Image of a question mark on a chalkboard

Four Data Questions for Leaders

Sometimes it feels like reports detailing college and university data might as well be written in a foreign language. Lots of numbers, tons of bar graphs, size 5 font. Footnotes aplenty. And data questions galore.

Reports are jam-packed with so much information that it’s hard to identify key takeaways. And it’s often a challenge to even know where to begin. So, we’ve compiled a list of a few things that higher education leaders should consider whenever you’re reviewing data.

At IEHE, we love to share our own expertise, but are committed to finding and sharing the sage advice of others on issues related to data. Because so many institutions are trying to make the most strategic use of their data, we’ve included our thoughts on this topic and invited a colleague and data expert to share her thoughts, as well. 

Chalk drawn image of a question mark symbolizing the data questions we should consider.

Are Any Data Already “On-The-Shelf?” 

As a leader, you need to decide if you need your exact data question answered, or if a close proxy will do. For example, would you be willing to wait three weeks for a custom report knowing that an existing data set could come close to answering your questions in a fraction of the time? There is no right or wrong answer – it depends on the questions you are trying to answer. But – it is worth asking if there is an approximate answer already “on-the-shelf” – easily accessible, with no (or limited) waiting.

What Action Should We Take? 

Erin DeSantis, Associate Director for Student Success Analytics at California State University – Long Beach emphasizes focusing on action. Ask ‘What actions do you recommend based on the data analysis?’ Erin suggests that this helps parse out things that are actionable vs. not actionable. She says, “It is important to consider which actions will have an impact on the largest number of students.” 

Closeup of an ink pen nib - symbolizing the data questions we should make note of.

What Am I Missing? 

Erin hopes leaders will also ask, “What’s your interpretation of these data?” This question helps tease out what else the leader should be asking about, and figure out what different campus groups (faculty, staff, students) will say about these results.

What Else Can We Learn? 

Finally, leaders should ask, “If you had more time with the data, what else would you have explored?” This questions helps a leader see what direction the analysis might go next. This provides a good jumping off point to determine if you want or need additional related analyses.  

Do you have data questions you ask to help you streamline the analysis process or gain additional insight? Let us know in the comments below. If you or someone at your institution could use some support in developing their data analysis or interpretation skills, find out more about the ways IEHE can work with you, such as our Data Coaching and Custom Consulting services.

The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.