Measured Thinking: Reasoning with Numbers about World Events, Health, Science, and Social Issues

Nathan Grawe,
Carleton College


Number on Cork2

The National Council on Education and the Disciplines (2001) warns that "The world of the twenty-first century is a world awash in numbers.... Unfortunately, despite years of study and life experience in an environment immersed in data, many educated adults remain functionally innumerate." What does it mean to be literate in a world rich with numbers? How can we learn to think with and about numbers to inform decisions? How can we marshal the power of quantitative rhetoric in argument?

This course aims to condition students to approach everyday problems with Neil Lutsky's 10 Foundational Quantitative Reasoning Questions (Microsoft Word 43kB Mar26 08) in mind:

  1. What do the numbers show?
  2. How representative is that?
  3. Compared to what?
  4. Is the outcome statistically significant?
  5. What's the effect size?
  6. Are the results those of a single study or of a literature?
  7. What's the research design (correlational or experimental)?
  8. How was the variable operationalized?
  9. Who's in the measurement sample?
  10. Controlling for what?

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Liberal arts college

Course Context:

This course is one of several recently-created courses designed to enhance student facility with quantitative reasoning. In the last three years, all of these courses have been first-year seminars. While most of the other courses created for this purpose fall within traditional departments and count toward distribution credit, this course is interdisciplinary. In addition to serving the specific goals of the quantitative reasoning initiative, this course is also designed to meet the broader objectives of the first-year seminar program: to teach first-term students to think and write at the college level.

This course is an adaptation of a course of the same title designed and taught by Neil Lutsky.

Course Content:

This course is less concerned with specific content than with a methodology--the predisposition to consider the power an limitations of numerical evidence in solving problems and making arguments. In adapting the course from one designed by Neil Lutsky, the syllabus below explores "current events." However, the "10 Questions" that under gird the course could be easily applied to a seminar on almost any topic.

Course Goals:

This course is designed to introduce students, at the very beginning of their college careers, to the quantitative reasoning lens. The goals of the course match those of the broader quantitative reasoning initiative on campus:

Goal 1. Thinks quantitatively


1. States questions and issues under consideration in numerical terms.
2. Identifies appropriate quantitative or numerical evidence to address questions and issues.
3. Investigates questions by selecting appropriate quantitative or numerical methods.

Goal 2. Implements competently


4. Generates, collects, or accesses appropriate data.
5. Uses quantitative methods correctly.
6. Focuses analysis appropriately on relevant data

Goal 3. Interprets and evaluates thoughtfully


7. Interprets results to address questions and issues under consideration
8. Assesses the limitations of the methods employed, if appropriate to the task or assignment

Goal 4. Communicates effectively


9. Presents and/or reports quantitative data appropriately

Course Features:

This course provides students the opportunity to practice the use of quantitative reasoning in both written and oral argument. The final assignment asks students to apply their newly-developed skill to a locally relevant policy discussion: the implementation of the College's need-blind admissions policy.


Because first-year seminars at Carleton are graded as pass/fail, I was able to focus attention on the communication of quantitative arguments. The assignments included below include explicit evaluation criteria. In most, I have included a formal rubric with assessment criteria with "points" assigned to each. Students were also required to participate in evaluation of each other as part of peer review. My decision to include peer review served two goals. First, I wanted students receiving feedback to see my perceptions mirrored by their classmates. Second, I hope that in evaluating another student's work with the rubric, students gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their own work.


Syllabus from Grawe's section (Microsoft Word 52kB Mar26 08)

Teaching Materials:

Course assignments:

Numbers We All Should Know (Microsoft Word 33kB Mar26 08) (adapted from an assignment written by Neil Lutsky)

Numbers We All Should Know Referee Report (Microsoft Word 32kB Mar26 08)

Public Service Report (Microsoft Word 30kB Mar26 08)

Public Service Report Referee Report (Microsoft Word 31kB Mar26 08)

Critical Analysis of NYT Op-Ed (Microsoft Word 29kB Mar26 08)

Public Policy Priorities Oral Presentations (Microsoft Word 28kB Mar26 08)

References and Notes:

The arc of this course reflects a course of the same title designed and taught by Neil Lutsky, professor of psychology, Carleton College.