A Pre-Quantitative Literacy Course

Our state, Oregon, is beginning to rethink the prerequisite course to our general college level quantitative literacy (QL) courses.  The course in question is called Math 95.  It covers sections of the high school algebra II curriculum.  The college level courses are Math 105 – Contemporary Mathematics, a survey of topics including the mathematics of finance and Math 243 – Elementary Statistics.

This is a good idea.  Presently Math 95 serves two purposes.  One, it ensures (at least for students who haven’t passed a placement requirement) that students have a certain level of algebra skills expected of college graduates and that they have the skills necessary for success in the general college level QL courses.  Two, it prepares the students interested in STEM type careers for a college algebra – precalculus course.  The usual compromise is too much algebra detail for the first group of students and not enough algebra detail for the second group.

As I understand it, Oregon is looking at changing and/or replacing Math 95 based on the math needs of the standard QL classes, Math 105 and Math 243.  This is a mistake or at least not very forward looking.  Just because Math 105 and Math 243 meet the formal QL requirement for graduation does not mean that they meet the QL needs of a future citizen or the QL goals of a particular college or the QL skills required by a particular major.

Instead I would propose a replacement for Math 95 that would be a true precollege level QL course and I would also propose that the QL college course be truly that – a QL course that prepares its students for the demands of living in the 21st century.  Note I am avoiding the issue of QL across the curriculum which would be the ideal college-level process.

First consider what a college-level QL would be like.  It would be taught at the college-level that is most of the questions would be critical thinking questions and few would be skill demonstration.  It would entail a fair amount of writing. It would use sophisticated technology.  Topics would include From statistics: confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, regression, reading and critiquing studies, the Bayesian point of view. From math modeling: reading a formula, matrix models, markov chains and the concept of state, systems theory, network models, linear programming. From the math of finance: annuities, opportunity costs. And lastly the use of mathematical tools like Excel, SPSS, Gephi, Wolfram Alpha, Matlab, and modern graphing software.

The topic list for a college-level QL course informs this list of topics for a PreQL course could be:

  • Facility with a scientific calculator – estimation, rounding, evaluating formulas
  • Facility with proportional reasoning – percent, decimals, geometric similarity
  • Facility with using formulas – evaluating with numerical values, manipulation, units
  • Facility with graphs – create, read, critique
  • Facility with the basics of statistics – probability, mean, standard deviation, distribution shape, sampling, sampling variability, spreadsheets
  • Facility with linear math – interpretation of slope and intercept
  • Facility with interest calculations – simple interest, compound interest
  • Classification of functions – types, domains, ranges, behaviors
  • Basic geometry
  • Basic logic

These lists are off the top of my head but I think it is clear that college-level QL cannot be covered in a ten week quarter. The material for the preQL looks doable in that time span but would presume familiarity with some algebra and geometry hopefully covered in Math 60 and Math 65. I know all of the above is easy for me to say and I am certainly not walking the talk.  I have called QL an impossible dream in another post but “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”


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.
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