What is Quantitative Writing?

Initial Publication Date: October 11, 2006
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Quantitative writing (QW) requires students to grapple with numbers in a real world context, to describe observations using numbers, and to use the numbers in their own analyses and arguments. Good quantitative writing assignments ask students to do more than compute an answer. In addition they ask students to draw conclusions based on numerical or other quantitative evidence, which is either supplied or which the students must develop.

Characteristics of Quantitative Writing Assignments:

Quantitative writing assignments differ both from writing assignments that lack a quantitative dimension, and from "story problems" in math courses.
  • Unlike conventional (non-quantitative) writing assignments, QW assignments require students to analyze and interpret quantitative data. Writers must use numbers in a variety of ways to help them define a problem, to see alternative points of view, to speculate about causes and effects, and to create evidence-based arguments. Often they must learn to construct and reference their own tables or graphs.
  • Quantitative writing generally presents students with an 'ill structured problem,' requiring the analysis of quantitative data in an ambiguous context without a clear right answer. Unlike a math "story problem," which is usually a 'well-structured problem' with a single right answer, a QW assignment requires students to formulate a claim for a best solution and support it with reasons and evidence. Well structured versus Ill structured problems
    How a story problem differs from a QW Assignment

  • Quantitative writing forces students to contemplate the meaning of numbers, to understand where the numbers come from and how they are presented. Students must consider, for example, the different effects of using ordinal numbers versus percentages, means versus medians, raw numbers versus adjusted numbers, exact numbers versus approximated or rounded numbers, and so forth. At more advanced levels, students must understand the interpretive meaning of a standard deviation, the function of a chi square, or the purpose of specific kinds of algorithms in their disciplines. In all cases, they must consider their communicative goals and their audience's interests, needs, and background and to use numbers effectively within that rhetorical context.

Types of Quantitative Writing Assignments

Quantitative Writing doesn't have to mean writing a research paper. In fact, the majority of QW assignments are less ambitious than that. QW assignments can be designed in a variety of forms as indicated below.

  • Genre, audience and purpose - Good writing assignments include a rhetorical context for authors: What form should the writing take, to whom is it addressed and for what rhetorical purpose?
  • Length, stakes and complexity - QW assignments can range from very short to very long; they can be weighted little or much towards a student's grade; and they can employ simple or complex quantitative reasoning.
  • Informal writing - Quantitative writing need not be formal writing.
  • QW in formats other than essays - QW assignments need not be papers, per se. learn more about different types of QW assignments

Example of a Quantitative Writing Assignment
Baby Salmon

The following contains the core sentences from a representative QW assignment.

"Over the last century, the number of salmon that return to California rivers has been decreasing. Is this a serious problem? Should anything be done in response to this situation? You will investigate questions like this in your essay. The table below gives data for the number of Chinook salmon (in thousands) from 1986 to 2000."

This challenging assignment asks students to create an argument about salmon based on tabular data that students must analyze and interpret. To do the assignment, students must make inferences from the table, do calculations, convert tabular data to bar or line graphs, and then use the data meaningfully in their own arguments. The quantitative methods required are only moderately complex, but the questions posed "Is this a serious problem? Should anything be done?" make clear that this is an ill-structured problem. In the complete assignment, note how the instructors (Michael Burke and Jean Mach of the College of San Mateo) include intermediate steps that help guide students through their analysis of the data.

The salmon problem is just one example of the dozens of ways that instructors can create engaging quantitative writing assignments.