How to Teach Quantitative Reasoning with the News
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:
- Ask "What if...",
- Interpret the magnitude of a quantity,
- Check the accuracy of stated facts or conduct a little research on the topic,
- Discuss how quantities were measured and who did the measuring,
- Perform a quick calculation or engage in mental estimation to check the author's claim(s),
- Convert an absolute change into a relative change or vice versa,
- Compare numerical information in the article with that presented in graphical format, or
- 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.
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
Or: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:
- 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?
- Opportunity for student research: What was the inflation rate when interest rates were 6-7%?
- 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.
Or: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:
- Understand language: Give some examples with specific numbers which help explain the statement this author is making. Explain if this points to a social concern.
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:
- Introduction of concept: An article can be used to introduce a topic. When used in this fashion an instructor should prepare a set of framing questions used to get students to begin to think about the concept, its importance, and its applications. For instance, in the first example above one may introduce the concept of absolute and relative change. Most of the dollar figures are given in absolute terms (an increase of $2.5 billion for construction/renovation), but one may wish to know what the relative change is ($2.5 billion represents what percent of the total budgets for all community colleges).
- Further exploration of concept: Often articles will be used to continue to explore and/or develop ideas and concepts. For example, if the article in the second example above were read after students have become familiar with the notion of simple and compound interest, students could determine which (if any) of these two concepts were most relevant.
- Brief review of concept: Concepts covered in depth earlier in the course will naturally be revisited at later dates as dictated by the articles being read at that time. For instance, the third example above can be used to review the "spread" of distributions.
- Assessment of concept: Any concept, skill, or technique that has been emphasized in class can be assessed via another article. Unlike many other assessment strategies, using a variety of articles to introduce, explore, develop, and assess a skill naturally requires a high degree of transferability. In all likelihood, students will be assessed with an article which uses different language, different contexts, and different settings than ones with which they learned the skill.
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:
- Class discussion: Use the article and several carefully constructed framing questions to instigate a class discussion of the topic/concept under consideration.
- Group work: Working in small groups of three or four, students can work through the study questions associated with the article.
- Individual assessment: Some or all of the study questions can be assigned for individual homework. Additionally, students could be asked to write a mock letter to the editor or to the reporter summarizing their analysis of the article and pointing out any discrepancies or ambiguities they uncovered.
- Creative combinations: For longer articles that have numerous study questions, employing combinations of all of the above pedagogical strategies works well. Having read the article before coming to class, students can discuss their first impressions in small groups. A class discussion helps focus the students on the main quantitative concept under consideration and a short overnight writing assignment assigns individual accountability for each student. This cycle which begins and ends with the individual student is shown below:
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).Back to top
- Teaching with the news provides elements of surprise and serendipity. However, taking the time to assemble a fair amount of material before the first day of class allows for a more topical approach. Current articles may still be brought to class several times a week in an effort to keep the topics current.
- Teaching with the news may make an instructor feel constrained by the topics covered and, possibly, the depth of coverage. Quantitative topics may not covered if they are not needed to understand or analyze a newspaper article. If one always wishes to introduce their students to a favorite topic (distribution of prime numbers, Euler characteristic, countable v uncountable sets, etc.) this may not be possible if you require the content to be driven by an actual newspaper article. Also, if one were to cover linear and exponential growth in a standard mathematics course, one might cover it at a depth not necessary for understanding media articles.
- Teaching with the news requires an instructor adept at facilitating discussions. Some skill is needed to keep up a well-focused discussion on the quantitative reasoning while also keeping the course moving along. Instructors need to make sure that these discussions take place by reducing the amount of time typically spent lecturing.
- Teaching with the news requires an instructor assess written work. Take time to explain to the students what the classroom expectations are: complete sentences, correct grammar and punctuation, clear and precise explanations, correct use of quantitative terms, etc. Creating a rubric and sharing this rubric with students can help out significantly.
- Begin gradually. Use a few relevant newspaper articles to supplement a QR course that you are already familiar with. Adopt the habit of perusing a daily paper and identifying articles which exemplify the type of skills you are expecting of your students.
- Have 80-90% of the articles to be studied assembled ahead of time and organized into topics with specific learning objectives. This gives you a safety net in case it is difficult to find articles on a daily/weekly basis. Be sure to prepare a list of study questions for each article.
- Clearly articulate your assessment strategies to your students. Make sure students understand what they will be required to "know" and how you plan to grade written responses on homework or in-class tests. Consider creating a grading rubric which identifies the characteristics of an outstanding written response.
- Decide on your class standard for language regarding absolute v relative percent change. This is the only way one can "test" for this knowledge later on. For example, if the unemployment rate changes from 6% to 8% how will you expect your students to articulate this change? (A "change of 2 percent" is probably too ambiguous since in this case those two percentage points account for about 33% of the beginning unemployment rate.)
- Decide how you plan to encourage students to bring in their own articles and how you convey the characteristics of an interesting article.