Quantitative Literacy – The Nearly Impossible Dream

An essential component of a liberal arts education is quantitative literacy (QL) which is  defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) as “‘a habit of mind’, competency, and comfort in working with numerical data.”  The AACU’s Quantitative Literacy VALUE Rubric describes specific goals (in the Capstone column) for a college graduate.

A first challenge to designing a curriculum for QL would be what types of projects should be assigned and what exam questions should be asked so that the rubric could be applied and so that students would develop a “habit of mind” and competency and comfort?  The typical single QL course required for graduation and taken in the first two years of college is not sufficient.  QL needs to be embedded across the curriculum.  Students should experience increasingly complex QL tasks as they move toward graduation.

What would such a progression look like?  Entering college students would need to know  certain math skills and concepts.  An interesting new approach can be found in this forthcoming text, Math Lit by Kathleen Almy and Heather Foes.  A less thought-out list can  be found in this post on pre-statistics. All students including math and science majors should take a basic QL 101 course similar to but not the same as a typical elementary statistics course. This course should have eighty or ninety percent higher level thinking and ten to twenty percent mechanics.  Teaching a credible course this way would require massive numbers of data sets for examples, homework and projects with the ability to create unique data sets for each student.  Students would be producing or interpreting numerical models routinely on their homework and test and papers and projects.  Reasoning from sample data would still be an important skill but critiques of sampling methods would be just as important.

Once such a course is taken – as early in a student’s college career as possible – students would expect to see QL modules in their subsequent courses, QL across the curriculum.  This is the impossible dream.  Most faculty routinely write and consider themselves at least modestly competent to assess student writing.  Skills in written communication are important for most majors and thus a written communication standard for a university is not a hard sell.  Most faculty however do not have QL.  It is problematic for a QL university-wide standard that is not confined to a single course to be adopted.  Much training would be needed.  This is why the ideal however commendable of QL – habit of mind, competency and comfort is just that – an ideal.

This isn’t the post I wanted to write.  When I first read the QL rubrics I was excited.  I wanted to build projects and homework and tests that would address just these issues.  I thought to build an assessment instrument for each goal.  I envisioned a series of assignments that would grow QL skills and habits.  I was going to design summative exercises and make them part of a series of posts.  I stopped right there.  Summative exercises require formative exercises – lots of formative exercises.  If ninety percent of a course is to be QL critical thinking, then ninety percent of the homework should be of equal complexity.  Each term when I teach algebra I can be heard to say that I wished all algebra problems were word problems and my students can be heard to groan.  For most people math is a tool  designed for practical use.  We spend so much time on symbol manipulation, now more conveniently done on computer algebra systems that applications have become an afterthought.  Check any lower level math course. I am guessing five parts abstraction to one part mathematical model.  Building models is hard.  To become comfortable and competent requires repeated experiences of increasing complexity.  I got lost in this ideal.  QL goals are exciting but I can not see a clear path to those ends.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
This entry was posted in Curriculum, Rants, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Quantitative Literacy – The Nearly Impossible Dream

  1. notanidiot says:

    Does it not seem appropriate that students are not learning sentence structure any more, and grammar, spelling are low on the list as well? For one to understand a word problem in math it ought to follow that they are able to determine the nouns, verbs, and other parts of sentences to untangle the question?

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