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Quantitative Literacy and the Humanities

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Sense of scale

What is big? What is small? A sense of scale allows students to make comparisons with common measurements. Although a sense of scale requires more memorization than conceptual understanding, it is a powerful building block for quantitative literacy.

Students possess physical sense for common measurements such as:

  • Length of a meter
  • Weight of a kilogram

Students have memorized common measurements specific to the topic at hand such as:

  • Population of the U.S.
  • Population of the world
  • Population of the city, region, or state in which they live
  • Distance between important cities or other geographic locations
  • Average wage or income
  • Poverty rate
  • Number of casualties in World War I
  • Height of an average person
  • Weight of an average person

Students are aware of, and try to avoid, the anchoring effect.


What specific numbers should students have at their fingertips within a given field of study or topic?  What numbers provide a shorthand to help students make comparisons, evaluate change, or comprehend distance?

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