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Quantitative Literacy and the Humanities

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Model Syllabus

Let's bring this all together.

This model skeleton of a syllabus is intended for a 100-level History course that may also serve as an introduction to college academics.  It brings together the Student Learning Objectives and many of the Concepts described elsewhere on this site.  It assumes that the instructor will design assignments, in and out of the classroom, to help students perform the Actions.  And it supports the development of a classroom culture that will help students develop the Attitudes needed for success in the course. 

The course is scaffolded so that the techniques developed early on will be built upon as the course proceeds.  For instance, estimating, finding sources, interpreting charts are all introduced early on, and they are assumed to be continued in later weeks.  And, some techniques will be introduced lightly at first, but refined later in the course.  For instance, from the very beginning students will be structuring a paragraph, but the course devotes instructional time to that technique later.

This model is intentionally left open in terms of the course content.  It may seem dry or dismal to focus solely on technique here, but it is assumed that the instructor can use the techniques to enrich humanistic study.  Quantitative literacy is both a liberating habit of mind and the growing mastery of certain techniques.  Quantitative evidence ought to support and expand upon course content, to foster discussion and debate.  In any given class session, we are aiming for students to use quantitative evidence to address an authentic issue that humanity has faced, to become a fuller person through this study. 

Student Learning Objectives

Students in this course will develop their abilities to:

  • Write about quantitative patterns
  • Estimate using arithmetic
  • Use evidence to make an argument
  • [and others SLOs based on course content]

Module 1: Paying Attention

Goal: Students will cultivate an appreciation for slowing down, noticing the world around them, and expressing themselves carefully.

Week 1

  • Appreciating the value of History
  • Appreciating the value of quantitative reasoning
  • Appreciating the value of the quick, rough estimate
  • Distinguishing between precision vs. accuracy
  • Writing out units, simple formulas, and assumptions
  • Converting units using division

Week 2

  • Defining the nature of evidence in History.  What are primary and secondary sources?
  • Writing about sources: who, what, where, when, audience
  • Juxtaposing multiple kinds of sources
  • Refining estimates with the help of historical sources
  • Interpreting tables
  • Interpreting charts

Week 3
  • Putting a document in context.  What does "historical context" mean?
  • The importance of both narrative and analysis in historical argument
  • Writing about one number: who, what, where, when, unit of analysis
  • Using analogies to convey importance
  • Converting between ratios and percentages

Week 4
  • Finding evidence
  • Assessing evidence found through internet searches
  • Using databases
  • Assessing charts for common pitfalls, misinformation and distractions

Week 5

  • Writing about secondary sources
  • Identifying and articulating an historian's argument
  • Estimating using large numbers: trillions, billions, millions, thousands
  • Calculating and reporting the mean, median and mode
  • Calculating weighted averages

Module 2: Making Connections

Goal: Students will develop their ability to make comparisons between two pieces of evidence and interpret trends across time and place.

Week 6

  • Making comparisons between primary source documents I
  • Expanding your vocabulary
  • Writing about patterns I
  • Categorical and continuous variables
  • Reporting rank, direction, magnitude, minimum, maximum and range
  • Reporting quintiles and interquartile range
  • Deriving a conclusion

Week 7

  • Making comparisons between primary source documents II
  • Structuring paragraphs
  • Writing about patterns II
  • Using analogies to summarize patterns
  • Comparing to standard cutoffs and patterns
  • Approximating data with linear models

Week 8

  • Writing about change over time
  • Comparing continuous variables
  • Calculating and reporting absolute change, change expressed in ratios, percentage change, and difference in percentage points.
  • Creating histograms and line charts

Week 9

  • Comparing two historians' arguments
  • Comparing categorical variables
  • Reporting absolute difference, relative difference (ratios and percentages), and difference in percentage points
  • Creating bar and pie charts
  • Interpreting two-way (contingency) tables
  • Comparing continuous and categorical variables together

Module 3: Dealing with Uncertainty

Goal: Students will become more comfortable with the fact that there is rarely one "correct" answer.  At the same time, they will start to appreciate that some answers can be better supported than others.

Week 10
  • Dealing with historical uncertainty and limitations in historical evidence
  • Writing about the gaps in the evidence
  • Introducing statistical analysis
  • Evaluating the quality of datasets

Week 11
  • Making assumptions about historical evidence
  • Paying attention to primary source form and function.  What can they tell us about the societies that produced them?
  • Interpreting patterns of variability in charts, including standard deviation
  • Using analogies to report general patterns of variability

Week 12
  • Asking new historical questions
  • Correlation and its pitfalls

Week 13
  • Constructing historical periods and historical concepts
  • Interpreting polls: significance, confidence intervals and margins of error
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