Statistics, graphs, numbers and percentages inundate modern American citizens, and educators should do more to prepare students for this reality, says Carleton College psychology professor Neil Lutsky, PhD, a former president of APA Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology).
To spearhead such efforts, Lutsky and his colleagues at the Minnesota college applied for--and won--a $301,801 grant from the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. They will use the collegewide grant to develop programs that prompt students to think critically about numbers, as presented in both the popular media and academe--what he and others term "quantitative reasoning."
Lutsky hopes other colleges can use Carleton's programs as a model for improving college students' quantitative reasoning skills. The Monitor spoke with Lutsky about his math-literacy mission.
Q: You are just a few months into your Department of Education grant, which you received in September. What have you done so far?
A: The very first thing that we did was to develop and teach three first-year seminars. These were seminars for 16 students apiece: one was in sociology, one was in political science and one--which I did--wasn't associated with any particular department.
The purpose was to get students starting out in their college careers involved in using data and appreciating quantitative reasoning.
We've also had some campuswide events. One was by a mathematician, Donald Saari, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine. He does research on voting decision rules.... Another presentation was done by the students who were in the political science seminar. They content-analyzed and evaluated statistics of media coverage given in the local, Minneapolis-based media to the  presidential candidates.
It was a way for students to model--for the assembled college--an application of quantitative reasoning. We are doing a number of workshops for faculty as well.
Q: To back up a bit, how do the freshman seminars plant that seed of interest in quantitative reasoning?
A: In not too heavy-handed a way. What we are trying to do is involve students in activities that rely on research-data analysis.
For example, in the seminar I did, we connected up with the local Girl Scouts council. They had evaluation data from their Girl Scout members, from parents, from community leaders, from troop leaders that they were required to gather by the national organization as part of their self-evaluation. But they didn't have the time or the expertise to organize and evaluate all of the information they had collected, so I involved my students in that. We got their questionnaires, and I had the students write reports that the Girl Scout council is now using.
That was very effective. It is one thing to give students an assignment that a teacher is going to be reviewing; it is another to give them an assignment where they know what they do is going to have...real consequences. And they really invested in what they were doing. They wrote excellent reports.
Q: How did you measure the success of the seminars?
A: So far we have given students a self-report questionnaire that we developed....Ultimately we will have a stronger assessment, looking at how students present quantitative information in their writing and whether they provide quantitative information in their writing when it might be appropriate to do so.
All students at the college have a requirement that they submit a writing portfolio, which faculty assess. Within a year or two we can compare [the writing samples of students who have taken the quantitative course] with those of students who haven't.
Q: Does this initiative address a need in higher education for more quantitative reasoning training?
A: Absolutely. We are all swamped with quantitative information in contemporary life. Empirical claims presented in words, summary statistics and graphs are a staple of public policy debates, advertisements, media discussions of scientific research, politics and human services.
The issue then is: Are we educating people sufficiently well to be thoughtful of, critical of, to appreciate this kind of information?
One of the exciting things about that is it puts psychologists in a particularly important role because psychology attracts a lot of students, and psychology is a field that is quite sophisticated quantitatively.
As undergraduate educators in psychology we have this opportunity to take quantitative reasoning and present it in the context of psychology, but also to share with students the fact that these are skills that have much broader application in contemporary life.