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What is a big number?

Published: Sep 23, 2014 2 min read

Stephen Lyon

Mathematics Lead

National STEM Learning Centre


The draft proposals for the new A level mathematics curriculum calls for students to interpret real data presented in summary or graphical form and use data to investigate questions arising in real contexts. I think that students at all ages benefit from interpreting ‘real-life’ data.

Here is an opportunity for your class to contribute to collecting data and then have access to the results, which they can then analyse. The question is quite simple: what is a big number? Does what constitutes a big number depend upon the age of the student who was asked? Do younger students think a big number is something different to older students?

I have set up a simple Google form. These are easy to do and could easily be done by students as a means of collecting real data. To take part is simple. Ask your class to write down an example of a big number. Record the results on this form. The results of the survey, so far, can be accessed here.

I asked my daughter the question “What is a big number?” She is 16 years old, so knows everything! I was quite surprised, and pleased, by her response: “it depends upon the context!” she said as she disappeared back to her bedroom. In the context of the number of visitors to the National STEM Centre website, we believe that two million is a big number, as this is the number of visitors there have been to the website since it was launched in 2010.

The National STEM Centre eLibrary now boast over 8,700 free resources for use by teachers of STEM subjects, another big number. The mathematics resources group has over 3,000 members and continues to grow.