What is Teaching with Spreadsheets?

Do you ever refer to numbers when teaching in your discipline? Do you ever use mathematical models to describe phenomena? If so, then a spreadsheet program might be a useful tool to enhance learning. Any discipline that uses numbers can make use of spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets allow students to "get their hands dirty" by working with real-world data. Spreadsheets make abstract or complex models accessible by providing concrete examples and allowing "what if" analyses. Charts on a printed page are "dead" while spreadsheets representations are "live" in that students can interact with the concepts underlying them.

Spreadsheets promote learning in a variety of ways from helping to prepare lectures to creating laboratory sessions, and they can be integrated with a number of other teaching techniques. See more about how spreadsheets can be used with different pedagogies.

As with any tool, a teacher must consider how much time should be devoted to learning spreadsheets. The case for teaching spreadsheet skills may be more compelling than for other specialized software, because students are likely to use spreadsheet programs in other classes, careers, or in personal life.

However, there is still a trade-off in taking class time to instruct spreadsheet programming. In addition, when considering any quantitative assignment, teachers must also consider the level of mathematics required. Spreadsheets may be used flexibly by either requiring spreadsheet construction or sophisticated mathematics or masking the technical skills used to solve a problem. In this way, spreadsheets may be used to either facilitate student understanding of spreadsheet and quantitative skills or allow students to explore the concepts underlying models without understanding the mathematical or spreadsheet construction details. Any of these approaches allow students to build an intuitive understanding of quantitative approaches. See more about varying technical content.


Learn more about Excel basics or more advanced spreadsheet tools.

The Teaching with Data module contains more information on how to teach with data. Spreadsheet programs contain a number of powerful tools, some well-known, some less so.

The online journal Spreadsheets in Education is a good resource for scholarly articles on teaching and learning using spreadsheets.