Preparing students to solve realistic, authentic problems in their chosen careers and in their roles as everyday citizens, parents and employees is a key component of UAB’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP).


John Mayer, professor in the Department of Mathematics, works with students n the Math Laboratory. 

Professors and researchers are engaging students in a new way of learning, from mathematics to radiation biology to economics, philosophy and foreign languages. Many are finding themselves challenged in a positive way to restructure their teaching methods and explore quantitative literacy (QL) in their curricula and in the lives of their students.

“Incorporating QL has helped me appreciate the different ways Spanish intersects with numeracy,” says John K. Moore, Ph.D., assistant professor of Spanish. “Equally important, it also has made me realize how essential the quantitative component is to the full picture.”

Active learning
QL equips students to exercise good judgment and make sensible life decisions in an academic class or when calculating the interest on their credit cards.

Many immediately think of mathematics when QL is discussed, and most QL problems do involve using mathematics to find an answer. John Mayer, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Mathematics, says his department is making changes in the way math courses are taught to incorporate QL into the curriculum.

The biggest change, he says, is creating an environment of active learning.

A traditional course in which a student listens to a professor, takes notes and occasionally asks questions is passive learning. “Active learning requires the student to be engaged. Students might be doing group work, solving problems together,” Mayer says. “There’s much more interaction.”

The Department of Mathematics restructured the way Math 98 and Math 102 classes were taught two years ago and is changing its pre-calculus courses this fall. The classes will transform traditional lecture-only courses to include a mathematics laboratory for an additional one to three hours per week. In two trial sections of Math 110 this fall, students will be given open-ended problems in the math lab that require them to engage others to learn the skills needed.

“That’s where even more of the QL portion comes in,” Mayer explains. “The students are given these problems before they have all the skills to solve them well. One reason is to help them understand why they need to have the skills. That’s a hard connection to make. That’s what I think often has been missing in low-level mathematics courses. Why are we doing this? What does it connect to later? That often gets lost. We’re going to try to help students make both of those connections.”

The math lab is open to students 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and many mathematics instructors post homework online so students can use computers to complete their assignments.

“Basically everything students have to do they have to negotiate,” Mayer says. “And they are able to do this at a fully staffed math lab, with faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students in the lab, some of whom probably had that class not so long ago. It’s high tech and high touch. The high tech is the computer; the high touch is mathematical resource persons in the lab.”

QL through foreign language
QL can be simple math in some cases, however, as David Corliss, Ph.D., director of special assessment projects in the Office of Planning and Analysis likes to say, “It’s not simply math.”

Quantitatively literate students must possess a transferable, higher-order set of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Using foreign language as a way to learn these skills is vital, says Moore.

“For instance, in the Introductory Spanish 101 research paper, any conclusions drawn from statistics alone would be incomplete,” he says. “This is why students must include the results of an interview that they conduct with a self-identified Hispanic person. This part is essential to putting a human face on the numbers.”

Moore says an understanding of metrics is necessary to function in today’s society, but understanding numbers is not a stand-alone enterprise.

“The value of embedding quantitative literacy in the curriculum is that it ensures our students understand numeracy, and also underscores the importance of the qualitative concerns that do, in fact, give the numbers meaning,” he says.

That’s one of the greatest values to students. Moore says his students – while usually anxious about the interview assignment – ultimately acquire and appreciate a greater understanding of their material and the significance behind it. They also become better equipped to process the information disseminated through news media.

Moore cites the Spanish-speaking Communities in Alabama research project as another example. Students must accurately interpret data on Latinos in the United States and in Alabama as part of the project.

“Although students displayed some anxiety about this part of the course, it was an empowering experience for them to face the challenge of drawing correct conclusions from these population tables,” Moore says. “Most of all, it was rewarding to see that in the face of the current national debate on immigration, students realized that they themselves could interpret the data the news media use and understand the biases that may be revealed in the process.”

Corliss says UAB is emphasizing QL across all disciplines because it recognizes that learning always can be improved.

“It simply means we are trying to find ways for our future graduates to deal with problems better than they do now,” Corliss says. “This is not something exclusive to UAB. Emphasizing QL is part of a national effort, and we want to be leader in communicating and teaching the importance of QL to our students.”