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Our approach to scientific numeracy skills

Marta Ivkov
Oct 13 · 5 min read

The use of data, tables, graphs and figures is becoming increasingly prevalent in the media. This year we’ve seen countless graphs of COVID-19 case numbers and measures that could be taken to “flatten” the curve. Developing students’ abilities to use evidence-based reasoning and interpret data has never been more important. In direct response to teacher feedback, we’ve created resources to help explicitly teach these skills, and have further embedded them throughout our collection.

According to the Shaping Sci-Ed Education Report (2020), it appears that students’ numeracy levels are limiting their ability to understand science. Of the respondents, 49% of teachers strongly agreed or agreed that their students’ numeracy skills were limiting their scientific understanding. Within the Australian Curriculum, numeracy has been identified as a General Capability, essential for young Australians to live and work in the 21st century. In science, numeracy skills are necessary for measurement, collection, representation and the interpretation of data from investigations as well as the general ability to make meaning — for example, data related to climate science.

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Distribution of responses to the statement “Students numeracy levels are limiting their ability to understand science” from Shaping Sci-Ed Education Report (2020).

The report also suggested that we weren’t doing enough to support students’ development of these invaluable data interpretation skills. Only 48% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that Stile had helped to improve students’ ability to interpret data. Based on this feedback, we’ve created lessons that teach data interpretation skills, and provided more opportunities for students to practise applying them to real-world scenarios.

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Distribution of responses to the statement “I believe that Stile has played an important role in improving my students’ ability to interpret data” from Shaping Sci-Ed Education Report (2020).

We now have two approaches when it comes to incorporating numeracy skills into our Stile lessons.

1. Teaching skills explicitly

The skill builders are also carefully crafted to scaffold students from lower-order to higher-order questioning throughout the lesson as they develop mastery of these new skills. Using videos and visual support, students are guided through worked examples which demonstrate the steps students need to complete to solve the problem, reducing initial cognitive load. Using worked examples is another high impact teaching strategy that Hattie (2009) found to have a moderate effect size (0.57).

Our skill builders cover everything from measuring and collecting data to calculating measures of central tendency and reading line graphs. They’re created with real-world examples to help students see the relevance of these skills. For example, students examine real NASA data when evaluating media claims about the 2019 Amazon fires.

Skill builders can be taught as their own unit focused explicitly on skills, or alternatively the lessons can be interwoven into the core content taught throughout the year. We’ve included skill builders in units where we think these skills are essential. For example, we’ve added skill builders on interpreting graphs and calculating percentage changes to the Immune System unit. This helps students make sense of the news headlines around the reported numbers of infectious diseases such as measles and COVID-19.

It’s also important to note that we also explicitly teach students skills at the point of need when they’re required as a part of a lesson. For example, our Model of the Earth lesson requires students to create a scale model of the layers of the Earth. To support students with this, we’ve included an explainer video to teach students what ratios are and how to calculate them. Students then practise this new skill before applying it to the practical component of the lesson.

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The skill builder on calculating percentage changes asks students to evaluate real data in relation to the increasing trends seen in measles cases worldwide.

2. Providing opportunities to practise skills

Explicitly teaching skills and then providing varied opportunities for practice aligns with educational research. According to Nuthall (2000), it takes three or four exposures with relevant information for a new construct to be transferred to long-term memory. This transfer of knowledge has been found to be most effective when exposures are spaced over time and the activities are varied. This is also supported by Hattie’s (2009) metaanalysis which found spaced practice had a moderate positive effect size (0.59) on student achievement.

Incorporating skills-based questions into our lessons provides a two-fold benefit. It not only allows students to regularly practice these skills, but also results in students thinking more deeply about the content they’re learning. Skills-based questions help students to make connections between ideas, apply critical thinking skills and challenge themselves beyond the curriculum requirements.

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Students are asked to interpret graphs that compare the deadliness and contagiousness of different diseases in a lesson on infectious disease.
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In a lesson about ecosystem relationships, students examine a symbiotic relationship between crabs and coral by interpreting this bar chart.

If you haven’t already, try one of our skill builders in your classroom this term! You can find them in the ‘Skill builders’ folder within the Stile Library and peppered throughout our collection of curriculum-aligned units.

We hope these lessons help you explicitly teach the essential numeracy skills that students need to be successful 21st century citizens.


Nuthall, G.A. (2000). ‘The role of memory in the acquisition and retention of knowledge in science and social studies units.’ Cognition and Instruction, 18(1), 83–139.

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