Why Teach Quantitative Reasoning with the News?

Initial Publication Date: October 29, 2009

The most important reason to use newspaper articles to teach quantitative reasoning (QR) is to instill in our students (and ourselves!) the idea that such critical thinking is a habit of mind. By focusing on content that students will encounter in their everyday lives outside of the classroom, we are emphasizing that good QR skills are relevant to everyone, needed everyday, and that critical thinking occurs continuously outside of the classroom. Reading the newspaper is no longer relegated as a lazy and lackadaisical activity. Rather, one must take an active role when reading an article. Numbers are much too easy to gloss over, yet they often provide the crux of every argument.

As you read any article which contains quantitative information the following questions should be answerable:


  1. What are the magnitudes of the numbers involved?
  2. How can I place the number(s) within a reasonable setting (per capita, per mile, etc.) to help me interpret and compare quantities?
  3. How can I place the number(s) within a personally meaningful context? e.g. How would this tax increase or policy change affect my income or my community?
  4. Did the article report absolute or relative changes? e.g. The number of reported H1N1 cases at WSU jumped from 2,000 to 2,500 in three days. This represents an (absolute) increase of 500 H1N1 cases or a (relative) increase of 25 percent.
  5. Are the numbers accurate or correct? Note: This entails understanding how certain measures are computed (unemployment rate, Dow Jones Industrial Average, etc.)
  6. Can any claims be checked?
  7. Is the language used to report numbers and changes in numbers clear and unambiguous? Note: Language describing changes in percents can be particularly confusing. e.g. If a particular disease prevalence increases from 5 to 10 cases in 10,000 adults one could describe this as a 100 percent increase (the number of cases doubled) or as a .05 percent increase (the disease rate changed from .05% to 0.1%).
  8. How was the statistical information was obtained? e.g. How was a survey conducted or what was the experimental design that led to the results?
  9. Do the facts indicate a causation or a correlation?
  10. Does the numerical information in the text agree with any accompanying graphics?
  11. How do the graphs augment or detract from the written argument?
  12. Are there any flaws in the graphics which create bias?

Other potential learning outcomes include:

  • understanding large quantities by expressing them in more familiar terms,
  • understanding how numbers and quantities are used and misused,
  • reviewing the ways quantities are compared,
  • recognizing the base of given percents, computing percent change, and distinguishing between absolute change in percent and relative change in percent,
  • comparing and contrasting different percentages that sound similar,
  • understanding the definitions of mean and median of a set of numerical data and explaining the effect of outliers on these measures,
  • distinguishing a condensed measure from an index,
  • unit conversion,
  • working with simple and compound interest, performing calculations with recursive formulas, and calculating a revolving monthly balance on a credit card statement,
  • devising reasonable assumptions for information not supplied by the writer and analyzing the effects of such assumptions, and
  • graphing linear and exponential equations.
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