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Course Description

Introduction to methods and problems in research and applications where quantitative data is analyzed to reconstruct possible pathways of development of behaviors and diseases. Special attention given to social inequalities, changes over the life course, heterogeneous pathways, and controversies with implications for policy and practice. Case studies and course projects are shaped to accommodate students with interests in fields related to health, gerontology, education, psychology, sociology, and public policy. Students are assumed to have a statistical background, but the course emphasizes the ability to frame the questions in order to collaborate well with statistical specialists; the goal is methodological "literacy" not technical expertise.

Course Objectives

  • The readings are intended both to illustrate the idea of the class (and pick up on ideas of previous classes) and to identify controversies or problems around that idea. (Central to critical thinking is that we understand ideas better by holding them in tension with alternatives.)

  • The course as a whole aims to cultivate skills and dispositions of critical thinking and of life-long, cooperative learning facilitated by the resources of the internet. Each class (from week 3 onwards) will be led by one student, who will be assisted by a second student and the instructor. In preparation for the class session, the lead student reads the assigned articles and meets to discuss them with the instructor (by 14 days before the class), then prepares a "substantive statement" and discussion questions to post on the course wiki (by 7 days before the class).

  • The assistant then prepares a response to the substantive statement and consults with the lead student about ways to initiate and orient discussion. The rest of the class prepares by a) reading the assigned articles and the substantive statement and b) searching for references to add to the case and/or to make connections to their own areas of interest. (For example, for week 6 a student might review Barker's commentary in the same edition as Davies 2006. For weeks 7 &8 topics on heterogeneity within populations and variation in health care, a student might review the July '07 report on cancer rates among Asian-Americans, (The compilation of syllabi may serve as a resource here.)

  • The assistant's response and the class members' references (suitably annotated) are added to the wiki before or immediately after the class. This process is designed to build on the diversity of students' interests in ways that a pre-defined set of readings cannot. It should also serve as a resource for future students and should help the instructor identify alternative readings for future semesters (where "alternative" includes easier to digest and/or a contrary conclusion).

  • The conventional notion of teaching as transmission of knowledge from instructor to students still has some place in this course. The instructor will provide in advance an introduction to and motivation of each sessions' readings and cases. Discussion leaders may arrange for the instructor to give a mini-lecture, if this seems appropriate, or the instructor may add a response to the substantive statement. The one-on-one interaction around course projects and in preparation for discussion leading provides opportunities for individualized attention. The instructor will provide assistance with technical questions of concern either to the whole class or to the individual student, refer to relevant sections of Gordis and Kirkwood, and/or help students create a network of specialists they can consult with during and the semester and after the course is over.

  • Note: It is expected that students (and the instructor) will have to employ strategies of reading that allow us to extract take-home lessons from readings even as we skip sections that become too technical for us.

  • (More recent versions of the course can be accessed through the course wiki.)

Reading Materials

Readings on e-reserve.

Epidemiology. Gordis, L. (1996, 2000, or 2004). Philadelphia, Saunders/ Elsevier. (Old editions are OK as a primer for the course.)

Essential Medical Statistics. On reserve: Kirkwood, B. R. and J. A. C. Sterne (2003). Malden, Blackwell.

A Manual For Writers of Term papers, Theses, and Disertations. A guide on technical matters of writing scholarly papers, such as, Turabian, K. L. (1996).Chicago: University of Chicago Press (also in library's reference section).

A searchable compilation of syllabi from epidemiology courses bookmarked at


Component Percentage

Written Assignments 67%
Participation and contribution to the class process 33%



Written assignments (at least 8 of the 10 assignments), 2/3 of course grade
a. Substantive statements (once or twice = 1-2 assignments)
b. Response to substantive statements (once or twice = 1-2 assignments)
c. Annotated additional references submitted for a minimum of 6 classes (counts for 2 assignments)
d. Final prospectus for further research, writing, and practice (3000 words; revised in response to comments on complete draft; due one week after classes end)
e. preceded by initial project description [due session 8]; f. notes on work in progress [session 11], g. work-in-progress presentation [session 11], and h. complete draft [session 13] (total of 4 assignments)

Participation and contribution to the class process (at least 18 of the 22 items), 1/3 of course grade
i. Prepared participation in class meetings (=15 items)
j. Minimum of three in-office or phone conferences on your projects and discussion leading (= 3 items)
k. Discussion leading and assisting (3 times = 3 items)
l. Work with another student commenting on each other's draft prospectus

Overall course grade. If you complete "at least 8 assignments" and "at least 18 participation items" you get 80 points. (If you do less, you get 6.67 points for each written assignment & 1.5 for each participation item.) The rubric below is used at the end of the course to add further points.
For each quality "fulfilled very well" you get 3 additional points. If you "did an OK job, but there was room for more development/attention," you get 1.5 points.
1. A sequence of assignments paced more or less as in syllabus (and revisions timely),
2. often revised thoroughly and with new thinking in response to comments.
3. Prospectus -- clear, well structured, and feasible proposal,
4. with supporting references and detail, and professionally presented.
5-7. Consistent work outside class connecting topics to your own interests, as evidenced in
     5. Preparation for discussion leading
     6. Preparation of responses and assisting the discussion leader
     7. Preparation and submission of annotated references
8. Active, prepared participation and building class as learning community.

Overall course points are converted to letter grades as follows: A >= 95 points, for A- 87.5-94.5, for B+ is 80-87.4, for B is 72.5-79.5; for B- is 65-72.4; for C+ is 57.5-64.5; and C 50-57.4.

View Updated Course Wiki

Copyright ©2010 Peter Taylor, Ph.D.