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Data and Its Potential for You and Your Programs

Leadership and Management

Data and Its Potential for You and Your Programs

What data does your institution supply to you as a chair or program director? How does your institution use data about your unit to make decisions? Given what you know about your programs, does the data provided seem to be an accurate representation? These are some of the most basic questions you need to ask.

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Note: This article is the first in a three-part series.

What data does your institution supply to you as a chair or program director? How does your institution use data about your unit to make decisions? Given what you know about your programs, does the data provided seem to be an accurate representation? These are some of the most basic questions you need to ask.

But you can do more to optimize the outcomes for your unit, depending on the resources your institution makes available. So let’s ask a different set of questions. What data do you need to do your job most effectively? How can you help your unit perform better in areas that matter—both in areas that are measured by the institution—and ones that you value personally and professionally? What data can you generate yourself or obtain by request that helps you tap the greatest potential of your programs?

In what follows, I look at available data sources and examine ways to create a culture of knowing and of inquiry among faculty. In subsequent articles, I examine examples of the types of questions you can ask to support recruitment and retention. These examples are designed to help you learn to formulate better questions for your purposes.

If your institution is like ours, a basic data set is made available to you annually, without your generating any reports. At our institution, this is an annual fact book published online. It shows numbers of majors and minors for a snapshot point in time and for the past five years. This helps make trends identifiable. The number of faculty and the student credit hour production per full time faculty member (SCHP/FTE) are also part of that data set. Some additional data may be sent to department heads automatically, such as grade distribution per faculty member and course taught. This latter data set will indicate pass rates per faculty member and course as well as attrition and fail rates (D, F, W) for each course taught.

Beyond that, you may need to generate the data you want. See what resources your Office of Institutional Research (IR) offers. At our institution, IR provides an online dashboard that lets unit leaders such as department heads, chairs, and program coordinators drill deeper into majors and minors by program, department, and college. You can drill into majors and minors, ascertaining additional information about these students that could be relevant for recruitment, retention, and persistence. What is their other major or minor? What is their time to graduation? What are the indicators of academic preparedness (test scores, GPA)?

If you have questions beyond what you can generate on the dashboard, you will want to identify other ways to generate or request reports. It is a good idea to understand the hierarchy of what the reports provide what you can generate, and finally, what you can request. For the most complex requests not available any other way, the IR office at your institution can be an immensely valuable resource. Some requests, such as simple snapshot-in-time requests, may be routed directly to IT for fulfillment. More complex requests, such as those asking for data over time or requiring custom programming, are likely to go to IR. You may learn that the analysts in your IR office can help you refine a request before you submit it and that they can help you interpret data that has been generated for you. As the research coordinator at our institution put it, “As distinct from the traditional accountant, or the stereotypical ‘bean counter,’ or the automated IT department data report, the seasoned IR professional understands the context of the institution and the intent behind the request for data analysis.”Don’t miss out on this potential. It is a constructive and natural part of the process to consult with an analyst in the IR office both before submission and afterward.

Before I offer some examples of the power of the good questions you can ask (part two of this article series), let’s spend some time considering how you will manage data. These practices can lay a foundation for faculty awareness of data, help develop a sense of responsibility among faculty for what the data show, and foster an understanding among faculty of the power of data that can help you generate better questions than you could working by yourself.

Inform faculty of the data sources available to them. Make them aware of the hierarchy: what is provided annually, what can be generated on the dashboard or in available systems, and what requires custom programming by IR. Help them know how and where they can find basic information on their own. Let them know you want to be a partner and support to them in understanding, requesting, and interpreting data.

Share data at regular intervals, not just in times of crisis. This helps send the message that examining our data is part of what we do. The annual fall departmental retreat would be a good opportunity. If you want to do it more frequently, you can share a basic data set at the first faculty meeting of each semester. Provide the data in advance of the meeting and allow unrushed time to talk about it in the meeting. Model good inquiry through your own engagement with the data and in how you frame the conversation. Help provide context so the group can have a meaningful discussion. Try to anticipate what your faculty will ask. If the number of majors in your unit is dropping, how does this compare to other units in your college, or in the institution overall? Explore in discussion with your faculty the trends and the causes of these trends. Help your faculty see data for the opportunity that it represents to all of you. Gather your collective experience and insights to understand the root causes more deeply. Acknowledge their valuable insights and encourage their curiosity.

Let faculty know when you make custom requests to IR. Ask faculty members of the affected program—or all program coordinators if requesting department-level data—to review the draft of your data request before you submit it. Ask if they have tweaks or additions. In this way, you build an understanding of the potential of data. You build investment in outcomes. If faculty members have helped formulate the questions, they may feel more ownership in the answers. You may also be training future leaders by involving them in developing data requests. Then plan time to study the results together. If you think it might be helpful, ask the IR staff member who generated the data to meet with you as you examine the data together. Finally, identify action steps based on the data that help you maximize efficiencies and outcomes for your unit.

In parts two and three of this series, I will provide specific examples of creative data requests designed to contribute to recruitment and retention efforts. These examples and the stories that go with them are intended to inspire you to develop your own data requests to address problem areas and discover untapped potential in your administrative work.


Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching.