Digging Into Institutional Data

I have both a professional and scholarly interest in how the students at the college where I work do their academic work, and (of course) whether and how they use the library. In my own research I’m much more likely to use qualitative than quantitative methods. I prefer interviews and other qualitative methods because they offer so much more depth and detail than surveys, though of course that comes at the expense of breadth of respondents. Still, I appreciate learning more about our students’ lives; these compelling narratives can be used to augment what we learn from surveys and other broad but shallow methods of data collection.

Not *that* kind of survey
Not *that* kind of survey

But even though I love a good interview, I can also be a part-time numbers nerd: I admit to enjoying browsing through survey results occasionally. Recently I was working on a presentation for a symposium on teaching and technology at one of the other colleges in my university system and found myself hunting around the university’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment website for some survey data to help contextualize students’ use of technology. My university runs a student experience survey every 2 years, and until last week I hadn’t realized that the data collected this past Spring had just been released.

Reader, I nearly missed dinnertime as I fell down the rabbit hole of the survey results. It’s a fascinating look at student data points at the 19 undergraduate institutions that make up the university. There’s the usual info you’d expect from the institutional research folks — how many students are enrolled at each college, part-time vs. full-time students, race and ethnicity, and age, to name a few examples. But this survey asks students lots of other questions, too. How long is their commute? Are they the first in their family to attend college? How many people live in their household? Do they work at a job and, if so, how many hours per week? How often do they use campus computer labs? Do they have access to broadband wifi off-campus? If they transferred to their current college, why? How do they prefer to communicate with faculty and administrators?

My university isn’t the only one that collects this data, of course. I imagine there are homegrown and locally-administered surveys at many colleges and universities. There’s also the National Survey of Student Engagement, abbreviated NSSE (pronounced “Nessie” like the mythical water beast), which collects data from 1,500+ American and Canadian colleges and universities. The NSSE website offers access to the data via a query tool, as well as annual reports that summarize notable findings (fair warning: the NSSE website can be another rabbit hole for the numbers nerds among us). There’s also the very local data that my own college’s Office of Assessment and Institutional Research collects. This includes the number of students enrolled in each of the college’s degree programs, as well as changes through time. Retention and graduation rates are there for browsing on our college website, too.

What does all of this student data collected by offices of institutional research have to do with academic libraries? Plenty! We might use the number of students enrolled in a particular major to help us plan how to work with faculty in that department around information literacy instruction, for example. The 2012 annual NSSE report revealed that students often don’t buy their course textbooks because of the expense (as have other studies), findings that librarians might use to justify programs for faculty to create or curate open educational resources, as librarians at Temple University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have done. And at my library we’re using data on how and where students do their academic work outside of the library, both the university-collected survey results as well as qualitative data collected by me and my colleagues, to consider changes to the physical layout to better support students doing their academic work.

Have you ever found yourself captivated by institutional research data? How have you used college or university-wide survey results in your own library practice? Let us know in the comments.

Photo by Farrukh.

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