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The Quantitative Reasoning course tag

Topics/tags: Rants, Grinnell, academia

Today, we received the agenda for Monday’s faculty meeting and, is is typical, I skimmed through it [1]. The agenda included both a new pamphlet on the liberal arts we provide to students and a report summarizing what we’ve learned from the course tagging project [2]. For those who’ve forgotten, we’ve added a set of labels to courses so that we can show our accreditors that—even though we have chosen to let students design their own undergraduate curricula instead of relying on particular requirements—we provide students with an appropriate liberal arts education

In encountering the project, I’ve always had some concerns about the Quantitative Reasoning course tag. Seeing the two documents in sequence helped crystalize my concerns.

Here’s what we say about quantitative reasoning in the Catalog description of the liberal arts.

Quantitative reasoning, with emphasis on mathematical models and methods above the secondary-school level, aids in the expression of hypotheses, processes, and theoretical relations. A course in statistics can be helpful for all students, and particularly for those who might work in the social and behavioral sciences. Studies in computer science offer valuable exposure to principles of logic and problem-solving paradigms. [3,4]

Here’s the description of what the course tag is supposed to suggest.

This course provides students with the skills to study and interpret measurable quantities, typically appearing in the natural or social sciences. Such studies often require the interpretation of graphs or analysis of data sets and encourage fluency with fundamental quantitative tools. [6,7,8]

Those are two very different interpretations of what quantitative reasoning is, or should be. The catalog version essentially includes three models, one drawn from mathematics (mathematical models and methods), one drawn from statistics (vague), and one drawn from computer science (logic and problem-solving paradigms). In contrast, the course tag description appears to focus only on the statistical model. I find that concerning. In some sense, it’s as if someone had decided that the study of critical reading had to be of English novels or that the study of creative expression had to involve only the visual arts.

I’m also frustrated that while the catalog description focuses on learning these topics for their own sake, the course tag description focuses on learning quantitative reasoning as it serves other disciplines. There’s a strong benefit to having students learn to reason in abstract domains. As I’ve said way too many times, one central aspect of a liberal arts education is challenging yourself to think in different ways. In addition, none of the other tags describe a discipline as being in service to others, at least as far as I can tell.

I have no idea whether the College intends to continue course tags after our reaccreditation. If so, I sincerely hope that Curriculum Committee will revisit these tags.

Postscript: As I looked for quantitative reasoning in the College Catalog, I was reminded that we also have a second note about quantitative reasoning.

The original seven liberal arts, in the classical world, consisted of the trivium of deductive reasoning comprised of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium of quantitative reasoning, which encompassed geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music. [9]

Once again, the things that are termed quantitative reasoning are very different than what Grinnell’s quantitative reasoning tag implies. Of course, I’m not sure that anyone other than Grinnell refers to them as the quadrivium of quantitative reasoning. Most seem to call them the mathematical arts, the mathematical sciences, or, perhaps, the quantitative arts. But quantitative reasoning? That’s strange.

Postscript: In spite of my criticism of the quantitative reasoning tag [10], I do think that the new study using the course tags has some utility, particularly in the more nuanced approach to hurdle rates that was embraced in the final version [11]. I do, however, worry that by separating out Interdisciplinary majors, we are calling too much attention to the behavior of students in that one interdisciplinary major. Given the focus of that major, I also have trouble believing that only 14.9% of the courses that students in that major typically take are tagged Societies, Cultures, Identities. If that’s really the case, it strikes me that something is wrong with our methodology.

[1] Yes, I know that I have a fellowship this fall. However, I did commit to spending some time at Grinnell. Since I’m generally on campus on Mondays for department meetings, I tend to stay for faculty meetings, too.

[2] I’ve linked to the more recent of my musings about course tags. There’s also an older musing. I may be spending too much time thinking about tags.

[3] Grinnell College. n.d. Your Education in the Liberal Arts. Included in the 17 September 2018 Grinnell Faculty Meeting Agenda.

[4] Also available online at [5]

[5] Warning! Grinnell tends to move URLs. You can always search at for Elements of a Liberal Arts.

[6] Grinnell College. September, 2018. Examining Students’ Breadth of Curricular Experience Summary of the Evaluation of Student Transcripts and Course Tags. Included in the 17 September 2018 Grinnell Faculty Meeting Agenda.

[7] I was unable to find the list of course tags on the College’s Web site. Terrifyingly enough, searching for Grinnell College course tags leads too way too many links to my musings. Let’s hope that the external evaluators don’t attempt that search.

[8] Ah, it turns out that the list of course tags is hidden behind a password barrier on GrinCo. When will the College learn to embrace openness?

[9] Grinnell College. 2018. Elements of a Liberal Education. In Grinnell College Catalog.

[10] I keep wanting to write QR tag. But that seems way too close to QR code.

[11] Thank you to the faculty members who were able to get the report writers to embrace the idea of looking at 8 of 9 and 7 of 9 tags, rather than just 9 of 9 tags.

Version 1.0 of 2018-09-13.