Research for Assessment and Planning (Oh my!)

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An Ideas for Action blog series on research tools, realities, outcomes, and pitfalls, and navigating your way through it all.

Co-Authored by Judith Dozier Hackman and Mela Dutka, Partners at Ideas for Action, LLC.


Many organization leaders face demands for getting and using good data. The demands are particularly pressing in higher education. Campus leaders and managers face expectations to show institutional effectiveness at every turn. Charting the path forward requires that they be “data driven.” Organizations connected to higher education face similar expectations, especially those supporting higher ed professionals. If you’re reading this blog, it’s a fair bet you have a research question or two. Perhaps even a tinge of research anxiety. You’re not alone in either case.

This occasional blog series will explore various questions, challenges and tips – often learned the hard way – for dealing with research and data. It’s aimed at folks who find they need a bit more assistance (or a lot more assistance!) in determining what data they need and how to use it. That’s research. Plain and simple. Which introduces our first principle. Keep it simple. Know what you need, do it, and don’t overcomplicate things.

Keep it Simple

The best research tells you something useful, something not only you can act on, but will act on. We know a lot of people (including ourselves at times) who have a great curiosity about some facet of the organization environment. We ask all of the interesting questions. (“I’m really curious to know how often students visit the student center and how much time they spend there and what they do, and maybe how much they spend in the café.”) The test of whether that’s good data, and worth the research time, is determining how you’ll use that information before you collect it. So, keeping your research simple, manageable and useful requires you to know what will you do with it when you get it. Is it the most important data for your needs? If you can’t answer a firm yes, it goes in the “nice to know but not necessary” pile of research questions. (A very big pile, by the way.)

Numbers or Words?

Research can be divided into two large categories. Research that explores thoughts, actions, or data in large quantities (people, phenomena, fiscal resources, etc.) yielding, information that can be quantified numerically. Research that explores smaller scale items, often based in what a small group of people tell us, is known as qualitative research. Information that describes the qualities of something.

Quantitative, Qualitative, or Mixed? Which kind of research do you need to get good information? Information for future directions, responding to internal and external environments and trends, or for determining the needs of important constituencies?
The reality is often a mix of approaches. To help you choose, consider these explanations:

Quantitative Research – collection and analysis of data (often from a sizable group) that are quantifiable and used to better understand existing conditions, attitudes or experiences or test hypotheses using statistical significance tests – including:

  • Surveys/Questionnaires, primarily structured and often closed-ended
  • Structured Interviews of a representative sample that can be generalized to a population
  • Correlations and regression analyses of existing or newly collected data

Qualitative Research – collection and analysis of data from a smaller targeted group to better understand a specific set of issues, attitudes, experiences or problem, including:

  • Interviews, often in-depth and semi-structured, of a selected set of respondents:
    • Identify themes from thought leaders, top administrators, and/or consumers to questions of major interest to the client
    • Gather information and/or best practices from peers
  • Focus Groups
    • More deeply explore or test questions, ideas or issues with targeted constituencies
    • Observe interactions among group participants
  • Reviews of Public Documents
    • Determine current or emerging themes
    • Provide background for further qualitative or quantitative questions

Mixed-Method Research – collection and analysis of data combining both quantitative and qualitative research methods. Mixing the two approaches often provides fuller understanding of the questions under study.

Collection and analysis of data combining both quantitative and qualitative research methods (as the chart* below nicely summarizes).

Qualitative Methods

Methods include focus groups, in-depth interviews, and reviews of documents for types of themes
Primarily inductive process used to formulate theory or hypotheses
More subjective: describes a problem or condition from the point of view of those experiencing it
Text-based
More in-depth information on a few cases
Unstructured or semi-structured response options
No statistical tests
Can be valid and reliable: largely depends on skill and rigor of the researcher
Time expenditure lighter on the planning end and heavier during the analysis phase
Less generalizable

Quantitative Methods

Surveys, structured interviews & observations, and reviews of records or documents for numeric information
Primarily deductive process used to test pre-specified concepts, constructs, and hypotheses that make up a theory
More objective: provides observed effects (interpreted by researchers) of a program on a problem or condition
Number-based
Less in-depth but more breadth of information across a large number of cases
Fixed response options
Statistical tests are used for analysis
Can be valid and reliable: largely depends on the measurement device or instrument used
Time expenditure heavier on the planning phase and lighter on the analysis phase
More generalizable

Have a question about research and data? Let us know! We’ll answer it, and other common questions in future blog postings.

Have a more complex issue and need help? Give us a call – we’d like to talk with you about your research needs. Or check out our fuller description of research and how we can support you.


Judith Dozier Hackman_007Judith Hackman, Ph.D, is higher education consultant, coach, and senior partner at Ideas for Action, LLC where she serves on the management committee. During her career at Yale University, Judith was associate dean of Yale College and director of institutional research, corporate and foundation relations, and the teaching fellow program. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in higher education research and administration.

Mela DutkaMela Dutka, Ph.D, is a higher education consultant and partner with Ideas for Action, LLC. She has extensive senior leadership experience in higher education, specializing in student affairs. Her consulting work includes assisting campus leaders with strategic planning, organizational effectiveness, and designing practices and programs to support student success and persistence. Mela holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in higher education.

2016-11-03T13:49:22+00:00