Catching our breath…

A lynx resting
photo by Tambako the Jaguar

It’s hard to believe that this semester is finally drawing to a close.   The multitudes of followers to our blog may have noticed our sparse posts this spring…   Shifting responsibilities, timing of projects, and just the general “stuff” of IR have left us little time to keep up.

Part of my own busy-ness has been due to an increased focus on assessment, as mentioned in an earlier post.  This spring, the Associate Provost and I met with faculty members in each of our departments to talk about articulating goals and objectives for student learning.   In spite of our being there to discuss what could rightly be perceived as another burden, these were wonderful meetings in which the participants inevitably ended up discussing their values as educators and their concerns for their students’ experiences at Swarthmore and beyond.  In spite of the time it took to plan, attend, and follow-up on each of these meetings, it has been an inspiring few months.

Spring “reporting” is mostly finished.  Our IPEDS and other external reports are filed, our Factbook is printed, and our guidebook surveys have been completed (although we are now awaiting the “assessment and verification” rounds for US News).  Soon we will capture our “class file” –  data reflecting this year’s graduates and their degrees, and that closes the year for freezing and most of the basic reporting of institutional data.

We also are fielding two major surveys this spring, our biennial Senior Survey (my project) and a survey of Parents (Alex’s project).    Even though we are fortunate to work within a consortium that provides incredibly responsive technical support for survey administration, the projects still require a lot of preparation in the way of coordinating with others on campus, creating college-specific questions, preparing correspondence, creating population files, trouble-shooting, etc.  The Senior Survey is closed, and I will soon begin to prepare feedback reports to others on campus.   The Parents Survey is still live, and will keep Alex busy for quite some time.

As we turn to summer and the hope of having a quieter time in which to catch up, we anticipate focusing on our two projects that are faculty grant-funded.   We don’t normally work on faculty projects – only when they are closely related to institutional research.

We are finishing our last year of work with the Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant.  IR supports the assessment of the peer mentor programs (focusing on the Biology and Mathematics and Statistics Departments) through analysis of institutional and program experience data, and surveys of student participants.   We will be processing the final year’s surveys, and then  I will be updating and finalizing a comprehensive report on these analyses that I prepared last summer.

Alex is IR’s point person for the multi-institutional Sloan-funded CUSTEMS project, which focuses on the success of underrepresented students in the sciences.  Not only does he provide our own data for the project, but he will be working with the project leadership on “special studies,” conducting multi-institutional analyses beyond routine reporting to address special research needs.

I wonder if three months from now I’ll be writing… “It’s hard to believe this busy summer is finally ending!”

Presently Presenting

Present wrapped in red ribbonIn preparing to make a presentation at Swarthmore’s Staff Development Week next month, I thought it would be a good time to review some rules of thumb for making presentations that I’ve learned and discovered over the years.  Because institutional researchers generally have such a range of people in our audiences, it can be tricky!

Power Point – This package is both a curse and a blessing.  As a presenter I like having a visual reminder of key points, and to help frame for the audience where I’m going.  As an audience member I know too well that slides full of text are deadly boring.  Because I am a tactile learner, I have found that I like to organize my presentation by making a text-rich Power Point slide show, but then not actually showing much of it!  The advantage is that I can share the full document later as the version that “includes speaker notes.”  For the actual presentation, I try to use slides primarily for simple charts, illustrations, examples, and a minimal number of bullet points (with minimal associated text).   I want people to engage with what I’m saying, not read ahead.

Tell what you’re going to tell   – The importance of giving your audience a simple outline of the presentation was impressed on me by Alex.   After a particularly boring talk we’d attended, he persuaded me how much better it could have been if we’d simply been able to follow its logic, which an outline would have provided.

Tables – Avoid all but the simplest tables of data in a presentation, and make sure, if you want them to be read, that they are indeed legible from the back of the room.  If I am showing a table primarily to present a layout, I would make clear as soon as the slide is shown that it is not meant to be read.  (This is not uncommon for Institutional Researchers, who share strategies and techniques – sometimes it’s not the data we want to see, but how you presented it!)

Graphs – I personally love a graph that contains a ton of information on one page.  I could stare at it for hours, like someone else might stare at a painting and glean layers of meaning.  Alas, I would try not to make such a graph for others!  In general, the wider the audience, the simpler the chart should be.  Avoid ratios, or even percentages that aren’t immediately grasped.   And be sure to use colors.   A simple, attractive chart that reveals an important relationship can reveal meaning to even the most staunchly anti-data.

Involvement – Whenever possible, I try to involve the audience either through humor (but DON’T overdo it – I’m an institutional researcher rather than a comedian for a very good reason) or engaging with an exercise or activity.  At a faculty lunch presentation a number of years ago, before I began (during lunch), I left displayed a chart reflecting faculty opinions about their adequacy of sleep by career stage.  It certainly piqued interest – people love to hear about themselves!

Certainly none of this is new, but I find it helpful to review and remind myself of them before starting a new project.  As I look back through some of my past presentations I see that I haven’t always followed my own rules as well as I’d wish!   But presentations can be a powerful tool for accomplishing a primary goal of Institutional Research:  getting information to people who need it. And so it’s something I continue to try to learn about and work on.


“Freeze” time

Snow covered pumpkin.
photo by billhd

It’s getting to be that time of year.  I’m not talking about frost on the ground or midterms.    It’s time to “freeze” the data!

Institutional Researchers report data about our students to many constituencies, and use it for our research.  We must have data that is accurate,  and is consistent across reports and research projects, and over time.  When students are enrolling or dropping out at different points during the term, how do we keep track of it all?  We don’t!  Along with our Registrars, we select a single point in time early in the semester that best reflects our student body, and we essentially download a copy of relevant data about the population that is actively enrolled on that date.  We call it a “snapshot” of the data, a “census,” or a “freeze.”    This is what our institution looks like at that point, and we will use this data forever to reflect our students in this term.  If someone drops out after the freeze date, our data will still reflect that student.  If a student enrolled, but left before the freeze date, they will not be counted for general reporting or research purposes.

The date selected is typically far enough along after the start of the semester so that students have sorted themselves out.  Many institutions use a particular number of days from the start of classes.  The IPEDS* default language suggests October 15.  Swarthmore has always used October 1 for our fall freeze of student data.  (We have another date for freezing employee data.)   That’s why, if you ask us for the number of students enrolled in September, we’ll ask you come back in October.

Leading up to the freeze, the Registrar’s office is busy tracking down students to make sure their status is accurate, and IR is checking with other offices (especially IT) to make sure programs are ready to run and new coding hasn’t been introduced which might affect the data extraction process.   (We hate it when that happens – always give your IR shop a heads up about new codes!)

One of the interesting things about Swarthmore that is different from other institutions in which I’ve worked is that the default status for students who haven’t graduated assumes that they return each term.  If they don’t return, their status must be switched to “Inactive” before the freeze date so that we don’t accidentally count them.  In my other experiences, the default coding each term indicated that students were inactive, and their status must be switched to “Active” if they did return.  It certainly makes sense to do it this way here, as most students continue until they graduate.  It was just one of the many little things that charmed me when I first started working here.


*IPEDS stands for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the reporting system used by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education.  All institutions in the country that participate in any kind of Title IV funding programs (federal student financial aid) must participate in this reporting.