National Numeracy Network > Teaching Resources > Teaching Quantitative Reasoning with the News > How to Teach Quantitative Reasoning with the News

How to Teach Quantitative Reasoning with the News

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See examples of activities developed around newspaper articles

How to Choose an article:

If one is using articles in a quantitative reasoning (QR) course, they should certainly contain numerical information (either in the article itself or, perhaps, in an accompanying graphic). The instructor should also keep in mind the specific students they are targeting. For example, a classroom full of traditional-aged freshmen may not be overly interested in the finances surrounding the purchase of a house or dollar-cost averaging while they may be very invested in the financial truths of obtaining an education. Thus, focusing on articles which stress the importance of quantitative reasoning in a relevant setting is important. Articles which are especially rich are those which allow students to:

  1. Ask "What if...",
  2. Interpret the magnitude of a quantity,
  3. Check the accuracy of stated facts or conduct a little research on the topic,
  4. Discuss how quantities were measured and who did the measuring,
  5. Perform a quick calculation or engage in mental estimation to check the author's claim(s),
  6. Convert an absolute change into a relative change or vice versa,
  7. Compare numerical information in the article with that presented in graphical format, or
  8. Become familiar with language used to represent and compare quantities.

It is important to continually reinforce the point that to be critical consumers of quantitative information, one must form a habit of mind to continually check, examine, and analyze quantitative information that is being presented.

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For Example:

In today's (July 15, 2009) Washington Post, a second page article caught my eye. Headlined "Obama Announces Community College Plan" and reported by by Michael D. Shear and Daniel de Vise, a sub-headline mentioned a new $12 billion pot of money dedicated to community colleges. With many of my students coming from community colleges, the extremely large quantity of money specified indicated that this would be a good article to bring to class. After reading the article several questions and opportunities for further study came to mind. Some of the items on the following list could be developed into a more streamlined set of study questions:
  1. Putting large numbers in a personal context: How large is $12 billion? If evenly distributed over all the nation's community colleges, how much would each college get? What percent of the school's budget is this? What types of activities could be funded with this amount of money?
  2. Interpreting the magnitude of a quantity: The article mentioned that this program would also "add 5 million new graduates by 2020." What is $12 billion divided among 5 million students? More details indicate that $2.5 billion goes towards construction/renovation, $500 million to develop new courses, and $9 billion for "innovation". If one is trying to decide how much money is being spent to produce another college graduate, perhaps one of these other figures should be used instead of the $12 billion.
  3. Absolute vs. Relative Change: The article also states that "[t]he funds would be used to support...a 40 percent to 50 percent increase in the number of people who graduate from a community college..." while "[c]urrently, about 1 million students graduate from community colleges each year." How do these two statements compare with the "5 million new graduates by 2020" statement?
  4. Opportunity for student research: For a local community college, students could collect information such as a) what is the current budget for instruction? b) what is the recent enrollment history? c) how does this compare to the recent budget history? d) any estimates on how much money it would take to increase enrollment by 40 to 50 percent?
  5. Discuss how quantities were measured: Should success at a community college be measured by a "graduation" rate? What about students which successfully transfer from a community college (without a degree) to a four-year college or university?


A short financial advice column in July 16 Washington Post addressed the lower interest rates that affect today's savings accounts. The article claims that "a 2 percent interest rate with 1 percent deflation these days is worth as much as a 6 or 7 percent interest rate was under normal inflation conditions." A few questions which immediately come to mind are:
  1. Check author's claim: Can one easily check this out? Do you simply add/subtract percentage points or does one have to consider compounded interest?
  2. Opportunity for student research: What was the inflation rate when interest rates were 6-7%?
  3. Ask "What if...": Have students make the relevant assumptions about interest rates and inflation/deflation rates and use a spreadsheet to model several years' worth of a savings account balance.


In an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post on July 16, there is a statement that "the college-going rates of the highest-socioeconomic-status students with the lowest achievement levels is the same level as the poorest students with the highest achievement levels." This single statement brings to mind a task one might ask students to perform:

How to Use an article (pedagogical motivation):

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After choosing an article or advertisement that has some "quantitative depth" to it, one must decide how best to make use of the article in class. Some of the most common uses are described briefly below:

How to Use an article (implementation):

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In general, longer articles should be handed out the day before so they can be read before class begins. Instructors may wish to formalize the reading assignment by attaching some brief accountability to it. For instance, one may require each student to email a short two or three sentence summary to the instructor before class begins. The actual study questions may be used in a variety of formats, the most common being:

implementation cycle

A word on technology: Having access to a variety of technology is helpful. A document cam makes it easy for instructors or students to share daily articles. A computer in the classroom makes it possible to pull up internet resources (e.g. online newspaper sites and U.S. census data) and make use of spreadsheets as needed. Access to a computer for every student is not necessary, but having at least one in the class can be helpful (many students read their news online and the online presentation may be more appealing than a printed version).


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Tips for the first time:

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