Bowdoin, Bates Earn Grant to Improve Quantitative Education

Story posted July 21, 2009

A national foundation that supports liberal arts education has awarded nearly $150,000 to Bowdoin and Bates colleges for a collaborative effort to strengthen students' quantitative reasoning skills.

The New York-based Teagle Foundation has granted the colleges $148,780 for a three-year project addressing how students learn quantitative reasoning, which refers to the application of quantitative skills, such as computation, in the interpretation of ideas and the formation of arguments in any subject. Effective quantitative reasoning requires the development of such mental habits as thinking logically and basing decisions upon evidence.

Supported by Teagle's Systematic Improvement in Student Learning initiative, the project uses a faculty-workshop model to explore the understandings, abilities and dispositions that enable students to exercise quantitative reasoning skills with confidence. This model will give faculty the pedagogical and curricular tools to enhance student learning on both campuses.

The grant comes at a crucial time for both schools, says Nancy Jennings, chair of Bowdoin's education department.

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Nancy Jennings

"We've already done preliminary work in making a transition in our general education requirements from a focus on quantitative skills to quantitative reasoning," says Jennings.

"Faculty who teach quantitative reasoning courses have had some discussions about what the new focus includes and what our aims are, but we haven't had the time or resources to thoughtfully and systematically put all the pieces together yet, especially the assessment piece. That we can now do this thoughtful, systematic work collaboratively with colleagues from Bates just means the discussions and outcomes will be that much richer."

"We live in a technologically driven society, and students must be able to reason quantitatively in order to participate fully in that society," says Matt Côté, who is coordinating the project for Bates. Côté is an associate professor of chemistry and associate dean of the faculty.

"Much of a liberal arts education is about thinking well, reasoning well and presenting an argument. In many contexts quantitative reasoning is central to those processes."

The two colleges plan to measure the reasoning skills of students at three points in their academic careers: upon arrival as first-year students, near the completion of their first quantitative reasoning course and just prior to graduation. At each stage, a combination of quantitative and qualitative tools will be used to gauge students' skills and their effectiveness in applying those skills when reasoning from evidence.

The Teagle support will also advance the colleges' participation in the regional New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning initiative and, more broadly, enable Bowdoin and Bates to share their findings with wider national audiences.

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