Writing about Numbers We Should Know

Neil Lutsky, Carleton College
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This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


This assignment asks students to identify a number we should know (e.g., current world population) and to write a short paper that presents that number clearly and meaningfully. This is the opening assignment for a first year course on quantitative reasoning, and it is intended (a) to expose the students in the course collectively to important numbers they should know, (b) to introduce students to informational literacy issues raised by research searches for numbers, and (c) to give students practice in discussing numbers in writing in precise and principled ways.

Learning Goals

  • To encourage students to think about the world in terms of numbers via the question "What do the numbers say?"
  • To give students experiences using reference sources to find and verify numbers.
  • To help students learn how to evaluate the reliability of different reference sources for numbers.
  • To involve students in writing and, specifically, writing about numbers.

Context for Use

This assignment is given the first week of a first year seminar on quantitative reasoning. It is intended as an introductory project, and it follows immediately upon a presentation to class by a college reference librarian that addresses uses of the library for research on numbers, standards and procedures for evaluating the reliability of reference information (e.g., peer review), and common sources of quantitative information. The project is spread over a week and a half, as students first submit papers, critique two peers' papers, and revise their own papers in light of the feedback they have received.

This assignment has been used in a small class (N=15) on quantitative reasoning, but the use of peer reviews for the first draft of the writing makes this suitable for larger groups, and the general format of the project could be adapted for more specific disciplinary applications (e.g., Numbers We Should Know About X [where X = any specific course topic]).

Description and Teaching Materials

  1. Reference Librarian's Handout on Information Literacy for Quantitative Research.
  2. Course assignment handout.
  3. Instructions for peer reviews.
  4. Final instructions for finished papers.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I found students may need guidance to help them select easily quantifiable phenomena for this assignment.

I have also used the first chapter of John Paulos's book Innumeracy as well as sections of the Jane Miller book, The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers to give students useful background for this assignment.


I consider how well written the paper is in general: how easy it is to read and understand sentences, how well-structured the paper is as a whole, and whether the paper is carefully proofread. I consider the documentation the writer provides and whether the quantitative information is presented in a clear and meaningful manner. And I value reasonable cautions the author highlights for the reader about the information and arguments he or she advances.

References and Resources