To appreciate the nature of quantitative literacy, consider the following version of a question that appeared in the April 10 edition of Parade magazine:

If half of the children 14 and under who die in car crashes are not buckled, boostered or otherwise restrained, doesn’t this mean that half of the children are appropriately secured? If so, wouldn’t this also mean that the chances of a child surviving a crash are 50-50, restrained or not?

This is the response from Parade columnist, Marilyn vos Savant:

“Yes to the first question, but not to the second. When statistics like this are quoted out of context, they can be misleading. You need more information. To illustrate, suppose that 90 percent of children involved in car crashes (not just fatal ones) are secured, and 10 percent are not. Now say that 10 percent of these accidents cause a fatality, half with the children secured and half with a child who is not. This would mean that every unrestrained child involved in an accident was killed, but only one out of nine restrained children was killed. You’d draw a very different conclusion, wouldn’t you?”

Now here are the questions for you: Where did the question-writer go wrong? Can you verify Savant’s math? What potential bias has she introduced into her answer, and how would you go about finding out if there is such a bias? Could the answer have been written so the average reader would not still be scratching his or her head?

“This is a perfect example of what encompasses quantitative literacy,” says David Corliss, Ph.D., director of special assessment projects in the Office of Planning and Analysis.

Quantitative literacy (QL) is problem-solving using a higher-order set of skills involving numbers. The teaching of QL across all disciplines is a key component of UAB’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The QEP promotes effective communication skills, depth and breadth of knowledge, experience with problem- solving and the ability to make informed, ethical decisions and the preparation of students for responsible citizenship in the community, nation and world. UAB’s QEP states that each of these things is essential for success in work and life.

UAB is focusing on two types of QL – Life QL and Discipline QL.

Life QL encompasses the use of basic mathematical principals to analyze and synthesize complex information as it pertains to problems faced by people in their roles as citizens, parents and employees solving non-technical problems.

Discipline QL enhances students’ ability to solve realistic and authentic problems in their chosen fields of study.

A longitudinal study by the U.S. Department of Education, The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College, found that many world disciplines are quantitative and math skills are essential. It concludes that “No matter what a student’s major, more than a ceremonial visit to college-level math is called for.”

“QL equips students to practice good judgment and make sensible life decisions on a daily basis on campus and after graduation,” explains Marilyn Kurata, Ph.D., director of Core Curriculum Enhancement.

Critical-thinking skills
How does someone develop quantitative literacy?

“It can be simple math in some cases, but it’s not simply math,” Corliss says.

“To become quantitatively literate, students must learn a transferable, higher-order set of skills, problem-solving and critical thinking. This set of skills is developed through the discipline-specific QL portion of the curriculum.”

In any kind of assessment of QL you have to ask the question: What do the wrong answers tell us?

“When you look at this in the context of the stages of problem-solving, you must comprehend the problem, structure the problem, do the math and then make a judgment about the answer,” Corliss says. “Those are the four stages you go through.”

Back to the problem
The problem at the beginning of the story is a perfect example of why people need to be quantitatively literate, Corliss says.

The question is certainly very legitimate and similar “problems” appear in newspapers and on television newscasts every day. However, how do you know the answer given is legitimate? Even if the math is correct, the problem has been structured correctly and the operation is done correctly, you still have to make a judgment about the answer.

“Does it make sense to go on to conclude that every unrestrained child involved in an accident was killed?” Corliss asks. “I seriously doubted it and did the research to convince myself that was not true.”

Quantitatively literate UAB graduates should be able to do the same thing.