Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Guest Post: Numbers, Numbers, Everywhere!

iLOVE welcomes a guest post from Anne Marie Gruber, Assistant Director for Library Instruction and Public Services at University of Dubuque in Dubuque, IA.


Let me start by saying the only way I passed my required college stats class was by having my dad (an actuary & former high school math teacher whose numeric skills I obviously did not inherit) teach me the entire semester’s content over spring break. He helped me understand what my professor couldn’t. So that is to say, like many people, math freaks me out!

Fast forward to this past fall, when I was asked to help juniors in a maternal/child nursing course use a complex government website, Healthy People 2020, that is chock full of health statistics. I realized quickly that website navigation wouldn’t be the students’ main problem--it would be the stats. Wary, but up for a challenge, I forced myself to work at understanding the statistics myself so I could model an example for them.

Like me, many librarians might be uncomfortable with numeric data. Chi-squares and p-values make you want to run away and hide? Me too!! BUT I argue that we are well-positioned to help students develop quantitative literacy skills. Don’t we already teach students to be critical consumers of information? Don’t we already help them find reliable sources? How to be persistent in their research rather than using the first random results? How not to be hoodwinked into using less-than-credible sources by slick-looking presentation? These things shouldn’t change when we are talking about numeric information rather than text.

So let’s start small. If we’re asked by a student at the Reference Desk how to plunk a pretty infographic they found online into a PowerPoint for a presentation, let’s have a little conversation about verifying the stats using the original source. Let’s not be afraid to help students dig into those results sections in scholarly articles. Let’s help students conducting primary research in the sciences and social sciences, to think critically about how to display their results in a truthful way.

In an age of distilled sound bites, emotion-based arguments, and doctored stats (with more to come as we gear up for political crazytown 2016!), we have a responsibility to help our students become critical news and media consumers. It doesn’t mean we have to be math experts, but simply work toward empowering students to approach statistics with a healthy skepticism. Let’s help students understand that all numbers come from somewhere, and numbers can lie.

Don’t worry. There’s another bonus of not being “a math person”--street cred. When I told the nursing students my college stats story, it helped them see that with a bit of hard work and a few helping hands, anyone can start to understand numbers!

If librarians can partner with others at our institutions to help students engage with quantitative information in the context of their disciplines, we will help them be better consumers and creators of information. One sample assignment/activity, applicable across a variety of disciplines, could require students to find an infographic and track back to the original sources of the data, then provide a brief analysis regarding credibility and “truthiness”. With Big Data getting, well, BIG, should the library be left out of that conversation?  No way. Information is information no matter the form, and determining credibility is vitally important to teach students in any case.

How are you doing incorporating quantitative reasoning concepts in your instruction? If you aren’t yet, how would you like to? Let’s talk and share using the comments below.

Thank you to these wonderful people for listening to my poorly-formed thoughts about this topic as well as providing helpful ideas:
Jessica Johanningmeier, Quantitative Reasoning Consultant at Cornell College
James Drury, Assistant Director of the Academic Success Center at University of Dubuque

Resources & Interesting Reads:

Flaherty, C. (24 April 2015). “Math wars.” Inside Higher Ed. Available from:

National Numeracy Network:

Steen, L.A. (2004). Achieving quantitative literacy: An urgent challenge for higher education. Washington, D.C.: Mathematical Assn of America.

Stephens-Davidowitz, S. (2 May 2015). “How to not drown in numbers.” The New York Times. Available from:

A Few Institutions doing Interesting Things:

Bowdoin College:
Carleton College:
Michigan State University:
St. Olaf College:
University of Texas-San Antonio:

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