Confidence with quantitative analysis is necessary for college graduates to navigate the sea of data that shapes contemporary civic life and to build successful careers. Social science classes play important roles in teaching quantitative literacy to students because they ground quantitative reasoning in contexts that resonate with undergraduates. Understanding how social science instructors teach quantitative skills and identifying instructional barriers can help libraries and other university units support faculty and students.

Today, Ithaka S+R releases findings from one of the largest in-depth studies of teaching practices across social science disciplines, conducted in partnership with librarians from 20 colleges and universities in the United States. Fostering Data Literacy: Teaching with Quantitative Data in the Social Sciences is based on interviews with 219 social science faculty from disciplines ranging from geography and linguistics to sociology and communications. These interviews included detailed questions about how instructors teach with data, the analytical software they prefer, their pedagogical approaches to introductory and upper level courses, and common barriers their students face. The interviews also yielded insights into how faculty locate datasets for classroom use, what support resources they use, and why they consider quantitative skills important for students to learn.

Key findings

  • Career skills are emphasized across the curriculum and are important factors in the software and methods that many instructors teach.
  • Teaching students to use analytical software is a hands-on process requiring a significant amount of valuable instructional time.
  • With the exception of capstone courses, instructors generally avoid asking students to locate data on their own because most students struggle to locate appropriate datasets.
  • Teaching assistants play a critical role in teaching students to clean data and use software, especially in introductory courses.
  • Liaison librarians are praised by many instructors for their ability to help students with data discovery and teach information and data literacies.

Library collections, expertise, and services are essential to supporting the development of students’ data skills. Centers for teaching and learning, individual departments, and even student organizations also have important roles to play. Maximizing the value of these offerings depends on aligning them to instructional practices and the most urgent challenges students and instructors face.

What’s next for Ithaka S+R?

Ithaka S+R continues to explore how libraries can contribute to undergraduate education and academic research.

Late this fall, we will publish findings from 244 interviews with instructors about their use of instructional video. Recent S+R research revealed that libraries make decisions about video acquisitions, particularly the streaming licenses that comprise a growing share of libraries’ budgets, based on their perceived educational value. Our forthcoming findings will help libraries align their streaming license with instructional goals and practices.

In early 2023, we will launch a two-year project with a cohort of universities to coordinate data support service offerings. This project will include the collection of landscape and institution-level data about how researchers access data support services, and identify duplication and gaps in existing services. Cohort members will use these data to build buy-in for greater coordination of data support service initiatives across campus. For more information, please reach out to Dylan Ruediger (