Baseline Assessment Results
"Even for works that are not inherently quantitative, one or two numeric facts can help convey the importance or context of your topic."
— Jane E. Miller, The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers
Many opportunities to teach quantitative reasoning in the current curruculum
Baseline assessment of QR prior to the QuIRK pilot project revealed that Carleton had both a strong starting point and much work yet to do. Assignments in use prior to the launch of QuIRK provided many opportunities to teach QR: QR was potentially relevant to 64% of all papers submitted to the writing portfolio under analysis, interpretation, and observation categories. In roughly half (56%) of the papers in this subset, QR was potentially relevant in a central way while in the remainder it was peripherally relevant: numerical data might provide useful detail, enrich descriptions, present background, or establish frames of reference.
Not surprisingly, the "centrally relevant" papers were predominantly (but not exclusively) from the sciences and social sciences. However, the "peripherally relevant" papers were drawn from across the curriculum demonstrating the great potential to improve QR in all disciplines.
Do students recognize the power of numerical evidence?
We were also encouraged to find that when QR was potentially of central importance, 66% of students did in fact employ QR skills. In other words, most students recognize when QR is at the heart of an issue and respond appropriately.
Faculty members face a challenge with the roughly one-third of students whose papers failed to exhibit QR despite its potential central significance to the issue at hand. In many cases, these students failed to grasp the importance of precision in language, choosing to use words like "many" or "most" in lieu of specific data. Clearly, we must learn to teach these students differently, using new assignments and teaching techniques which push such students toward fuller, better use of QR.
The importance of the periphery
QuIRK's second thrust lies outside assignments for which QR is "centrally important": QuIRK must foster quantitative reasoning work in papers in which QR is peripherally relevant-while not at the center of the argument, quantitative evidence would substantially strengthen the exposition. In papers with such peripheral potential, only 12% of students chose to incorporate quantitative evidence.
This suggests that a large majority of our students do not fully appreciate the potential power of quantitative information to frame arguments and inform discussion - and that faculty have a tremendous opportunity to influence the very ways in which students conceive of argumentation, rhetoric, and proof.
A divisional divide
One reason students may not consider the potential for numerical data to enhance their arguments is that such skills are not yet valued universally across the curriculum. Results from Carleton's Senior Survey reveal a strong divisional divide in student perceptions of both the importance of QR to their future lives and the degree to which they have improved their quantitative skills while at Carleton. Whereas two-thirds of majors in the social and natural sciences view QR as "essential" or "very important," less than one-third of arts, literature, and humanities students say the same. And while more than 80% of the former group report that college has made them stronger in the QR area, only 45% of the latter group speak of growth.