Why Teach with Spreadsheets?

Initial Publication Date: October 14, 2010

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Spreadsheet applications have an advantage over other teaching technology tools in that most students already have spreadsheet programs on their computers. Spreadsheets are also an attractive technology because students are likely to use spreadsheets in future projects, careers and in personal life.

Spreadsheet programs are enormously flexible, familiar, and relatively easy to use. As such, they can increase both the breadth and depth of the topics covered in a class. For example, spreadsheets can be set up to numerically solve complex systems of equations, find trends in data, or discover the optimum solution to a problem. However, any class that presents data in a table may use spreadsheet exercises to enhance quantitative literacy. While the efficacy of using spreadsheets to enhance learning has not been formally investigated, the long history of using this technology in a variety of disciplines has revealed undeniable advantages, as documented by Baker and Sugden (2003) in "Spreadsheets in Education –The First 25 Years".

Increase the breadth of course content

Because spreadsheets can be used to quickly solve complicated mathematical models, several authors have suggested that more sophisticated topics become in reach for lower-level courses. (See e.g. Cahill and Kosicki (2000, 2001).), Baker and Sugden (2003).) For example, models described by systems of equations with no standard algebraic solution can be explored though numerical examples when the spreadsheet program is used to solve the system numerically. In individual disciplines, spreadsheets have been used to teach chemistry without symbolic mathematics (Lim 2003), advanced topics in mathematics (Baker and Sugden (2003), Beare (2003)) and introductory physics (Webb 1993).

Increase the depth of course content

Sometimes data sets are too large or models are too complicated to allow significant exploration with just a pencil, paper and calculator. Using spreadsheets allows for a variety of scenarios to be explored quickly so students can get a better intuitive sense of how a model works or what a data series shows. For example, Abramovich et al (2010) argue that spreadsheets can help develop skills in teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics from the basic to advanced level.

Improve critical thinking skills

A number of studies have suggested that using the spreadsheet platform can also enhance critical thinking skills.

Improve quantitative literacy

Any course that uses tables of data, equations, graphs, or makes arguments based on quantitative information provides an opportunity for students to enhance fluency in quantitative methods. Many careers, everyday events and news stories require quantitative skills. The National Numeracy Network (NNN), hosted by SERC argues for the importance of quantitative literacy and provides a wealth of resources to support for achieving this goal in the classroom.

Dirty students' hands

Constructing and using spreadsheet models forces students to "get their hands dirty." That is, when students directly interact with a model or data, they maybe able to understand it better than they would by taking in a lecture or reading a text. In this way, the benefits are similar to teaching with simulations. Research has suggested that students learn more when they are engaged with research, and that creative use of technology can support this process. For example, see the Boyer Commission Report, "Reinventing Undergraduate Education" (link opens new window). In addition, research has shown that students learn more when they are interactively engaged with course material

Improve assessment

While at first it may seem that giving students access to computers complicates assessment, in fact spreadsheet exercises may make it easier to judge learning and assign grades in some contexts. This is discussed further in How to teach with spreadsheets. In addition, spreadsheets can be used to support quantitative writing.