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Science Skills: Significant Digits

Every year, the same great debate arises in our science departmental meetings .....  should we or should we not teach the rules of determining significant digits?  The members of the department have their reasons for being "pro" or "con" and it seems to me that the same people have the same reasons year after year.  Are we teaching significant digits because it is an important science skill, or just because it is found in the first chapter of the chemistry text book?

I tend to fall in the "pro" camp.  I think teaching significant digits is an important science skill to teach because:
  • It teaches the student the importance of making accurate and precise measurements.
  • It teaches the student how to look at the data in a scientific article and determine how accurate others have been in their measurements.
  • It teaches students how to learn a set of rules and then apply these rules to many examples.
  • It teaches critical thinking and problem solving skills.
  • It reinforces basic math skills when completing problems that involve calculations and rounding to a given number of significant digits.
  • It allows the opportunity to do a quick review on metric units.  (MANY kids need this!)
The people who think we should leave this out have pretty lame reasons (excuses) for their point of view:
  • It's boring.
  • Nobody needs to know this stuff any more.
  • It's archaic.
  • After you teach it in the first chapter, you never use it again.

The bottom line is that this is a tool of science, and for that reason, we need to makes sure our science students have this tool in their arsenal.  All research scientists know that there is "error" in their work.  The use of significant digits allows others a way of recognizing how much error exists in a set of measurements. 

Meanwhile, here are a few of the materials that I have developed and use as I teach significant digits.....I think it is still important!


  1. I teach it as an extension of precision and accuracy, but I don't grade it. I comment and critique when it is way off - I find it tends to stick better when they understand the reasons, rather than getting graded on the mechanics.

  2. Teach them!!!! I am not an educator (I did TA for a few quarters in grad school), but as a scientist, sig figs are extremely important. I feel that an answer that expresses too many digits is a wrong answer. Students should understand the importance of expressing scientific results accurately, and the sooner they learn, the better. I did not get sig figs beat into me early enough in life, I wish my science teachers had been sticklers early on - it may be painful, but it's worth it.

    And I agree with all of the reasons you stated!