Institutional Researchers: Trainers, Coaches, and Educators

By Gina Johnson, Association for Institutional Research; Kara Larkan-Skinner, Our Lady of the Lake University; and Jessica Shedd, University of Texas System

In January 2017, AIR released the Duties & Functions of Institutional Research. AIR and its members are now exploring the practical application of the duties and functions. This article delves into the duty and function area: Educate information producers, users, and consumers.

This functional area encompasses the training and coaching related to the use of data, analysis, and information to inform decision making. Education can be focused on ensuring the ability to collect, access, analyze, and interpret information independently and in collaboration with other stakeholders. The function also includes a collaborative role in convening discussions related to information needs and connecting internal and external producers and users of data with one another for purposes of informing decision making. Scholarship to inform and improve data, information, and analysis for decision support is also included in this function.

Why should institutional researchers train, coach, and educate as part of their leadership in ensuring a data-informed decision-making culture? Institutional research professionals assisting stakeholders in understanding and using data and information to inform decisions ensures a data literate organizational constituency. With advances in technology leading to increased data collection and data and information accessibility, it is more important than ever for IR professionals to play a lead role in developing data literacy across their organization.

How can institutional researchers, many of whom have not been formally trained as educators, leverage their knowledge and skills, and those of their teams and others in their organization to train, coach, and educate? Some examples from the field, many presented at the recent TAIR conference, are shared below.

IR professionals can provide training and education for stakeholders through formal training opportunities aimed at increasing information awareness. These opportunities may involve training on the use of institutional dashboards or other data visualization tools; educating on available resources (internal or external to the institution); informing about student survey responses; or training stakeholders in conducting analyses. Both Our Lady of the Lake University and The University of Texas (UT) System provided user training when they launched their visualization tools. Both found improved use of their visualization tools, and that improved use of the tools led to increasingly informed questions from users. In addition, feedback from the training sessions resulted in improvements to the visualization tools, including the development of more useful dashboards. The IR staff at Amarillo College trained faculty and staff on how to utilize national and state data sets, like IPEDS and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), and trained stakeholders on how to locate and use readily available institutional data. To increase participation in and use of a new student survey, an IR staff member at the University of California Merced attended the annual retreat of the student affairs team to share survey results. Later, student affairs staff scheduled presentations on the survey data specific to their units. IR staff sharing data and training on data use with student employees, such as resident assistants and student health educators, was particularly helpful in increasing use and participation in future surveys as the students became vocal advocates for survey participation.

Another example of formal education of stakeholders, including prospective and current students, their families, high school and college counselors/advisors, and staff on the UT campuses is the use of UT System’s seekUT– an interactive, online data tool dedicated to providing information, by major, on employment earnings post-graduation, student loan debt, and projected job growth by occupation. The UT System IR professionals have utilized campus visits, webinars, meetings of UT students and campus officials at the System Office, conferences, and many other opportunities to educate constituents on how to use the data provided in the tool to help students make informed financial decisions related to their postsecondary education.

Less formal opportunities for training and coaching abound for institutional researchers. At Our Lady of the Lake University, the IR team desired to have more oversight of institutional surveys, but the culture of the institution, in some ways, was not conducive to top-down changes to long standing practices. To centralize surveys without an institutional mandate, the IR office intentionally reached out to stakeholders to offer services in coaching and facilitating survey design, development, and analysis. Because stakeholders found value in the coaching and the survey services, IR found themselves increasingly involved in a larger number of surveys, to the point that now all institution-wide surveys flow through the IR office by choice.

Given the potential impact of state legislation and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) policy on The University of Texas System, the Office of Strategic Initiatives works very closely with its Office of Governmental Relations to not only respond to legislative session-related requests, but to consider the impact of any potential policy changes. Recently, THECB released its new strategic plan that includes several new accountability metrics, including metrics related to undergraduate student debt and employment and earnings post-graduation, and the Office of Strategic Initiatives staff worked to educate leadership on the new metrics, how the methodologies may differ from already existing similar metrics, and how the institutions are expected to fare so that leadership are prepared for the eventual accountability data release.

To increase an organization’s capacity to provide training, coaching, and education as part of its institutional research function, it is often beneficial to utilize a train-the-trainer approach. The University of Denver office of Institutional Research & Analysis partnered with their colleagues in IT and Budget to create the Information, Measurement, and Analysis council. The council is made up of professionals from across campus whose roles involve the use of data and information to inform decision making at the institution and/or in their unit. Every other month, the Council meets to educate one another on their individual and collective work and to provide training on the topics of information, measurement, and analysis. Members meet others with whom they can collaborate on projects and gain knowledge and skills to improve their work.

The Duties & Functions of Institutional Research detail the foundations of a successful institutional research function at an institution, system, or organization. All five pieces are critical to the enhanced use of data and information for decision making. Educating information producers, users, and consumers is beneficial by itself, and pairs with each of the other duties and functions to ensure organization-wide data and information literacy. IR professionals play a lead role in this education, training, and coaching, and thereby are integral to a data-informed organization.

For more information on any of the examples listed in this article, please contact the authors: Gina Johnson, Kara Larkan-Skinner, or Jessica Shedd.

Join the conversation by sharing your examples of education, training, and coaching to enhance the institutional research function of your institution, system, or organization in the Comments section below.




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