Reading and interpreting data

Importance of data literacy

When reading and interpreting some forms of data in Economics and Business, it is important for students to understand the key features of the data that they are viewing. For instance, to read and interpret a graph, they will need to know:

  • what the dependent and independent variables are
  • the scale used to measure changes in these variables and
  • if a trend can be identified in relation to changes in the two variables.

Data literacy is a crucial capability for Economics and Business. Fontichiaro, Oehrli & Lennex (2017, p. 3) define data literacy as:

'the ability to comprehend, evaluate, and synthesize data and numeric information in all of its different forms.'

In addition, students should be critical analysts of the data that they read and interpret. Some sources of data:

  • are not as accurate, valid or reliable as others due to biases
  • might misrepresent how the data is conveyed
  • may be presented with omissions.

Students will need to be taught the skills of critical analysis when they are presented with a data set.

Below are two strategies to help students understand how to engage with data:

  • reading and unpacking visual representations of data
  • comparing statements about data.

Reading and unpacking visual representations of data

  1. Provide students with a graph or chart related to the economic or business topic that they are studying. Good sources of graphs and charts in Economics and Business are:
    • Reserve Bank of Australia chart pack, which has graphs on the Australian economy and financial markets
    • Australian Bureau of Statistics, which includes statistics on the economy, industry and labour.
    • The teacher provides prompting questions to help students unpack the graph or chart. Questioning (HITS strategy 7) provides opportunities for teachers to check for student understanding of how to interpret visual representations of data. Examples of questions that can be asked include:
      • What is the title of the graph/chart?
      • What type of graph/chart is it?
      • Look at the horizontal axis. What is the label on this axis? What is the scale and unit of measurement?
      • Look at the vertical axis. What is the label on this axis? What is the scale and unit of measurement?
      • How are the numbers shown? (e.g. thousands, hundreds, decimals or percentages?) What do these numbers represent?
      • Is there a relationship between the variables in the graph? For example, is there a direct relationship between the two variables on the axes (i.e. as one increases the other increases) or is there an inverse relationship between the two variables on the axes (i.e. as one increases the other decreases).
      • Can you identify a trend in the data? A trend is a pattern of gradual change in a series of data point that moves in a certain direction over time as represented by a line or curve on a graph. Over a certain period of time, is there an upward or downward trend in the data?
    • Students annotate the graph during the class discussion.
    • Using the prompting questions and their annotations, students work in pairs to read and interpret the graph or chart presented.
    • Students discuss the graph or chart with their peer and generate a joint construction of their interpretation. This is an example of Collaborative Learning [HITS strategy 5] and allows students to share and compare their interpretations of the graph or chart with one another.
    • Students share their responses with the teacher in a whole-class discussion.
    • The teacher adds to, or corrects, students' interpretations and models how to apply economic and business understanding to interpret and read the graph or chart. The teacher makes their thinking explicit by talking through how they interpret and read the graph or chart.
    • Students take notes about the graph or chart based on the whole class discussion and teacher modelling.

Curriculum links for this example are: VCEBE019, VCEBE028.

Comparing and contrasting statements about data

Even when data sources are considered valid, accurate and reliable, it can be difficult to interpret their meaning appropriately if the data lacks context. Blastland & Dilnot (2009) suggest that readers of data should be able to answer the questions, "Compared to what?" or "Is that a big number?" when they see statistical information in a text.

In Economics and Business, students engage with a range of texts that might include headings or statements that refer to statistical information. These include news articles, case studies and website pages.

In some cases, statistical information that they read might be imprecise. Students need to be able to recognise when this is the case to consider what additional information they need to interpret the statistical information more accurately.

  1. The teacher presents to the students two statements about the same economic or business topic: an imprecise one and one that is precise. For example,

    Imprecise statement:
    "Australians that want to work this year now can with more than 25,300 people securing the job of their dreams."

    Precise statement:
    "The number of Australians classified as 'unemployed' fell by 25,300 individuals. Whilst this is a slight improvement from last year's figure of 25,750, Australian Job Research Foundation figures suggest that 27 per cent of Australia's newly employed workers are underutilised this year, that is, unable to work for the number of hours that they need, compared to last year when the figure was 11 per cent. Data also suggests that 43 per cent of newly employed workers are in casual positions and experience job insecurity."
  2. The teacher may highlight words and phrases which create certain kinds of effects, such as citation of authority, use of positive (or negative) spin.
    For example, 'job of their dreams' as positive spin and exaggeration (hyperbole), and 'Australian Job Research Foundation figures' as a citation of authority and therefore reliable data.
  3. The teacher instructs students to compare and contrast the two statements. Ask questions such as:
    • "What information does one have that the other does not?"
      • Imprecise statement:
        exact figure
      • Precise statement:
        the exact figure with direct comparison to previous year's figures; additional data (as percentage rate) relating to employment hours and employment type.
    • "How would you interpret each of the statements (e.g. positively/negatively) and why?"
      • Imprecise statement:
        positive tone
      • Precise statement:
        moderate tone
  4. Instruct students to explain which statement they believe portrays a more accurate picture of the economic or business topic, providing a reason(s) to justify their response. For example,
      • The first statement has a raw number with no comparison.
      • The second statement compares raw data over two years.
      • The second statement tells me the kinds of employment people are in and the hours they work.
  5. Students do a think-pair-share as a collaborative learning exercise [HITS strategy 5]. After comparing and contrasting the two statements and writing an explanation about why they prefer one statement over the other, they share their answers with a peer and then share their collective responses with the class. For example, a student may respond:
  6. The author of the imprecise statement shares a raw number of newly employed people without giving the reader any independent way to determine if it is high or low. In the second, a government organisation compares the figures for 2018 and 2019 and finds that not all of the 25,300 people securing work are in their 'dream jobs' and that the increase compared to the previous year is not significant. Including this additional information helps the reader to better understand Australia's employment performance.

Curriculum links for this example are: VCEBW016, VCEBW017, VCEBW025, VCEBW026.