Why use Quantitative Writing

Initial Publication Date: October 11, 2006

Forster Quote 4

Quantitative writing (QW) promotes quantitative literacy as well as writing proficiency. QW assignments link "writing-across-the-curriculum" with "mathematics-across-the-curriculum". At the heart of both movements is the importance of critical thinking. A good QW assignment engages students with an open-ended, ambiguous, data-rich problem requiring the thinker to understand principles and concepts rather than simply to apply formulae. Assignments ask students to produce a claim with supporting reasons and evidence rather than a reductive "right answer." By asking students to find meaning in data and to use numbers in argument, QW assignments promote growth in critical thinking and real world problem-solving.

Reasons Why QW Assignments Are Valuable

Jump down to:
Addresses the need for higher-order thinking skills | Powerful tool for enhancing learning | Models & encourages domain transfer | Use quantitative data in rhetorical contexts | Promotes citizenship & career skills

1. In the increasingly complex, data-rich global environments of the 21st Century, successful students need to be equipped with flexible, adaptive analytical higher-order strategies. Quantitative writing addresses the need for these higher-order thinking skills.

  • Typically, students regard mathematics as the pursuit of right answers through the algorithmic application of increasingly complex formulae and calculations. Doing math means to do the problem sets at the back of a textbook chapter. Math teachers' attempts to create a real-world context for mathematics often result in contrived story problems posing questions that no one would really ask: "Train A leaves St. Louis at 8:00 traveling at 60 miles per hour, while Train B . . ." Such story problems are really well-structured, algorithmic problems in disguise.
  • By contrast, a QW assignment poses an ill-structured problem requiring students to construct complex, nuanced arguments with supporting reasons and evidence. QW assignments immerse students in a rich critical thinking environment very different from that of a math story problem. In other words, QW asks and encourages students to acquire expertise by throwing away "the cookbook" and thinking the way experts do as they analyze and explain real world problems.
  • Such modes of learning require students to develop not only domain expertise, but also metacognitive "critical thinking" skills.

2. Quantitative writing is a powerful tool for enhancing student learning.

3. QW also models and encourages domain transfer; for example, assignments could easily link "writing-across-the-curriculum" with "mathematics-across-the curriculum," or with a variety of social science and humanities curricular emphases.

  • QW assignments follow "best practices" recommended by the Mathematical Association of America to teach quantitative reasoning across-the-curriculum to enable students in all disciplines to solve real world problems.

    In its 1998 white paper Quantitative Reasoning for College Graduates: A Complement to the Standards ( This site may be offline. ) the Mathematical Association of America argues that "colleges and universities should expect every college graduate to be able to apply simple mathematical methods to the solution of real-world problems." The white paper calls for a "mathematics-across-the-curriculum" program analogous to writing-across-the-curriculum. This proposal would fit particularly well in disciplines, such as economics or physics, where math is commonly used as a tool of discovery.
  • Many theorists believe that writing for different audiences and purposes not only helps students learn to transfer writing skills from one context to another but also deepens engagement with subject matter concepts.

Dennis J. Palmini in "Using Rhetorical Cases to Teach Writing Skills and Enhance Economic Learning" argues that:

"[S]tudents who practice writing for various audiences with differing needs for economic information evoke a complex cognitive process that requires them to think more intensively about economics. . . . . They must do more than regurgitate their economic learning; they must, instead, actively transform their knowledge into a form useful to the reader". (Palmini, 1996 , p. 208)

4. QW assignments require students to analyze and use quantitative data in rhetorical contexts, skills not typically addressed in math courses. As Rutz & Grawe (2009) observe:
Numbers serve rhetorical functions: providing context, making evidence specific, showing change over time, imparting precision in language, and authorizing confidence in writers and respect on the part of readers. Even well-prepared student writers need practice with these uses of numbers, because much of their experience with numbers is limited to formal situations that require them to solve problems with correct answers. Using numbers to reason and persuade, in contrast, draws on skills that are less mathematical and more a function of logic.

  • QW assignments require students to analyze and use quantitative data in rhetorical contexts in which writers aim to influence readers' views of a topic. Such contexts activate critical thinking in ways often not required in a math class.
  • To take a simple example, a math class teaches students the difference between a mean and a median. But in making a rhetorical argument with numbers, the thinker must decide when to use means versus medians-for example, whether to report the median income of a certain population segment or the mean income-and to understand both the conceptual and ethical significance of the distinction.
  • Likewise math classes teach students how to read tables and graphs but often not how to construct tables and graphs for a rhetorical purpose. In a research project with finance students at Seattle University, a research team discovered that students were rarely taught to think of graphs rhetorically as arguments; many thought that including graphics in a paper meant attaching spread sheets (Bean, Earenfight, and Carrithers, 2005).
  • QW assignments can give students practice at creating rhetorically effective graphics, including composing the kinds of explicit titles, legends, and labels that readers need. These examples suggest how QW assignments teach students to think about numbers in ways not typically addressed in math classes.

5. QW assignments promote quantitative skills needed for 21st Century citizenship and careers.
  • Most issues of public policy have a significant quantitative dimension. Whether deliberating about health care, energy usage, or immigration policy, effective citizens must be able to interpret and analyze numbers, read graphs, understand simple statistics, and recognize the ways that numerical data can be manipulated for rhetorical effect. QW assignments thus help develop students for responsible citizenship.
  • Many careers require extensive use of quantitative skills. Persons most likely to advance in their careers need not only to analyze quantitative data but also to argue with numbers. Likewise career success requires effective writing skills. QW assignments simultaneously promote the quantitative and verbal literacy needed for career success. As Colander and McGoldrick (2009, 4) note:
"Employers are looking for inquisitive students who have a passion for learning, not ones who have learned specific skills. They prefer general skills such as critical thinking, quantitative, and communication skills."
  • Writing ability is also important for graduate study and lifelong learning.

SSDAN Logo ICPSR logo Teaching with Data Logo Teaching with Data Logo