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Writing Across the Curriculum

Using Writing to Support Quantitative Reasoning

Students in a range of disciplines, from economics to sociology to health sciences, are asked to summarize, synthesize, and critique various kinds of quantitative data—including statistics, charts and graphs, and formulas. While many students struggle with interpreting numerical information and incorporating it effectively into their writing, informal writing strategies focused on quantitative data can help students develop their quantitative thinking.

Below are some resources—sample assignments that can be modified for your own classroom—and suggested readings for faculty interested in writing and quantitative reasoning. Faculty interested in using writing to help strengthen students’ quantitative reasoning will also find useful resources in other sections of this website, particularly the section “Using Writing to Promote Critical Reading.” Dialectical notebooks and sentence starters, for example, are strategies that can be easily modified to address the quantitative reasoning and general learning objectives of your course.

Quantitative reasoning learning objectives

In designing or revising a syllabus it is important to consider the ways in which you communicate course objectives to students. Students should know why they are in the course, what you expect from them, and what you hope they will learn. To make these expectations clear, you might write a letter to the class in which you introduce yourself and explain what you hope to accomplish. You can ask students to reply to your letter, letting you know why they are taking the class, describing their previous experiences with the material, and raising questions and/or concerns. Some professors ask students to describe their experiences with college writing and/or discipline-specific writing. Letters like these are a good way to get to know students, open up lines of communication, and gather base-line writing samples.

In-class low stakes writing assignments

Daily, low-stakes (informal, often ungraded writing) assignments can help students to process key ideas in a course reading and prepare them for class discussion. Students might be given a graph and asked to jot down several conclusions based on the data. Informal writing assignments could ask students to translate a theoretical concept into their own words; or students might offer examples of how a model or theory operates in their own lives.

Exam preparation journal assignments

As a way of preparing for exams, students can respond in learning journals to specific writing prompts related to course readings and lectures. Journals can be used to verify students’ understanding of difficult concepts or theories and a place where they can grapple with calculating and representing (through charts/graphs or statistical summaries) quantitative material.

Looking at the data in everyday life

One way to make quantitative data relevant to students is to ask them interpret data gathered from their lived experience and then reflect on their findings in a report or proposal. For example, students in a Health and Nutrition course recorded and analyzed their food intake over two days, researched the nutritional value of their diets, and wrote up recommendations for improving their nutrition.

Suggestions for further reading

  • Bean, John C., Dean Drenk, and F.D. Lee. “Microtheme Strategies for Developing Cognitive Skills.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 12 (1982): 27-38.
  • Carleton College, Teaching and Learning Center, “Quantitative Writing.”
  • Cleveland, William S. The Elements of Graphing Data. 2nd ed., Hobart Press, 1994.
  • Cleveland, William S. Visualizing Data. Hobart Press, 1993.
  • Richardson, Randall and William McCallum. “The Third R in Literacy,” Quantitative Literacy: Why Numeracy Matters for Schools and Colleges.
  • Tufte, Edward R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press, 1983.