On NOT reinventing the wheel

Stone wheelA couple of recent projects have reminded me of what a sharing profession Institutional Research is.  We often share the results of our efforts when it will help others avoid needlessly repeating that effort.  I’m not sure if it comes from the empathy that develops from working in small offices where resources are stretched so thin, or just the kind of people attracted to the field, but I have yet to meet a stingy IR person! (Although I have encountered plenty of people outside the field trying to make some money by selling us the stuff we’d otherwise “reinvent” ourselves…)

One of my earlier experiences with this kind of generosity was the data on faculty achievements collected by Carol Berthold, of the University System of Maryland.  Carol would troll press releases and websites to maintain her database by institution of faculty members’ prestigious memberships (e.g. Institute of Medicine, National Academies, etc.) and awards (e.g. NSF New Faculty Awards, Guggenheims, etc.) by institution.  And then she freely opened up her database to share with IR offices!  This was data that we all found useful in touting our faculties’ accomplishments, providing contextual peer data, etc.  Very cool!

Some of my wonderful colleagues distribute their SPSS syntax files for creating routine reports from the surveys in which a number of our institutions participate .  Inspired by this, Alex and I are trying to make an effort to share some of our SAS syntax for these same surveys.  (SPSS, SAS, and R are statistical analysis software.  Probably the majority of IR offices use SPSS, but an increasing number use SAS, with use of R starting to pick up as well.)

Collecting and summarizing publicly available peer data is another area for collaboration and sharing.  The data may be publicly available, but it can take some work to put it into a user-friendly format.  A colleague recently shared a dataset he built of Fulbright Scholars.  This effort was facilitated by staff at HEDS, and made available to HEDS members.

Having overlapping peer groups presents another opportunity to share.  My good colleague at a nearby college has given me data that I needed from a peer summary that included Swarthmore.   Another colleague at a peer institution would routinely share her fascinating anthropological/institutional research work on the CIRP survey using peer data that included Swarthmore.

Like many professional associations, ours offers “Tips and Tricks” from members through its newsletter and website.  One of the things that Alex is doing with his blog is discussing some of the technical work we do, in an effort to encourage learning about tools and shortcuts from each other.

This kind of sharing provides the gifts of convenience, insights, and time.  In the instances where we are doing or would benefit from similar projects, it just makes sense for us to spread the load.

Experiences that matter

Kitten looking in mirror sees lionWe recently heard a talk by Josipa Roksa, a coauthor (with Richard Arum) of  Academically Adrift, the  study which concluded that students aren’t learning very much in college, and which captured the attention of the higher ed community and the public earlier this year.  Hers was the keynote address at the June conference in Philadelphia of the Higher Education Data Sharing (“HEDS”) consortium, which is a group of over 100 liberal arts colleges and a few universities to which Swarthmore belongs.  We share research and planning tools and techniques.  It’s a great group of IR types, and Alex and I were lucky to have the meeting in our back yard.

At the meeting Roksa shared with our group some of the findings from the two years of research conducted since the book was completed.  Among other things, the researchers have explored experiences that positively impact student performance.  Some of the things that mattered were:  faculty having high expectations for students; more rigorous requirements for the course; time that the students spent studying alone (time spent in informal group study had a negative impact!); and department of major (some majors showed more gains than others).  One of the hopeful notes that Roksa struck at the end of her talk was that they are now having some success at identifying the good practices that improve student learning, but the key is to ensure that more students get to experience these good practices.

This got me thinking about the importance of expectations and norms (maybe my roots as a Social Psychologist are showing).   Swarthmore is a place where intense intellectual activity is just part of the ethos.  But what is interesting is that while the faculty are certainly demanding of students, students’ interest in working hard is a self-perpetuating characteristic.  They select to come here because that is the environment they see when they visit, and that’s what they want.   Once here, they do work hard, reinforcing the norm.  We’re very fortunate to have an environment where practices critical for positive learning experiences are so firmly established.   It’s easier to consider implications of studies such as this when there is a strong foundation already in place.




Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

HEDS is at http://www.e-heds.org/The Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) Consortium assists member institutions in planning, management, institutional research, decision-support, policy analysis, educational evaluation, and assessment.