Thinking at Macalester Today
Macalester's QT graduation requirement
Findings from pilot project,
Workshops and outreach
The Original Proposal
at Macalester Today
Quantitative Literacy (QL) is not mathematics. It has almost
nothing to do with mathematics as taught at the college level.
It is about gaining the ability and habit to seek out quantitative
information, to be able to analyze and critique it, and to
use it in our public, personal, and professional lives. By
its nature, QL is interdisciplinary. It appears in political
debate and polling, in issues of health care, in understanding
the choices we face with regard to the environment, in grappling
with the complexities of poverty, education, and social action.
QL recognizes the fact that quantitative information in the
real world is messy, complex, often incomplete, sometimes
overwhelming, and not infrequently appears to be contradictory.
At a basic level, the methods needed to think critically about
this information use nothing beyond high school mathematics:
ratios, percentages, rates, simple probabilities. But basic
does not mean easy. There is still a lot to learn about how
to choose and think about quantitative information when it
is outside the idealized world of the mathematics classroom.
There is national recognition that QL is one of the fundamental
abilities that informed citizens should have. In 2001, the
National Council on Education and the Disciplines convened
a national conference on QL. Its recommendations are contained
in Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy.
Among those contributing to this conference was Carol Schneider,
President of the Association of American Colleges and Universities
(AAC&U). The AAC&U has continued to support QL efforts.
Their publication, Peer Review, featured an article on QL
in summer 2003, and devoted the entire issue to QL for summer
2004. It is worth noting that Macalester’s QM4PP program
was cited in both issues.
Macalester’s QL program, Quantitative Methods for Public
Policy (QM4PP) has always focused on quantitative literacy
in the context of case studies that illustrate how its tools
can be used to illuminate debate over real policy issues.
In the first year of the program, 2002–03, the focus
was on the school voucher debate. In subsequent years, the
program has drawn on several policy issues, especially surrounding
immigration but also including public health issues such as
mad cow disease as well as various approaches to dealing with
terrorism. This focus on public policy was the primary reason
that this program received a $400,000 grant from the US Department
of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary
Education, and a smaller grant from the National Science Foundation
Initially, the program was intended to be a 2-credit supplement
that students would take in conjunction with another course,
providing the quantitative insights that would tie into the
policy questions being studied in, for example, a course in
sociology or political science. By 2004–05, it was clear
the coordination with other classes was problematic, and the
decision was made to offer as a variety of stand-alone courses.
As part of the development of such courses, this spring Erik
Larson and Andrew Latham are teaching Practical Policy Analysis,
a course cross-listed between Political Science and Sociology.
Beginning next year, Raymond Robertson and David Bressoud
will be teaching Quantitative Thinking for Policy Analysis,
a course cross-listed between Economics and Mathematics.
Macalester's QT Graduation Requirement
In the fall of 2005, the faculty adopted new graduation requirements
that include a requirement in quantitative thinking (QT) that
is built on what we have learned from the QM4PP program. Students
will have the option of satisfying this requirement either
through an intensive course in quantitative thinking such
as Practical Policy Analysis or Quantitative Thinking for
Policy Analysis, but they will also have the option of taking
several courses that are less quantitatively intensive but
will give them the opportunity to experience quantitative
thinking in a variety of contexts.
There are six areas of competency that constitute the goals
of the QT requirement:
- Describing the world quantitatively: rates of change,
linear & exponential growth, descriptive statistics,
presentation of data.
- Evaluating sources and quality of data: assessing reliability
of measurement, sources of bias and error.
- Association and Causation: weighing statistical significance,
determining importance of findings, knowing when and how
to infer causation.
- Trade-offs: weighing the benefits and costs of different
options, especially in the area of policy analysis; recognizing
that there is seldom a single correct solution and learning
to use quantitative analysis to help evaluate different
- Uncertainty and Risk: interpret and use conditional probability
to compare and balance risks, draw valid conclusions from
conditional probabilities, understand limitations and potential
pitfalls of conditional probabilities.
- Estimation, Modeling, Scale: understand scale and relative
nature of “big” and “small,” be
able to estimate and work with order of magnitude approximations,
appreciate value and limitations of models constructed by
abstracting out detail, importance of sensitivity of the
model and necessity to report assumptions.
Starting with the class of 2011, which enters in September,
2007, students will be required to take either
- A course designated Q3 in which all of these topics are
covered and almost all of the course is devoted to these
quantitative topics, or
- A Q2 course that deals with at least half of these topics
and at least half of the course is devoted to these topics
PLUS another Q2 course or a Q1 course that covers some of
these topics, or
- Three Q1 courses that each cover some of these topics.
In addition to the courses described above, several courses
that will qualify for QT designation now exist or are being
created. These include Introductory Statistics, Principles
of Economics, Introduction to Environmental Science, Environmental
Geology, Introductory Journalism, and Media Institutions.
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Findings from pilot
While analysis of our assessment tools is still ongoing,
preliminary results suggest that there is little evidence
that the single session in quantitative reasoning each week
had a significant impact on student ability to reasoning quantitatively.
In fact, our most successful assessments were formative, learning
what would not work at Macalester:
- The attempt to create a course that operates as supplement
to other existing courses suffered from the difficulty of
articulating it with these other courses that had very different
- We learned a lot about how to teach large classes (>100
students) effectively, especially by using anonymous electronic
feedback during class to engage students, but we still ran
up against the expectation that at a small college such
as Macalester, classes should be small. Many students were
turned off by the large class format.
- A single meeting per week for 1 1⁄2 hours was not
- As a pass/fail course, students were not sufficiently
- Any attempt to teach quantitative reasoning requires
that students work with real data. This means that we need
time spent in computer labs.
There were several very successful aspects of the program.
- Tying quantitative reasoning to policy analysis was popular
and stimulated student interest. Students really were interested
in how simple quantitative concepts could help to illuminate
difficult questions that they consider important.
- The entire process clarified for us the importance of
emphasizing the concept of trade-offs, the realization that
most policy questions do not have a single correct answers,
but that any solution brings both benefits and costs. Comparing
the pluses gained in one area to the minuses in another
is seldom clean and easy. Students are reluctant to wrestle
with these complexities. A program such as ours that forces
them to do this wrestling is very useful.
- The process helped us to identify the six critical areas
described under Research and Education Activities and to
build a collection of case studies that are being used in
our successor classes that will meet the new graduation
- Over the course of our grant, 45 of the 155 faculty at
Macalester College participated in some way in the QM4PP
program. This greatly raised the visibility of Quantitative
Reasoning at Macalester and clarified for many of our faculty
its central importance. When the faculty voted on this graduation
requirement in fall, 2005, the vote was almost unanimous
- The many workshops sponsored under this program have
helped to build a strong network of faculty across the country
and in a broad variety of disciplines that are working to
build programs in Quantitative Reasoning. This has helped
to jump-start much of the work of the National Numeracy
Network and the Mathematical Association of America’s
SIGMAA QL, two organizations devoted to fostering collaboration
in building QR programs.
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Workshops and outreach
Over the course of this program, Macalester
has held eight workshops:
May 22–23, 2002. Initial Planning
24 participants, including 15 faculty from Macalester
College and others from the Humphrey Institute at the University
of Minnesota, Duke University, Grinnell College, Carleton
College, Lawrence University, and St. Olaf College.
January 9, 2003. Initial Assessment
and Follow-Up Planning Workshop
24 participants including 16 faculty from Macalester
College, faculty from the University of Minnesota, Grinnell,
and Samford University, and representatives from Senator Dayton’s
office, Representative McCollum’s office, the Jewish
Community Center, and AHANA.
May 19–21, 2003. Planning Workshop
to Develop Case Studies on Immigration Policy
49 participants, including 26 faculty from Macalester
College, faculty from Duke, Occidental, Augsburg, University
of Minnesota, Lawrence, University of Nevada-Reno, a high
school teacher, and represents from Ramsey County Government,
HACER, AHANA, MN State Government, Wilder Foundation, MN Council
of Churches, and Western Initiative for Neighborhood Development.
January 30–February 1, 2004. Pew
Midstates Science and Math Workshop on Quantitative Reasoning
40 participants, including faculty from Macalester
College, Hope College, Colorado College, Duke University,
Carthage College, Hollins University, Carleton College, Kalamzoo
College, Lawrence University, Hamline University, Colleg eof
St. Catherine, Gustavus Adolphus College, Knox College, Beloit
May 17–18, 2004. Policies Affecting
the Immigrant Experience in Minnesota — also used as
an opportunity for significant modifications to the QM4PP
25 participants, 22 faculty from Macalester,
also faculty from Duke, University of Minnesota, and Evergreen
June 21–25, 2004. Workshop for
High School Teachers on Immigration in America: Understanding
25 participants, 17 high school social science
teachers representing 11 high schools, 2 Macalester faculty,
2 guest speakers, 4 immigrant students
June 14–19, 2005. MAA PREP workshop
on Creating and Strengthening Interdisciplinary Programs in
Quantitative Literacy and national meeting of National Numeracy
46 participants, 3 presenters from Macalester
College plus faculty teams from Johnson State College, Colby-Sawyer
College, Hollins University, DePauw University, Mount St.
Mary College, Augsburg College, Central Michigan University,
Dartmouth College, University of South Florida, Carleton College,
individual faculty from Duke University, Carthage College,
LaGuardia Community College, Rockford College, Luther College,
Bowdoin College, Raritan Valley Community College, University
of Arkansas, Trinity College (Hartford), University of St.
Thomas, Ithaca College, Wellesley College, and a representative
from the American Sociological Association.
May 15–16, 2006. Workshop on preparing
case studies for use in quantitative thinking courses and
on assessment of QT.
Expecting about 20 participants.
In addition, Macalester has recently joined
with Carleton, St. Olaf, and Grinnell in the Collaborative
for Assessing Liberal Learning, sponsored by the Teagle Foundation.
Each of these four schools has four teams of four faculty
each, one team for each of four broad goals: writing, global
understanding, critical thinking, and quantitative reasoning.
The purpose of the collaborative is to share and collaborate
on strategies for assessing student learning in each of these
four areas. Because of its record of work in QR, Macalester
College is leading the four QR teams.
In addition to the workshops, outreach from
this program has included an article on the QM4PP program
to appear in an upcoming MAA Notes volume, Current Practices
in Quantitative Literacy. Other outreach has included:
- David Bressoud and Steve Holland had a poster on the
program at the FIPSE Project Director’s meeting in
Denver in December, 2003.
- David Bressoud had a poster on the program at the annual
joint meetings of the American Mathematical Society and
the Mathematical Association of America held in Phoenix
in January, 2004.
- Daniel Kaplan ran a workshop on the program at an NSF
DUE CCLI conference in Washington, DC in April, 2004. The
resulting article “Mathematics for Citizens”,
will appear in the proceedings of this conference.
- David Bressoud gave a presentation on the program at
a faculty seminar at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA in
- Steve Holland gave a presentation on the program at a
workshop sponsored by the American Sociological Association
in Washington, DC in June 2004.
- David Bressoud participated as a represent of the QM4PP
program at a steering committee meeting of the National
Numeracy Network held at Dartmouth College in June, 2004.
- David Bressoud gave a presentation on QM4PP at the Pacific
Northwest Section meeting of the Mathematical Association
of America held in Anchorage, Alaska in June, 2004.
- Daniel Kaplan gave a presentation on the program at the
PREP (Professional Enhancement Programs of the Mathematical
Association of America) Workshop on Quantitative Literacy
held at Sleeping Lady Retreat Center in Washington state,
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