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How to Use Quantitative Writing

Using quantitative writing (QW) effectively involves a variety of issues:

Jump down to:Designing Effective QW Assignments | Deciding on Assessment Criteria | Framing QW as a Process | Challenges of Teaching QW

Whether you are a long time user of quantitative writing assignments or a novice, the decision about how (or whether) to incorporate QW assignments into your course begins with the same question: How will they contribute to the course learning goals?
Getting Started

QW assignments shouldn't be added to a course for their own sake. Rather, they should only be added when they contribute to a course learning goal. Therefore, the first step in thinking about how to use quantitative writing is to explicitly identify your learning goals for the course (typically a short list of 5-8 statements). Learning goals state what a student earning a high grade should be able to do. They typically include an active verb following the phrase "students will be able to . . . ."

Here is an example from an economics course of a learning outcome that could be implemented using a quantitative writing assignment:
"Students will develop effective arguments on economic issues by asking appropriate economic questions, analyzing quantitative data, and using these data evidentially in ways appropriate to the discipline." (Dean Peterson, Associate Professor of Economics, Seattle University)

Once you have identified learning goals that lend themselves to quantitative writing, the next step is to design specific QW assignments.

Designing Effective QW Assignments

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The key to designing an effective Quantitative Writing (QW) assignment is planning carefully. What exactly do you want the students to accomplish? Spell this out on a handout or a web page. If you don't specify what you want, you can be sure that at least some students will not give it to you. For example, if you expect students to appeal to the data as evidence in their argument, then say so. Sometimes students don't think to do that.

Good design incorporates at least three steps:

Once you've identified your goals, you should consider how a QW assignment can support them. QW assignments shouldn't be "yet another thing" to cram on a syllabus, but rather a means of doing better what you are already trying to do. Is one learning goal more important than the others? Design the assignment so that students will spend their time on the portions that are most important to you.
Good topics for QW assignments immerse students in the analysis of quantitative data relevant to the subject matter of your course. Problems should be open-ended rather than asking for discrete answers. Problems can range from the simple to the very elaborate and can be used either for formal writing assignments or for short exploratory writing. Note that good topics for class discussion often work well as writing assignments. Refer to the examples in this module for specific ideas.
One way to create a good QW assignment is to base it on a compelling reading. Students can come to understand the real-life stakes underpinning the use of quantitative reasoning when they read persuasive works that interpret quantitative data in different ways or that otherwise use quantitative arguments to support alternative positions. Short books written by experts to lay audiences are often good examples of this type of reading.
Once you've decided on a topic, you'll need to choose an appropriate context for the assignment. Context includes several dimensions: What genre of writing assignment should be used? To whom should the writing be addressed? What should the author's purpose be in the assignment? For example, the purpose could be to persuade readers of a particular point of view. Note that 'purpose' here is a bit different than the instructor's goals of the assignment.

Deciding on Criteria for Assessment

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While you are designing the assignment, you should also decide on criteria for assessment. You should communicate those criteria to students on the assignment sheet. QW assignments ask students to explain in writing the answer to an analytical problem. Good assignments, however, go beyond asking a student to convert mathematics to words. Rather, they ask students to interpret the mathematical results.

Framing the Assignment as a Process

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Most principles of good writing apply to quantitative writing as well. Good writing should be viewed as a process rather than a product. Few writers can produce a finished copy in one draft; most writers require several drafts often making significant global changes between them as a result of discovering new ideas and of trying to meet the needs of readers for forecasting, clear topic sentences, headings, good transitions, and unified and coherent paragraphs. Here are some ways to encourage students to take their writing through multiple drafts:

Challenges in Using Quantitative Writing

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Flying Trapeze


When you begin incorporating Quantitative Writing into your courses, you may feel like you are 'flying without a net' but as the image to the right shows, there are some safety wires if you just know how to connect them. In this section, we discuss some common challenges when using QW, and how those challenges can be overcome, for example, by using common practices from colleagues in the Composition field.



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