A Holistic Approach to Institutional Research

A New Professional Development Opportunity from AIR

By Jason R. Lewis and Leah Ewing Ross


Top row, from left to right: Eric Atchison, Jason Lewis, and Leah Ewing Ross; Bottom row, from left to right: Mary Ann Coughlin and Kristina Powers

What does it mean to work as an institutional research professional?

When this question is raised, it is easy to begin listing tasks or projects most commonly performed in IR. For instance, IR professionals analyze data, respond to requests from institutional leaders, and fulfill mandatory reporting requirements. Based on conversations with AIR members, the AIR Executive Office is not alone in this challenge of succinctly describing the IR profession.

There is no doubt that the work tasks of IR are extremely important, but should they define the role of an institutional researcher?

A profession is more than a collection of tasks performed. If asked what a nurse is, most people wouldn’t reply that a nurse takes patients’ temperatures and administers shots because those items do not capture the larger context of the profession. At the AIR Executive Office, we challenge ourselves to help ensure that the definition of our profession isn’t limited to a list of tasks.  

It is from this line of inquiry that AIR built a new professional development opportunity: A Holistic Approach to Institutional Research.

In addition to explaining what IR is, the course content addresses the why of IR. It provides the foundation needed to meet and navigate the ever-growing demands for data and information in the current higher education landscape. This opportunity is ideal for IR professionals who have recently entered the field, as well as individuals who have been engaged with this work for some time, but would like a broader understanding of how IR fits into the larger context of higher education.

A Holistic Approach to IR explores a variety of key concepts in a series of five core lessons:

  • What it Means to be an IR Professional
  • Transforming Data into Information for Decision Support
  • Data Management and Governance
  • Applied Research Design
  • Data-Informed Decision Cultures

This course was developed with input from a variety of subject matter experts and stakeholders who served as advisors, content authors, and curriculum developers.

In an effort to expand the reach of this course, it is offered online and includes an in-person component. A cohort model, mentor support, and group activities will encourage networking.

The course’s inaugural class will launch in Spring 2017. Detailed information will be publicized by early February. Please contact air@airweb.org with questions.

In Their Words: Course Content Authors

Eric Atchison, Mary Ann Coughlin, Jason R. Lewis, Kristina Powers, and Leah Ewing Ross authored content for A Holistic Approach to Institutional Research. eAIR spoke with three of the course content authors.

eAIR: What will students learn in this course?

Mary AnnThe course covers all the basic elements that are important to IR, such as how we take data and turn it into information that can be used by decision makers. It addresses the importance of data quality and data management, it tackles the role of research design and research studies within IR, and tops it off with how we develop a data-informed decision making culture. The real value added is the fact that the course integrates all of these concepts because our work is not siloed in any way. Rather, our work is integrated, and all of these different factors hit us almost daily in terms of how we must adjust and manage, so it provides the newcomer to IR with a solid foundation to be able to do his or her work.

Kristina: Students will certainly walk away from this course with an appreciation for the complexity of the IR function. They’ll learn more about what an IR function is, how to build relationships, and how to make the most of their IR experiences.

eAIR: Who will benefit from this course?

Mary Ann: Certainly newcomers to IR will benefit because it is a survey course, an introductory-level course, and it provides students with a solid foundation to get started in the profession. In addition, individuals who may not necessarily be new to higher education, but may be new to IR, will truly benefit because they will be able to understand much more about the practice of IR and its processes.                                     

Eric:  Not only will the persons enrolled in the course benefit, but we anticipate that others at their institutions will benefit from the knowledge and skills that the students gain in this class simply because they will learn how to work with others at their institutions and discuss the types of issues that come with data management, or better understand different types and styles of analysis in reporting and the process of research design, which can then create more efficient IR functions at their institutions.

eAIR: What is unique about this course?

Mary Ann: The course is truly designed to be more integrative in terms of its learning style and learning approach than any kind of previous professional development for institutional researchers. It represents the fact that the roles of an institutional researcher change over time. We cannot just learn about turning data into information and creating good reports without considering data quality, data management, and other elements and aspects of our jobs.

Kristina: You have an opportunity to build relationships with your mentors in the course and other individuals who are new to IR as well.

eAIR: What excites you about this course?

Eric: So many of the course participants may not have the ability to interact with other IR professionals from different sectors, states, or regions. This course brings together a wide range of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to bounce ideas off each other and converse through discussion forums. Also, the ability to have a guided learning pathway through a survey course of IR is pretty fantastic.

Mary Ann: As a longtime AIR member who has a long history with AIR professional development, what excites me about this course is the model that it's building for professional development for AIR. It will increase access, and it also features that integrated approach to teaching and learning that's so important to higher education in general. We're getting out in front of the learning process and we are developing a model that will truly end up being the future of professional development for AIR.

eAIR: Why should IR directors invest resources in this training for staff members?

Kristina: As a head of IR, I have a very busy workload. The time and effort that it takes to “onboard” a new IR employee can last many months, if not years. The content in this course is condensed and provides a solid foundation such that as a manager, I can be assured that my employee has obtained critical elements that are fundamental to the role, and then I can begin to build on those pieces with institutional context.

In other words, I'm going to more rapidly bring an employee into a space where he or she can begin doing large and complex projects more quickly than I could if I were to teach them on my own.

Eric: Much in the same way that institutional data are assets, the value of which multiply the more they’re used and shared, professional development opportunities are very similar for staff. While institutional budgets may be limited, there is value that will come from this course for bringing employees up to speed much more quickly with the duties and functions that are incorporated into the course. Staff members will be able to integrate this knowledge into their day-to-day duties, as well as share information and understand other individuals’ perspectives to create a more holistic working environment with regard to the IR function at their institutions.

Mary Ann: Not only will the staff member benefit, but the institution will gain as well because the course really does help provide the new institutional researcher with a broad picture of IR and how IR can be used to improve student success and to advance our institutions. This knowledge and information will be brought back to the institution and be used to increase institutional effectiveness.


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