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Deepening our understanding of students through data

Stories & Case Studies
August 18, 2021

Last week, Campus Technology hosted a virtual event for education and IT leaders to share their ideas for data strategies that advance student success. Dr. Laurie Fladd, Achieving the Dream’s director of holistic student supports, and Shara Davis, strategic data and technology coach, presented for the final session: Deepening Our Understanding of Students Through Data.

Drawing from the Knowing Our Students guidebook, published by ATD in partnership with the Advising Success Network, Davis and Dr. Fladd discussed the importance knowing students, holistically and empathetically, in order to design an educational experience that is accessible and inclusive to all.

Intersectionality is key

“In order to center the student perspective, it’s important to understand our students better because it helps us to correct misconceptions that may come from our own biases, from the experiences that we bring to our institutions with us,” said Dr. Fladd.

Leaders and instructors in higher education are not the only people bringing their own experiences to the college where they work — a key element of the Knowing Our Students guidebook stresses that students also bring their whole selves to the classroom. It is therefore critical to use an intersectional approach to knowing and understanding community college students, recognizing that their race, age, gender, income, previous education, and lived experiences are all important parts of how they engage with their learning.

Developing an intersectional understanding of students will help enable colleges to embark on the first step of the student-centered design process: identifying challenges and/or opportunities that arise from student data. For example, are there gaps in performance within certain subject areas or programs for students in different racial demographics? Are completion rates lower for students with caregiving responsibilities? By asking these questions, and by working toward designs that employ a holistic understanding of students, colleges can begin to create better results and a more equitable environment for the people and community that they serve.

Tapping existing sources of data

For many colleges, sources of data already exist — nationally, statewide, within their communities, or within their institutions — that can be tapped to develop a greater understanding of their students. Shara Davis shared multiple possible sources of data with attendees, from national datasets like the Opportunity Atlas to local industry or community partners such as local school districts, municipal governments, and child services boards. Colleges can also tap internal sources of data, such as FAFSA application information or basic needs assessments conducted by the institution.

“A lot of institutions are now collecting data from their students,” Davis said. “For example, are they food insecure? Are they housing insecure? A big one coming out of the COVID environment was certainly technology needs that students have.”

Inclusive processes build trust

Just as important as collecting current, holistic student data is the packaging and presentation of the information.  By engaging in a reflective, inclusive process, institutions and visualize and disseminate data in effective ways. Davis shared strategies that ATD Network colleges have used in this process, such as data summits, capacity cafes, and standing meetings among college leadership.

When it comes to application of the data, Davis said, closing the feedback loop is essential for institutional learning, transparency, trust-building between students and faculty/staff, and making people feel that they have been heard in this process. Davis also discussed the importance of sense-making through an equity lens. She described how reflective conversations should focus on the type of structural, process, and attitudinal changes the institution can make to better serve their students instead of focusing the conversations on student deficits.

Davis and Dr. Fladd continued to provide an overview of the information and tools included in the Knowing Our Students guidebook, which was shared with attendees and which is available on the ATD website. Above all, they stressed the importance of including student voices in every step of the design process, from data gathering to implementation.

“There’s really no one right way to include students in the process,” Dr. Fladd said, “but engaging them as often as possible [will] make sure that you have a solution that fits them and approaches their needs best.”

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