I recently had a flash of insight when teaching statistics. I have completed my lectures of finding confidence intervals and conducting hypothesis testing for one-sample problems (both for averages and for proportions), and I was about to start my lectures on two-sample problems (liek the difference of two means or the difference of two proportions).

On the one hand, this section of the course is considerably more complicated because the formulas are considerably longer and hence harder to remember (and more conducive to careless mistakes when using a calculator). The formula for the standard error is longer, and (in the case of small samples) the Welch-Satterthwaite formula is especially cumbersome to use.

On the other hand, students who have mastered statistical techniques for one sample can easily extend this knowledge to the two-sample case. The test statistic (either or ) can be found by using the formula (Observed – Expected)/(Standard Error), where the standard error formula has changed, and the critical values of the normal or distribution is used as before.

I hadn’t prepared this ahead of time, but while I was lecturing to my students I remembered a story that I heard a music professor say about students learning how to play percussion instruments. As opposed to other musicians, the budding percussionist only has a few basic techniques to learn and master. The trick for the percussionist is not memorizing hundreds of different techniques but correctly applying a few techniques to dozens of different kinds of instruments (drums, xylophones, bells, cymbals, etc.)

It hit me that this was an apt analogy for the student of statistics. Once the techniques of the one-sample case are learned, these same techniques are applied, with slight modifications, to the two-sample case.

I’ve been using this analogy ever since, and it seems to resonate (pun intended) with my students as they learn and practice the avalanche of formulas for two-sample statistics problems.