How to Use Quantitative Writing

Initial Publication Date: October 11, 2006
Using quantitative writing (QW) effectively involves a variety of issues:

Jump down to:Designing Effective QW Assignments | Deciding on Assessment Criteria | Framing QW as a Process | Challenges of Teaching QW

Whether you are a long time user of quantitative writing assignments or a novice, the decision about how (or whether) to incorporate QW assignments into your course begins with the same question: How will they contribute to the course learning goals?
Getting Started

QW assignments shouldn't be added to a course for their own sake. Rather, they should only be added when they contribute to a course learning goal. Therefore, the first step in thinking about how to use quantitative writing is to explicitly identify your learning goals for the course (typically a short list of 5-8 statements). Learning goals state what a student earning a high grade should be able to do. They typically include an active verb following the phrase "students will be able to . . . ."

Here is an example from an economics course of a learning outcome that could be implemented using a quantitative writing assignment:
"Students will develop effective arguments on economic issues by asking appropriate economic questions, analyzing quantitative data, and using these data evidentially in ways appropriate to the discipline." (Dean Peterson, Associate Professor of Economics, Seattle University)

Once you have identified learning goals that lend themselves to quantitative writing, the next step is to design specific QW assignments.

Designing Effective QW Assignments

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The key to designing an effective Quantitative Writing (QW) assignment is planning carefully. What exactly do you want the students to accomplish? Spell this out on a handout or a web page. If you don't specify what you want, you can be sure that at least some students will not give it to you. For example, if you expect students to appeal to the data as evidence in their argument, then say so. Sometimes students don't think to do that.

Good design incorporates at least three steps:

  • Identifying and prioritizing the goals of the assignment. Begin your planning by identifying specific learning goals for the assignment. These might include:
    • Familiarity with a specific data source,
    • Showing mastery of a particular concept or theory, or
    • Answering a specific question.
Once you've identified your goals, you should consider how a QW assignment can support them. QW assignments shouldn't be "yet another thing" to cram on a syllabus, but rather a means of doing better what you are already trying to do. Is one learning goal more important than the others? Design the assignment so that students will spend their time on the portions that are most important to you.
  • Defining the assignment. The next step is to define the assignment: that is, to choose a topic and decide what type of assignment will best meet your leaning goals.
Good topics for QW assignments immerse students in the analysis of quantitative data relevant to the subject matter of your course. Problems should be open-ended rather than asking for discrete answers. Problems can range from the simple to the very elaborate and can be used either for formal writing assignments or for short exploratory writing. Note that good topics for class discussion often work well as writing assignments. Refer to the examples in this module for specific ideas.
One way to create a good QW assignment is to base it on a compelling reading. Students can come to understand the real-life stakes underpinning the use of quantitative reasoning when they read persuasive works that interpret quantitative data in different ways or that otherwise use quantitative arguments to support alternative positions. Short books written by experts to lay audiences are often good examples of this type of reading.
Once you've decided on a topic, you'll need to choose an appropriate context for the assignment. Context includes several dimensions: What genre of writing assignment should be used? To whom should the writing be addressed? What should the author's purpose be in the assignment? For example, the purpose could be to persuade readers of a particular point of view. Note that 'purpose' here is a bit different than the instructor's goals of the assignment.
  • Decide how much scaffolding should be provided. Scaffolding means how much structure you provide for the assignment. Scaffolding helps students complete the assignment successfully, but the more scaffolding you provide, the less challenging the assignment will be.

Deciding on Criteria for Assessment

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While you are designing the assignment, you should also decide on criteria for assessment. You should communicate those criteria to students on the assignment sheet. QW assignments ask students to explain in writing the answer to an analytical problem. Good assignments, however, go beyond asking a student to convert mathematics to words. Rather, they ask students to interpret the mathematical results.
  • Good assignments invite students to consider questions like:
    • What assumptions is this analysis based on?
    • How good are the data on which this analysis is based? Are they from a reputable source?
    • What conclusions do you draw from the analysis?
    • What evidence supports those conclusions?
  • Think about what aspects of the assignment require exact answers (e.g. identifying the mean unemployment rate during the 1990s) and what aspects require analysis or drawing of conclusions (e.g. to what extent was unemployment a serious problem in the 1990s).
  • Common problems in lower level assignments are conclusions without evidence, or evidence which doesn't really support the conclusions - the students knew that evidence was necessary, but they didn't find the right evidence, perhaps because they started with their conclusion.
  • Always require complete citation information for data sources, so that you can find the exact data the student used. Many students think that an adequate citation for a data source is ''.
  • Consider designing a grading rubric for the assignment. Rubrics (or grading guides) are helpful both for students who are writing the assignment and instructors who are grading it, since they reveal what the instructor is looking for in the assignment.

Framing the Assignment as a Process

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Most principles of good writing apply to quantitative writing as well. Good writing should be viewed as a process rather than a product. Few writers can produce a finished copy in one draft; most writers require several drafts often making significant global changes between them as a result of discovering new ideas and of trying to meet the needs of readers for forecasting, clear topic sentences, headings, good transitions, and unified and coherent paragraphs. Here are some ways to encourage students to take their writing through multiple drafts:
  • Emphasize exploration, reflective research, multiple perspectives. Consider using class time to generate ideas for papers and to help students role-play different points of view.
  • Encourage imperfect first drafts. Explain to students that writers often use first drafts just to get ideas out on the table and to begin uncovering the complexity of the topic. Often writers can overcome writer's block by lowering expectations on the first draft. Suggest to students that they can call their first draft a "zero draft," a "discovery draft," or a "see-what I'm thinking" draft.
  • Stress substantial revision reflecting increased complexity and elaboration of thought and increased awareness of readers' needs. Often bringing in examples of your own drafts-in-progress helps students understand that their teachers also struggle with writing and need to work their ideas through many drafts.
  • Write comments that encourage revision, emphasizing the higher order concerns of ideas, thought content, organization, and development. Where possible, make comments on students' drafts before the final due date. An alternative to reading drafts is to allow rewrites of some papers for a higher grade.
  • Requiring multiple drafts of an assignment is another form of scaffolding. While it is good practice to ask students to write multiple drafts, there is an opportunity cost here: time and effort spent on revising is time and effort that can't be devoted to another assignment. One solution is to have subsequent assignments build on the earlier ones so that a formal rewrite isn't required.
  • Consider instituting peer review workshops. Peer review helps the reviewers become better writers. To the extent that peers are able to identify problems in student papers, peer review also reduces the workload of the instructor. For suggestions on how to conduct peer reviews, see Peer Editing Guide ( This site may be offline. ) .

Challenges in Using Quantitative Writing

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Flying Trapeze

When you begin incorporating Quantitative Writing into your courses, you may feel like you are 'flying without a net' but as the image to the right shows, there are some safety wires if you just know how to connect them. In this section, we discuss some common challenges when using QW, and how those challenges can be overcome, for example, by using common practices from colleagues in the Composition field.
  • Few Ph.D.s have been trained as writing instructors. How can we possibly teach student writing and how can we efficiently assess it? While this concern is not uncommon, it is probably overblown. Do you call on your students in class and expect them to respond to your questions orally? Most of us do. Have you been trained to teach oral communications? Most of us have not. At the same time, we have little difficulty in calling on students and assessing their responses in terms of the subject-matter they express. Additional information about grading student writing is provided in the section on assessing student writing.
  • Effective Strategies Exist for Managing the Paper Load
  • Regardless of the type of assignment, good writing has several common elements. If you only teach students to adopt these elements in their writing, you will have improved the writing of the majority of undergraduates.

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