It's the end of the year, when we reflect on the past year and look forward to new beginnings.
I haven't done any rigorous data collection about this, but I think it's fair to assume that most people would rate 2020 as a giant dumpster fire.
So let's take it back to 2019.
Last year was challenging for me in a different way. I had moved to Ohio from Maryland the previous year, and I naively thought that I could transition my business to my new home with relative ease since most of my work was remote.
As it took time for new connections to materialize into new contracts, I knew that things weren't headed in the right direction.
Now, I had a few metrics I used to measure my business:
At the time, those weren't pretty.
However, what was most telling for me was how I FELT.
I was discouraged, uncertain, and anxious. And in terms of my business, I didn't know what to do to make it better.
Certainly, the quantitative data was informing how I was feeling, but the numbers alone did not compel me to act.
I just wanted to feel better! I knew it was time to make a change.
Around that time, I met a new neighbor who specialized in website design and SEO. I heard about a marketing consultant whose approach resonated with me. I saw that the American Evaluation Association's (AEA) conference was featuring a lot of workshops and resources for independent consultants.
I sprang into action. I met with these new specialists, went to the conference, and got to work. And ultimately, I turned my business (and outlook) around.
While there is always room to grow, the numbers I mentioned earlier do reflect the changes I've made to my business. Yet I don't think they show HOW or WHY those changes happened.
From my neighbor, I learned something new and gained hope that some simple strategies could make my website work better for me.
From the marketing consultant, I felt understood and discovered a new way to communicate what I do and why I love it.
From AEA, I gained a large group of new colleagues, friends, and referral partners - but most of all, I felt accepted, validated, and supported.
To me, those feelings and networks are what helped me turn the page in my business - the fuzzy, not easily measurable, qualitative stuff.
Had I not reflected on those things, I might have stayed in my rut.
Maybe you already track your data, and maybe you don't, but if you're getting the feeling that something's not right, think about the qualitative data you can explore to see what's up.
How do your families feel when they interact with you? How do the staff feel? What is the tone of your interactions? How engaged are students in relationships with peers and staff and with their learning?
These things matter.
One thing I'm grateful for from 2020 is that a lot of educators are seeing just how vital family engagement is for student achievement.
So while we're reflecting on this crazy, crazy year, let's take a second to examine how our students, families, and staff FELT and how we helped them feel better.
If that's what we take with us into 2021, then I think we're off to a good start.
This week I've got a co-author to help me continue my qualitative data series!
Sarah Dunifon is Founder and Principal Evaluator of Improved Insights LLC, an educational evaluation firm focused on STEM and youth-based programming. She is based in Cleveland, Ohio and is a fellow board member of the Ohio Program Evaluators Group.
We hope you enjoy our post below.
Qualitative data can be a bit elusive.
It’s not usually too hard to find data for things that are measurable. We know we can do surveys, or count the number of attendees, or track patterns over time.
Qualitative data though - the context for those numbers - often takes a little more work to track down. Of course, we can always do interviews and focus groups with stakeholders to learn about their experiences, our usual go-to’s.
However, if you think of qualitative data for what it is - simply put, another information source - you’ll find that so many other forms of it are hiding in plain sight.
Think about the chatbox in your last Zoom session - you may not have realized it, but that’s a source of qualitative data! Other sources you may have readily available include the phone call logs that your teachers keep when they call families or even the observations you did of an event (online, drive-up, or fully in-person).
If you need more, there are lots of ways of collecting qualitative data, and many of them are even more prevalent now in our almost fully virtual world.
This makes our lives a lot easier, as we prepare to write our annual reports, apply for grants, or share the impact that our program had during this unusual year.
Like I mentioned in my last post, sharing the context for our quantitative findings can make those reports tell a much richer story.
Yet it’s not always intuitive to know how to turn a whole bunch of text into these powerful programmatic insights.
So when you find these sources of qualitative data, what do you do with them?
We can actually find patterns in our data by assigning thematic codes to different words, phrases, or even images. Sometimes, you start with a set of codes that have to do with your program goals, or the research concepts underlying your program.
Other times, you just code as you go. If you start to see a lot of mentions of a particular topic, that topic can become a code.
Coding can take many forms, and there is fancy software that can help you do it, but sometimes all you need is a notebook and some markers or a color-coded spreadsheet.
Below you can see some sample data about an after-school program focused on science and animals that we’ve color-coded according to the themes we saw.
In one glance, you can see that our participants liked a lot of aspects of the program, but games and activities (in blue) and the food (in pink), got the most mentions.
Coding allows us to see what’s happening across the dataset and pull out themes or key insights that we need to highlight.
Sharing your qualitative data analysis can be an important addition to your data story when demonstrating the impact of your work. It can add relevance, personality, and context to quantitative data by illustrating individual effects.
By reviewing our datasets systematically, we can also find some incredible quotes - the kind you would never attempt to paraphrase if you were writing a paper because they were so perfectly worded -- and let our stakeholders’ words shine.
You can feature key quotations by offsetting them or putting them in a different color in your report to highlight individual experiences and catch readers’ attention.
Another popular way to display qualitative data is in a word cloud.
Word clouds are visual representations of keywords that come up frequently in a set of qualitative data. Typically, the bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared in a data set.
There are plenty of critiques of word clouds in the data visualization space and rightly so - word clouds can often obscure meaning rather than clarify it. So if you are going to use them, here are three things you should know:
1. Give the data a good cleaning to remove anything that you don’t want represented in the visual.
Here, we’d recommend removing any responses that do not give value (e.g., “idk,” “I’m not sure,” “Nothing,” etc.) as well as any text surrounding the main themes (e.g., “I like the [...],” “I love [...],” “my favorite thing is [...],” etc.).
2. Consider the messages or key points you see in the data that you wish to convey visually. If it is possible to condense themes further or pull out important words, now is the time to do so.
This might mean collapsing phrases as best as possible to a single word, or perhaps a few words of important meaning.
3. Make sure to keep the essence of the data - meanings can be misconstrued when collapsing phrases into single words or shorter phrases.
If you’re finding this is happening, perhaps a word cloud is not the best way to display your data.
However, with data cleaning and basic analysis, the word cloud can change drastically.
Take a look here at three versions of the same word cloud we generated on WordItOut using the data we shared earlier. The first was created with original - or “raw” - data, the second with cleaned data, and the third with some basic analysis and condensing.
Notice how the prominent words change with each version, and how the meaning and key messages can shift.
As you can see, while word clouds are one of the most accessible forms of qualitative data displays, they take some work to be most effective.
However, word clouds aren’t your only option. Data visualization experts like Stephanie Evergreen, Storytelling with Data, and Depict Data Studio all have great resources on different qualitative data displays.
The case is clear - with some simple analysis and visualization, qualitative data can be a powerful addition to your data story.
You should know by now that I'm a bit of a data nerd.
I love spreadsheets. I love organizing data and using it to illuminate patterns. I love the "ah-ha" moments when clients realize how much their own data can tell them about the kids and families they're serving.
So it may surprise you that I'm here to say that numbers and spreadsheets don't tell us everything.
That doesn't mean that numbers (or quantitative data) are irrelevant.
It just means that they are even more informative when paired with stories, quotations, or anecdotes (qualitative data).
(See the box for a quick refresher on the difference between the two).
Here's an example. Yesterday, I was re-reading an article from The Columbus Dispatch, my local paper, about the spike in youth violence that has occurred during the pandemic.
It's been horrible to hear about how many children and teens (well, really anyone, for that matter) have been victims of gun violence since the spring.
The article cites a number of statistics -- that the number of children treated in Columbus for gunshot wounds this spring and summer was double the rate from 2019 (from 16 to 32); and that children from racial or ethnic minorities are twice as likely to be shot than white children.
Those are AWFUL statistics - and they certainly help me see that there is a dire situation here.
But then, the article talks to a teacher whose student -- an eight year-old boy -- was killed. Here's what the article shares about (and from) the teacher:
Thalgott has lost a handful of former students during her 20 years of teaching on the South Side. She's seen even more students who have lost a parent to gun violence.
Having lost some former students or their family members to gun violence -- either as victims or perpetrators -- this quote really gets to me.
This quote conjures up such raw emotions that suddenly it puts the statistics they cited into context.
Those 32 children are somebody's child, somebody's sibling, somebody's student, somebody's mentee. Hearing from a person who actually experienced that loss made a big difference in how I processed this article. I imagine it did for you too.
Quantitative data can be so powerful, but its impact is amplified when we lift up the voices of those we are serving or studying.
Qualitative data -- gathered through interviews, focus groups, open-ended survey questions, or observations -- can sometimes more effectively communicate the experience of what is happening in your school or community.
I'll be doing a series of posts on qualitative data over the next few weeks -- how to collect it, how to use it, and how using a combination of data can truly help you tell your story.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.