V. Supporting the Open Curriculum

5.3 Quantitative Reasoning

Students’ engagement with scientific methods and quantitative reasoning presents the College with some of the same challenges as the teaching of writing. Our entering students, although among the best in the nation, vary widely in their preparation to study higher mathematics, to use quantitative reasoning in other courses, and perhaps even to understand arguments built on quantitative evidence. The clearest signs of this heterogeneity appear in introductory courses, especially Math 11, Chemistry 11, and Economics 11, the “gateways” to higher level work in the natural and social sciences. Every year a significant number of students enroll in these courses only to discover that they are unprepared to keep pace with classroom instruction and problem sets. Their lack of preparation does not imply a lack of ability or motivation, but the range of student needs within any one of these gateway classes presents a serious challenge for the teachers committed to their success. Only a little less obvious is the “math anxiety” that leads some students to avoid subjects involving quantitative reasoning and scientific methods through their entire tenure at Amherst. Students who have had limited exposure to the analysis of quantitative evidence, a skill fundamental to liberal education, find their access to our curriculum limited. Unless they are guided to address this deficiency and thoroughly supported in their efforts, their opportunities to contribute to our larger society throughout their lives will be curtailed. It is the College’s responsibility to help each student achieve his or her potential and to encourage all students to challenge themselves.

Amherst has dedicated considerable thought and energy to assisting students who wish to study math-rich subjects. The Summer Science program helps incoming students adjust to the pace of college-level work; the Quantitative Skills Center provides advice on study strategies and tutoring in specific subject areas. These efforts have paid dividends and merit continued support. They have not, however, materially altered outcomes among students who enter “gateway” courses with deficiencies in quantitative reasoning. Here, the most promising approach appears to be one developed by the Quantitative Working Group during the past year, to wit, teaching “intensive” sections that provide underprepared students with extra attention and an enriched curriculum while teaching the same range of concepts as other sections of the same course. Although at this time “intensive” sections have been used systematically for only one semester, early indications suggest significant improvements in the performance of students with weak preparation and a remarkable increase in enrollments among these students at the next level of math and science courses. These results and similar results achieved elsewhere through “intensive” teaching of introductory mathematics and science courses surely justify the continuation and expansion of this pilot program.

The broader goal of encouraging greater exposure to quantitative forms of reasoning and the scientific method among all students has no simple solution. Courses in many disciplines engage students in the analysis of quantitative arguments and evidence, and most science departments have developed topical courses that provide options to those wishing to study science outside the hierarchical structure of classes intended for majors. There are not enough of these courses, primarily because the departments offering them are stretched too thin. We believe such courses serve a college-wide need and merit every encouragement. Nevertheless, further refinements may be necessary to foster the “quantitative literacy” that a thoughtful citizen must deploy in quotidian judgments about such matters as risk, reward, equity, correlation, and causation.

The Quantitative Working Group has done much to define these issues in recent reports to the faculty, and we look forward to learning more from this group in the coming years. For now, it appears prudent to develop instruments for assessing the quantitative reasoning of our students and for stimulating new approaches to improving their quantitative literacy, including the support of pilot programs such as were run so successfully in the Fall semester of 2005-2006.

19. We recommend that 2.5 new FTEs be reserved for improving students’ quantitative literacy, their distribution to be made by the CEP among departments that are willing to commit themselves to teaching “intensive” sections or new courses for these purposes.