scientists do. Then I need to see what data scientists do for me to imagine myself doing what I’ve read.

Still, for most people using R in their jobs, there’s another step. They have to imagine how to apply what they’ve read and seen to the problems they’re solving at work. But what if we used education datasets to help them imagine using R on the job, just as the authors of ISL use words and code to teach about models and Julia Silge uses video to inspire coding?

We learned from writing Data Science in Education Using R (DSIEUR) that we can combine words, code, and professional context. Professional context includes scenarios, language, and data that readers will recognize in their education jobs. We wanted readers to feel motivated and engaged by seeing words and data that reminds them of their everyday work tasks. This connection to their professional lives is a hook for readers as they engage R syntax which is, if you’ve never used it, literally a foreign language.

Let’s use pivot_longer() as an example. We’ll describe this process in three steps: discovering the concept, seeing how the concept is used, and seeing how the concept is used in education.

Step 1: See the concept

When I read something like “Use pivot_longer() to transform a dataset from wide to long”, I can imagine the shape of a dataset changing. But it’s harder to imagine what happens with the variables and their contents as the dataset’s shape changes. I’ve been using R for over five years and I still struggle to visualize the contents of many columns rearranging themselves into one.

Step 2: See how the concept is used

The concept gets much clearer when you add an example—even one with little context—to the explanation. Here’s one from the pivot_longer() vignette, which you can view with vignette("pivot"):

library(tidyverse)
# Simplest case where column names are character data
relig_income
#> # A tibble: 18 x 11
#>    religion `<$10k` `$10-20k` `$20-30k` `$30-40k` `$40-50k` `$50-75k` `$75-100k`
#>                                         
#>  1 Agnostic      27        34        60        81        76       137        122
#>  2 Atheist       12        27        37        52        35        70         73
#>  3 Buddhist      27        21        30        34        33        58         62
#>  4 Catholic     418       617       732       670       638      1116        949
#>  5 Don’t k…      15        14        15        11        10        35         21
#>  6 Evangel…     575       869      1064       982       881      1486        949
#>  7 Hindu          1         9         7         9        11        34         47
#>  8 Histori…     228       244       236       238       197       223        131
#>  9 Jehovah…      20        27        24        24        21        30         15
#> 10 Jewish        19        19        25        25        30        95         69
#> 11 Mainlin…     289       495       619       655       651      1107        939
#> 12 Mormon        29        40        48        51        56       112         85
#> 13 Muslim         6         7         9        10         9        23         16
#> 14 Orthodox      13        17        23        32        32        47         38
#> 15 Other C…       9         7        11        13        13        14         18
#> 16 Other F…      20        33        40        46        49        63         46
#> 17 Other W…       5         2         3         4         2         7          3
#> 18 Unaffil…     217       299       374       365       341       528        407
#> # … with 3 more variables: `$100-150k` , `>150k` , `Don't
#> #   know/refused` 
relig_income %>%
 pivot_longer(-religion, names_to = "income", values_to = "count")
#> # A tibble: 180 x 3
#>    religion income             count
#>                      
#>  1 Agnostic <$10k                 27
#>  2 Agnostic $10-20k               34
#>  3 Agnostic $20-30k               60
#>  4 Agnostic $30-40k               81
#>  5 Agnostic $40-50k               76
#>  6 Agnostic $50-75k              137
#>  7 Agnostic $75-100k             122
#>  8 Agnostic $100-150k            109
#>  9 Agnostic >150k                 84
#> 10 Agnostic Don't know/refused    96
#> # … with 170 more rows

Sharing an idea by pairing an abstract programming concept with a reproducible example is a common practice for experienced R programmers. Community guidelines for Stack Overflow posts and the {reprex} package are two artifacts of a popular R community norm: help folks understand an idea by using words and code.

Step 3: See how the concept is used in education

Combining the explanation with a reproducible example makes pivot_longer() more concrete by showing how it works. What happens when we connect the explanation and reproducible example to the everyday work of a data scientist in education?

In chapter seven of DSIEUR, we use pivot_longer() to transform a dataset of coursework survey responses from wide to long. Before using pivot_longer(), the dataset had a column for each survey question. When we use pivot_longer(), the name of each survey question moves to a new column called “question”. Another new column is added, “response”, which contains the corresponding response to each survey question.

To run this code, you’ll need the DSIEUR companion R package, {dataedu}:

# Install the {dataedu} package if you don't have it
# devtools::install_github("data-edu/dataedu")
library(dataedu)

Here’s the survey data in its original, wide format:

# Wide format
pre_survey
#> # A tibble: 1,102 x 12
#>    opdata_username opdata_CourseID Q1Maincellgroup… Q1Maincellgroup…
#>                                                 
#>  1 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01                  4                4
#>  2 _80623_1        BioA-S116-01                   4                4
#>  3 _82588_1        OcnA-S116-03                  NA               NA
#>  4 _80623_1        AnPhA-S116-01                  4                3
#>  5 _80624_1        AnPhA-S116-01                 NA               NA
#>  6 _80624_1        AnPhA-S116-02                  4                2
#>  7 _80624_1        AnPhA-T116-01                 NA               NA
#>  8 _80624_1        BioA-S116-01                   5                3
#>  9 _80624_1        BioA-T116-01                  NA               NA
#> 10 _80624_1        PhysA-S116-01                  4                4
#> # … with 1,092 more rows, and 8 more variables: Q1MaincellgroupRow3 ,
#> #   Q1MaincellgroupRow4 , Q1MaincellgroupRow5 ,
#> #   Q1MaincellgroupRow6 , Q1MaincellgroupRow7 ,
#> #   Q1MaincellgroupRow8 , Q1MaincellgroupRow9 ,
#> #   Q1MaincellgroupRow10 

The third through eighth columns are named after each survey question—“Q1MaincellgroupRow1”, “Q1MaincellgroupRow2”, “Q1MaincellgroupRow3”, etc. These are the column names we’ll be moving to a single column called “question” when the dataset transforms from wide to long.

Here’s the new dataset, where a column called “question” contains the question names and a column called “response” contains the corresponding responses:

# Pivot the dataset from wide to long format
pre_survey %>%
  pivot_longer(cols = Q1MaincellgroupRow1:Q1MaincellgroupRow10,
               names_to = "question",
               values_to = "response")
#> # A tibble: 11,020 x 4
#>    opdata_username opdata_CourseID question             response
#>                                             
#>  1 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow1         4
#>  2 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow2         4
#>  3 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow3         4
#>  4 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow4         1
#>  5 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow5         5
#>  6 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow6         4
#>  7 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow7         1
#>  8 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow8         5
#>  9 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow9         5
#> 10 _80624_1        FrScA-S116-01   Q1MaincellgroupRow10        5
#> # … with 11,010 more rows

When you put it all together, the learning thought process is something like this:

  • There’s a function called pivot_longer(), which turns a wide dataset into a long dataset
  • pivot_longer() does this by putting multiple column names into its own column, then creating a new column that pairs each column name with a value
  • I can use pivot_longer() to change an education survey dataset that has question names for columns into one that has a “question” column and a “response” column

We’ll be back with the next post in about two weeks. Until then, do share with us about the people and tools that inspire you to work on collaborative projects. You can reach us on Twitter: Emily @ebovee09, Jesse @kierisi, Joshua @jrosenberg6432, Isabella @ivelasq3 and me @RyanEs.

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