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Currents: quantitative literacy

Quantitative Literacy: A New Way of Teaching Math and Reasoning Skills

by Professor of Natural Sciences Ben Steele

A common complaint among college faculty members is that too often, students seem unprepared to do simple quantitative manipulations to solve problems they face in their courses. This is especially prevalent in non-math courses where unit conversions, proportions and percentages sometimes stall a student's progress. This complaint is driving a growing movement in higher education for “quantitative literacy” (QL) to replace or supplement math classes.

Quantitative literacy is not the current euphemism for math, but rather a different concept that makes compelling sense. Simply put, rather than help students solve mathematic problems like those at the end of each textbook chapter, QL seeks to ensure that students are able to use their math skills to analyze and solve problems and understand information and issues they encounter in their daily lives.

While QL will not necessarily help students solve (X + 3)(X + 2)= 0, it will help them convert the speed limit in Canada (kilometers per hour) to the miles per hour on their speedometer or evaluate a newspaper story on the escalating national deficit. In short, QL is a habit of mind more than the technical ability to solve mathematical problems.

But how do you teach a habit of mind? A typical college curriculum approaches the issue of quantitative literacy by requiring all students to take a math course, as Colby-Sawyer College has done in the recent past. These courses typically follow a progression in difficulty from college algebra to pre-calculus to calculus. But the value of a pre-calculus course seems questionable for the majority of students who will take just one math course in college.

While Colby-Sawyer will still offer this progression of math courses, college algebra, statistics and liberal arts math will be honed into quantitative literacy courses, and two new courses will be added to our liberal arts curriculum. In all of these courses, students will find opportunities to use the math they learned in high school in various practical contexts. The courses will emphasize the development of problem-solving strategies and allow students to review and practice their math skills.

We know that college students tend to compartmentalize their areas of knowledge, just as knowledge is somewhat compartmentalized within their courses. By teaching QL skills across the curriculum, we will integrate elements of math and reasoning into many classes, from art to biology and psychology. Students may be asked in an art class to use their math skills to calculate the size of a frame for their painting, or in psychology, to calculate the statistical likelihood of certain mental illnesses within a given population. At Colby-Sawyer and other colleges, we will ensure that students encounter problems with QL components in a variety of courses and contexts.

To meet this challenge, Colby-Sawyer hosted a four-day workshop for faculty last summer to develop quantitative components for their classes. This workshop, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, attracted 23 faculty representing all seven academic departments and several student service areas. Participants heard from experts in the field, searched for materials already developed by others and adapted them to their courses, and developed new materials of their own.

Ewa Chrusciel, a poet and assistant Humanities professor, created a project that will ask students to identify fractals in the patterns of word repetition in poetry. Professor Joe Carroll's module analyzes four ways of calculating divorce rates for a sociology class. Students in Robin Burroughs-Davis's first-year seminar will calculate the difference between average and median incomes in the context of promoting different political positions.

With this diverse deployment of QL components in a variety of classes, how can we be sure that all students will encounter these concepts and skills? Could they dodge classes with QL content? Perhaps, but our approach will be to evaluate quantitative skills in a sample of students to be sure they have acquired the skills they will need in our data-driven society.

Many of our students will take an assessment test in quantitative literacy in their first-year Pathway seminar and a similar test during their senior Capstone course. In between we also plan to survey students to measure their attitudes toward, and facility with, quantitative concepts. The test results and survey data will help us to evaluate the effectiveness of our across-the-curriculum approach to teaching quantitative literacy.

The reaction from students? As you might expect, we've heard comments such as “Is this going to be a math class?” and “These look like word problems. I hate word problems.” But as our students start to encounter math in several areas of the curriculum, we hope they will come to view it as a useful tool for understanding the world.