In Brief

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Making Their Mark

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Past as Prologue

Explore Haystack, a portal to the history of Colby-Sawyer College.

Colby-Sawyer Courier

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This new literary magazine features creative writing in many genres by current students and alumni, faculty and staff, and a few friends and partners.


Find out what Colby-Sawyer alumni have been up to since graduation.

A Changing Definition of Literacy

Quantitative literacy is a cultural field where language and quantitative constructs merge and are no longer one or the other.

-Robert Orrill, Historian, 2002

Literacy has been going through a paradigm shift since the beginning of the information age.

The ability to comprehend instructions and perform routine procedures, including calculations, in a rote manner is no longer adequate for our global and technological society. We need to sift through quantitative information to make decisions in our social, political, economic and cultural lives. Whether comparing and choosing healthcare, retirement or financial plans, or weighing the benefits and risks of an investment option, a medical treatment plan or the economic and environmental impact of a decision, we must navigate quantitative information.

The need to extend the definition of literacy first appeared in the 1959 report The Central Advisory Committee for Education in London, which described the term numeracy as “an ability to communicate with numbers requiring sophisticated reasoning skills just as in traditional reading and writing literacies.”

Since then, a new definition of literacy has emerged. In 1997 the College Board report Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America introduced the notion of Quantitative Literacy (QL) as a necessary skill set in order for the public to fully participate as active citizens in society.

Mathematician and QL expert Lynn Steen, Ph.D., emphasized in his 2001 report for the National Council on Education and the Disciplines that “quantitatively literate citizens need to know more than formulas and equations.” They need, he said, a “predisposition to look at the world through mathematical eyes, to see the benefits (and risks) of thinking quantitatively about commonplace issues, and to approach complex problems with confidence in the value of careful reasoning. Quantitative literacy empowers people by giving them tools to think for themselves, to ask intelligent questions of experts, and to confront authority confidently. These are skills required to thrive in the modern world.”

Current research and reporting has identified significant concerns among educators, policymakers and employers over the alarming gap between the quantitative needs of citizens and their ability to deal with quantitative information. Due to these increased concerns, the Mathematical Association of America reported that, over the last decade, introductory mathematics curricula in colleges and universities have shifted toward an emphasis on quantitative literacy and reasoning.

Former President of Harvard University Derek Bok argues in Our Underachieving Colleges that “numeracy is not something mastered in a single course. The ability to apply quantitative methods to real-world problems requires a facility and an insight and intuition that can be developed only through repeated practice. This quantitative material needs to permeate the curriculum, not only in the sciences but also in the social sciences and, in appropriate cases, in the humanities.”

Since 2003 Colby-Sawyer has taken a leadership role at the national level in the implementation and dissemination of Quantitative Literacy and Reasoning (QLR) across curriculum initiatives. Efforts intensified in 2007 when the college received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to infuse QL across the curriculum. The projectleaders, who represented a variety of disciplines, organized nine faculty development workshops at national and regional levels. Since the start of the QL initiative, Colby-Sawyer faculty have developed more than 50 class activities across 13 disciplines; half of them are peer reviewed and published at the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College's website and the remainder are posted at

Currently, Colby-Sawyer is conducting NSFsupported research in collaboration with Bowdoin College, Wellesley College, Southern Maine Community College, Central Washington University and Edmonds Community College to develop a QLR assessment instrument that can be used by institutions for a variety of purposes. The instrument indicates that Colby-Sawyer must bring more intentional changes to the curriculum to improve students' QLR skills at a significant level.

The curriculum review process has developed a two-tiered plan. Colby- Sawyer is developing a QLR course requirement for all first-year students and will focus on how to strengthen students' quantitative skills throughout their college studies, particularly in their majors.

The college's goal is to prepare students for challenges and opportunities presented by the changing needs of the global, knowledge-based workforce and for full participation in the society as informed citizens. This challenge is faced by many institutions across the nation, and the concerns are shared by many developed nations. The most recent study conducted in 2013 by the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development reiterates these concerns surrounding the adult numeracy skills of many developed nations, including ours.

In addition to preparing the workforce to compete in a knowledge-based global economy, experts agree that another pressing issue must be considered. “If individuals lack the ability to think numerically, they cannot participate fully in civic life,” said Dr. Steen in his report to the National Council on Education and the Disciplines. This, he contends, brings into question the very basis of government of, by and for the people.

-by Semra Kilic-Bahi, Associate Professor, Natural Sciences