Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dive In, But Don't Drown

Dive in, but don’t drown

by Wendy Vaulton, Senior Researcher

In an era of information overload, figuring out what to do with data can feel a bit like drinking from a fire hydrant. Not only is the volume of data sometimes overwhelming, but information from different sources often seem to conflict with each other. How often have teachers found that state test results don’t mesh with classroom assessment results? The end result can be confusion and paralysis. So, how can you move forward and find meaningful, actionable information in a sea of data? This is the first in a series of posts to help you figure out how to move forward in looking at data without getting overwhelmed.

First, it is imperative to be clear about your questions. When we take information in without a sense of direction or purpose, it is easy to jump to the most obvious and sometimes misleading conclusions. Then, we take premature action and become frustrated with a lack of meaningful change. To avoid this, work with your colleagues to identify the questions that matter most to your school. These questions should be aligned with state and district goals, but should also reflect the concerns and issues that are unique to your school and/or classroom. Once you are clear about the questions that matter most, then you can begin to figure out whether they can be answered with the information you have.

Second, be assured that you don’t need special skills or equipment to dive safely into data. You just need honest curiosity and a willingness to explore (knowing how to use Excel doesn’t hurt, but isn’t critical). Empower yourself to examine one source of data in-depth rather than trying to take in everything at once. For instance, spending time with colleagues examining state ELA test results by item may lead to more actionable results than looking at a stack of different assessments all at once and comparing results. Digging deeply into a single source will allow you to explore which kinds of questions seem to trip up which students. What do these patterns say about student learning? What implications do they have for instruction?


When digging into data, it is much easier to visualize trends using graphics. Pie charts and bar graphs are easy to make in Excel and can convey a world of information that it is impossible to absorb when looking at numbers in a table.
  • Helpful resource #2: If you don’t have a lot of tech capacity, think about using an online resource like Fiverr.com where people market their services for five dollars. Just don’t forget about student privacy if you are going to ask someone else to graph your data.
The idea of data driven decision making is not to try to understand everything going on at once. Better to get a real answer to one narrow, but meaningful question than a superficial answer to a dozen. By digging deeply into a single data source, we give ourselves room to think deeply and strategically. Stay tuned for next time when we’ll talk more about the process of digging into data to inform instruction.