Students quantitative literacy and critical thinking skills can be improved by regular use of spreadsheet tasks

How are Spreadsheets used in Schools

My experience and observation in New Zealand Secondary Schools has been that using spreadsheets is a nice optional extra. Hardly surprising really when the Senior Mathematics Assessment Achievement Standard guides have no requirement for spreadsheet skills, giving little motivation for teachers to implement a spreadsheet skills program. Some New Zealand high schools include using spreadsheets in ICT or Digital Technology classes, but the teaching tends to be focused around learning basic skills on how to use the tool, rather than applying it meaningfully. An exception may be in optional senior Accounting Courses, but the vast majority of students don’t take the subject.

There is already a good amount of research and articles recommending that spreadsheets be used throughout Mathematics curricula. Petti (2010) suggests that spreadsheets can provide real mathematical meaning and understanding for students. She lists a number of benefits and provides student inquiry ideas by topic where students can explore and construct meaning, particularly in Algebra. I have, however, found that spreadsheets are used only voluntarily and then by rare advocates. A multitude of these tasks are teacher centric, with the teacher creating datasets and students merely utilise the spreadsheet as a fanciful textbook explanation or practice. Back in 1999 Mambretti said that “teachers who lack computer skills can hardly be expected to use computers in the classroom”. The same can be argued for the use of spreadsheets. If teachers are not using spreadsheets themselves, and becoming expert in the tool, then how can they be expected to  teach the skills and create meaningful data-based inquiries for students?

What others say about the need for Quantitative Literacy

Spreadsheets are used increasingly in the workforce where there’s an increasing demand for quantitative rather than qualitative justification for decisions….In the past, before spreadsheets, people would have taken a guess. Now they feel obligated to run the numbers” (Levi, 2014). Improving students quantitative literacy and critical thinking skills can be achieved by regular use of spreadsheet tasks in learning (Cahill et al, 2012). Spreadsheets are used extensively at the tertiary (university) level globally, where students are required to gather, analyse and present data in their research (Tort).

Then why not so much in schools? Peti (2010) states that “extensive research supports the use of spreadsheets in mathematics classrooms to empower student-centred learning”. While Tort found that students who had poor numerical and algebraic skills struggled to write equations in spreadsheets, Niess (2005) said that scaffolding spreadsheet tasks regularly into the Math curriculum can quickly build students capability and confidence. This is supported by Keeler (2015) who argues that “by having students regularly demonstrate their math in a spreadsheet they have the opportunity to learn skills they will use for a lifetime”. But shouldn’t we go beyond the mathematics classroom in school? After all, nearly every subject requires students to conduct inquiries by gathering and using data to test and present their findings?

Meaningful Task Design for gathering and analysing data

To achieve deeper learning, tasks need to be designed to “provoke the kinds of thoughtful engagement that helps students develop effective thinking skills and attitudes that contribute to effective problem solving and critical thinking” (Keengwe et al, 2014), while ensuring that  “assigned activities should intellectually stimulate students’ minds while avoiding confusion or overwhelming them” (Sorden 2005).

For my investigation I have created an inquiry task for my Year 9 students (New Zealand 13 to 14 years old) designed to engage them by stimulating their interest. It also has the purpose of developing their quantitative literacy and to encourage them to think critically. The task is being carried out in the last 3 weeks of the school year.

Teaching Basic Spreadsheet Skills

First the students completed a skills task (3 lessons) where they were introduced to working with spreadsheets. They were given their own spreadsheet of real and relevant data to work with, and then tasked with formatting, calculating and creating appropriate graphs –  Instruction document here.

Research Inquiry Task

This was followed by a research inquiry task that required students to:

  1. Choose a topic and write a focus statement or question related to that topic
  2. Write an introduction to set up their investigation
  3. Gather data to help address their statement/question (into a spreadsheet)
  4. Sort and examine the data (in the spreadsheet)
  5. Create relevant graphs (using the spreadsheet)
  6. Analyse the statement/question supported by the graphs
  7. Make a conclusion based on evidence

Here is a copy of the the complete investigation task along with SOLO Taxonomy assessment grid

Student Results – Quantitative Analysis

Students assignments were graded according to this SOLO Taxonomy grading template

As a teacher I was very pleased with the results. I compared their results to the average of all other assessment results using SOLO Taxonomy grading throughout the year (graph below). The class was of mixed ability with a number of students clearly struggling with mathematics, demonstrated by 9 results in the Prestructural/Unistructural range. The comparison shows that there was a clear shift upwards of student grades in the research inquiry task. The number of Extended Abstract grades grew dramatically. Only 1 student remained below Multistructural. If I had the opportunity to work with this class again (it is currently the last week of the year) then I would target the students who performed at Multistructural and help them to develop their ability to choose useful graphs and their analytical skills.

Students could choose their own topic and write their own focus question or statement. There was a wide range of topics included and the type of mathematics that students used in this assignment was reasonably varied. Mathematical skills included:

  • Gather, Organise and Display Data
  • Interpret graphs
  • Totaling
  • Averaging
  • Rounding
  • Percentages
  • Ratio
  • Measurement

I have included links to some of the assignments here:

“Has synthesized music become more popular in New Zealand?” – Extended Abstract
“Do teams that win a football league always have the top scorer?” – Extended Abstract
“Are US Songwriters more Successful than others in the New Zealand Music Industry?” – Extended Abstract
“Do EPL Football Teams have more success at Home?” – Extended Abstract
“Do teams in the champions football league do better if they have a higher club salary?” – Relational
“Does a nation’s GDP per capita determine the happiness of their citizens?” – Relational
“Are the rugby world cup playoffs teams the same in the last 3 cups?” – Multistructural
“Has the global use of Electric Cars increased?” – Multistructural

Student Feedback – Qualitative Analysis

I gathered a range of qualitative data through this anonymous student survey. The students were not aware of their grades when completing the survey.

Overall, students believed that they put in a good effort towards this assignment. This is relevant because over the last 3 weeks of the school year students’ effort and focus tends to tail off. This tells me that students will focus and complete work if it is meaningful. Students generally enjoyed the task (graph below) with two thirds generally very positive with a number commenting positively that they enjoyed the freedom to research their own topic of interest.

How much and what did students learn?

Well over half the class (graph below) felt that they were now quite or very confident with a range of spreadsheet skills as a result of completing the skills exercises and the investigation.

When quizzed on how much and what they had learned, students were very positive about how much (graph above). I have broken down what they said they had learned into different categories (some students covered more than one category). The results (graph below) show that, despite the task being a research inquiry, student still focused on the spreadsheet skills that they had learned. Perhaps this indicates to students that you really do need spreadsheet skills to carry out an inquiry using quantitative data. Or maybe the placement of this question, straight after that on spreadsheet skills, and before one on research skills, directed them to focus on what they had learned about spreadsheets.

At the beginning of this unit I asked how many students had used a spreadsheet before, and a good majority indicated that they had not. One of the students responded to the last question by stating

I learned a lot about how to make spreadsheets and graphs because I have never used spreadsheets in my life.

I did ask students to indicate how they had improved their research inquiry skills. The graphs below show the results.

These responses indicate that students felt that they had improved significantly over a range of research inquiry skills. This is a very encouraging response and a vindication for this type of scaffolded inquiry task. This data also gives a good breakdown of what I could focus the students efforts on in future tasks, given the opportunity.

The future of spreadsheets in high school


At this stage I considered it important to ask students their views on the placement of spreadsheets within the curriculum. After completing this task, a clear majority believed that spreadsheet skills should be included in the mathematics curriculum.

The students were asked to give a reason for their response. A small number said that spreadsheets had nothing to do with mathematics. The majority, however, felt that the spreadsheet and graphing skills would be useful in other subjects, at university and in the workplace. A student said that


Because the ability to sort data and the ability to make a document is very useful in almost all lines of work.

While another said that

Spreadsheets are the way of the future and are one of the easiest ways to sort data. Anyone who says otherwise is delusional

Students were asked to give an example of how thought spreadsheets could be applied in their other subjects.

Their responses (graph above) covered a wide range of subjects across the sciences, commerce and arts. Two students indicated that spreadsheets could be used in most subjects. Those that gave reasons discussed collection and analysing data along with creating graphs. Students were also asked how likely they were to use spreadsheets themselves in the future. All but 4 students (graph below) indicated that they were likely to very likely to use spreadsheets.

Teacher Exemplars

In my view teacher exemplars are essential to help guide students when taking on this type of multistage investigation. It is particularly helpful in breaking the task down into manageable chunks. For this reason I gave my students access to these two exemplars that I created:

  1. “You need a great attack to achieve in the Super Rugby Competition” (2013)
  2. “Do countries hosting the Olympics perform better?” (2017)

When asked, the students were overwhelmingly positive (graph below) that the exemplars assisted them in conducting the research.

Most student comments were similar to these:

It showed me what i had to do to complete this assignment to my highest standard.

I had something to confirm off of, making sure i was still on task

The examples the teachers provided was good because it showed us the standard that he/she is looking for in the assignment. I was stuck on some parts but the examples gave me an idea on whats it suppose to look at.

The student feedback on the exemplar and how they used it to guide them makes me question the value of task documents and assessment grids. At the beginning of the survey I had asked students about how much they used the SOLO Assessment Grid to guide their research. The responses (graph below) indicate that they used it very little. It does raise the question, that could be explored later, and that is: “Are assessment requirements (task and grid) more helpful for student learning and achievement than a good exemplar?”


This investigation sought to find out if students quantitative literacy and critical thinking skills could be improved by regular use of spreadsheet tasks. Though I did not explore the “regular” use of spreadsheets over an extended period of time, I can confidently comment on students quantitative literacy and critical thinking skills.

The analysis of student assessment results demonstrated a distinct improvement in their grades, compared to previous assessment tasks. Students indicated strong confidence in their ability to use data on spreadsheets, despite many of them encountering spreadsheets for the first time. The majority also said that they had improved their ability to create meaningful graphs which is an important component of data analysis. This confidence is also demonstrated by over 85% of the class suggesting that they would now likely use spreadsheets in the future.

In this one off investigation students clearly developed their skill in critically analysing data, with every student indicating that they had improved this skill to some degree. Critical thinking skills were required at the Relational (SOLO) level where the research analysis required some depth of comparisons and contrasts to be made. To move to Extended Abstract (SOLO) students were required to prove or justify their research with a well thought out argument supported by evidence. Of the 29 students, a majority (17) reached the Relational level or above.

A good number of student responses supported Levi’s (2014) premise that the spreadsheet tool is used widely in the workforce, or Tort who highlights their wide use at the tertiary level. As a result the majority agreed that spreadsheets should not only be used in the Mathematics curriculum, but across most other subjects. This regular use of spreadsheets would certainly help students to continually develop their quantitative literacy and critical thinking skills.

Spreadsheet Resources and Activities


Cahill, M. B., Barreto, H., & Schodt, D. (2012, July 17). Why Teach with Spreadsheets? Retrieved November 25, 2017, from

Keengwe, J., Onchwari, G., & Agamba, J. (2014, December). Promoting effective e-learning practices through the constructivist pedagogy. Education & Information Technologies, 19(4), 887. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from Edb.

Keeler, A. (2015, October 17). A Call to Math Teachers: Use Spreadsheets. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from

Levy, S. (2014, October 24). A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge – Backchannel – Medium. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from

Mambretti, C. (1999). Internet technology for schools. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Niess, M. L. (2005). Scaffolding Math Learning with Spreadsheets. Learning & Leading with Technology, 32(5), 24-26. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from

Peti, W. (2010, April 27). Compelling Spreadsheet tips to understanding Mathematics. Retrieved November 25, 2017, from

Sorden, S. D. (2005). A Cognitive Approach to Instructional Design for Multimedia Learning. Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 8, 263-279. doi:10.28945/498

Tort, F., Blondel, F., & Bruillard, E. (n.d.). Spreadsheet Knowledge and Skills of French Secondary School Students. Lecture Notes in Computer Science Informatics Education – Supporting Computational Thinking, 305-316. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-69924-8_28

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *