Measuring numeracy without a math test: development of the Subjective Numeracy Scale

Med Decis Making. 2007 Sep-Oct;27(5):672-80. doi: 10.1177/0272989X07304449. Epub 2007 Jul 19.


Background: Basic numeracy skills are necessary before patients can understand the risks of medical treatments. Previous research has used objective measures, similar to mathematics tests, to evaluate numeracy.

Objectives: To design a subjective measure (i.e., self-assessment) of quantitative ability that distinguishes low- and high-numerate individuals yet is less aversive, quicker to administer, and more usable for telephone and Internet surveys than existing numeracy measures.

Research design: Paper-and-pencil questionnaires.

Subjects: The general public (N = 703) surveyed at 2 hospitals.

Measures: Forty-nine subjective numeracy questions were compared to measures of objective numeracy.

Results: An 8-item measure, the Subjective Numeracy Scale (SNS), was developed through several rounds of testing. Four items measure people's beliefs about their skill in performing various mathematical operations, and 4 measure people's preferences regarding the presentation of numerical information. The SNS was significantly correlated with Lipkus and others' objective numeracy scale (correlations: 0.63-0.68) yet was completed in less time (24 s/item v. 31 s/item, P < 0.05) and was perceived as less stressful (1.62 v. 2.69, P < 0.01) and less frustrating (1.92 v. 2.88, P < 0.01). Fifty percent of participants who completed the SNS volunteered to participate in another study, whereas only 8% of those who completed the Lipkus and others scale similarly volunteered (odds ratio = 11.00, 95% confidence interval = 2.14-56.65).

Conclusions: The SNS correlates well with mathematical test measures of objective numeracy but can be administered in less time and with less burden. In addition, it is much more likely to leave participants willing to participate in additional research and shows much lower rates of missing or incomplete data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Comprehension*
  • Educational Measurement / methods*
  • Female
  • Hospitals, Veterans
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mathematics*
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Patient Participation
  • Surveys and Questionnaires*
  • United States