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Writing about Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum

Len Vacher, University of South Florida
This material was originally developed by Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum as part of its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


Spreadsheets across the Curriculum (SSAC) provides a libaray of student activities created by college faculty from around the country. The self-paced learning modules are short PowerPoint presentations that guide students through a problem-solving exercise using mathematics in non-mathematics context. A key component of the SSAC pedagogy is that students build spreadsheets to perform calculations to address questions posed in the module. Currently there are about 50 modules in the library spanning some 20 separate Library of Congress categories. The modules aim to shed light on particular quantitative literacy issues and/or teach particular quantitative literacy skills. The quantitative literacy learning objectives are explicitly identified on the first slide of the individual modules.

This activity is intended to add to the SSAC pedagogy and assessment. The student assignment is aimed at students who have already used one or more SSAC modules in their classes. The assignment is for the student to browse the SSAC library, select a new module, work through it, reflect on the quantitative literacy issues involved, and write a short (1- 2-page) reaction to the activity as a learning experience.

The key question these student module reviewers are asked is "How effective is this module in teaching you the quantitative skill or skills identified on the first page of the module?" Students are graded, among other things, on the understanding they display of the relevant quantitative literacy issues and the correctness of their style in handling mathematical information (e.g., equations).

Learning Goals

In this activity, students will:
  • Analyze the quantitative literacy content of a module by explicitly addressing the module's effectiveness of teaching the quantitative literacy skill that the module identifies as a learning objective
  • Gain experience in writing about mathematical content.
In the process, they will:
  • Learn a particular quantitative skill in more depth because the assignment asks them to include a description of the concepts involved in the quantitative issues they discuss.
  • Learn how to write about equations in text, because the activity specifically asks them to include one or more equations in their review.

Context for Use

The idea is that this activity can be used wherever SSAC modules are being used. More immediately, the activity will be used in my Computational Geology course (Fall 2008), which aims to be a quantitative literacy course for geology majors. The students work through about 15 SSAC modules during the semester. In addition, they have a term project, in which they work in groups to create a module of their own; they present their module to the class at the end of the semester. Like the SSAC modules themselves, these student-created modules are intended to teach a quantitative skill in the context of a geological problem. The setting of this new writing activity is as a runup to the term project – late in the semester after the students have experienced many modules, but early enough that the activity can influence the preparation of their module. It will be implemented as a homework assignmeent following a classroom session devoted to writing issues, including issues of style and formatting supported by excerpts from the Chicago Manual of Style.

Description and Teaching Materials

I haven't made the activity yet [file 'Presumably this is a Word doc']

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity has not been implemented yet, so I have no tipping tips.


My graduate student TA, who is a veteran of multiple undergraduate courses using modules and has reviewed SSAC modules, will design a rubric to grade this student activity. I will advise her on the writing issues I think are important here. My advice will be for her to consider including the following type of questions:
  • Does the author demonstrate an understanding of the quantitative literacy skill?
  • Does the review address the issue of conformity between what the module identifies as the quantitative skill and what the module actually delivers?
  • Does the review address the issue of the relevancy of the spreadsheet to the mathematical problem solving involved?
  • Does the review take a position on the efficacy of the module as a learning tool and support that position convincingly?
  • Regarding mechanics of clarity and grace, where does the writing fall in a range between "incoherent and full of assaults on grammar and syntax" vs "well organized, well thought out, and free of problems of style."

References and Resources