A Qualitative Revival: Contextualizing our Results

A Qualitative Revival: Contextualizing our Results

“We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” ~Carl Rogers

Student Affairs (SA) professionals are a dedicated bunch. We serve our students in ways to better support them inside and outside the classroom. This does not differ for assessment professionals because we are here to help our colleagues shape the story they tell with the help of assessment and research results. The longer I am on this journey, the more burnt out I feel. Paradoxically, I also have become more passionate to encourage others to take the path less traveled and become an SA assessment pro.

An SA assessment career may be the path less traveled, but it’s one that can be incredibly exciting and adventurous! When push comes to shove, assessment and research are critical in our world—especially when telling the story of SA and its value added in the academy.

There is no single pathway to the SA assessment profession. Some of us have research degrees, some have degrees in higher education or SA, and some simply learn while doing. With the many paths that merge in our assessment profession in SA, we can begin a unified movement to support and encourage our higher education colleagues through how we help them contextualize assessment and research results.

Evidence-based decision making and success metrics have dominated the cornerstone of conversations related to student success in higher education today. We have so many analyses at our fingertips (e.g., linear and logistic regression, predictive modeling for persistence). But often these data are devoid of context.

The valuable question is ‘why’ are some students persisting, while others are not?

How do we as higher educational professionals begin to understand the ‘why’ so we can begin to draft solutions and interventions to better support these students. Student Affairs Assessment professionals are perfectly poised to provide a qualitative lens to assist in the contextualization of the data focusing on ‘why’ and ‘how’ because of our diverse paths into our fields.

So, how can we revive a qualitative lens when contextualizing assessment and research results?

Value of a Qualitative Lens

Metrics, hard figures, measurements, and inferential statistics make it easy to understand why quantitative methods have dominated the evidence-based decision making conversations in higher education. Often because quantitative research can be replicated and produce reliability estimates, it is perceived as more advantageous of a method compared to qualitative methods.  “In support of qualitative research: The value of qualitative insight for policy formation,“ a 2016 blog by The Knowledge Exchange Blog highlights the quality and importance of qualitative research. The author calls to attention how a qualitative method provides more depth to understanding a social phenomena and explores the question of ‘why’ rather than just demonstrating the ‘what.’ Utilizing a qualitative lens will not replace quantitative data, but it can add the storytelling lens regarding the human experience that is not easily represented in quantitative methods. It is important to couple these two methods with one another with the goal of the qualitative lens providing the necessary context of students’ experiences that may not be seen or represented in the larger quantitative metrics.

We, SA assessment professionals, are here to assist our colleagues in shaping our story using multiple methods. The culture of SA assessment has evolved and impacted policies and procedures as part of accreditation or with the inclusion of co-curricular assessment. Our profession is constantly attempting to shape and share its story and we are here to help. However, in the process, some of us have abandoned our qualitative lens and only have highlighted our quantitative lens. However, the questions of ‘why’ are much more intriguing and often valuable for our SA programming.

Are you using qualitative methods? If yes, how are you using qualitative methods in your assessment and research work? If no...

The Qualitative Lens Revival

Here is an example of how we are prioritizing qualitative data. On our campus, we are taking our methods a step further by using a Student Leadership Satisfaction Survey infused with both qualitative and quantitative methods.  The survey is being used as an annual feedback process, which includes a report with recommendations, in order to better understand student leader experiences and improve programming. Instead of simply gauging satisfaction about the student leadership experience, reflection questions asking students to describe an experience in which they had the most fun, or what areas of improvement are needed to enhance their leadership experience are present. Student leaders upon graduation are asked what it has meant for them to serve in a leadership capacity. Coupled with the measurements around sense of belonging in a student leadership experience and financial wellness measures, this data combined with students’ qualitative insights, paints a much richer picture of the student leader experience. A qualitative lens is one that can be used in a lot of SA assessment and research work as it aligns fairly well with understanding the student experience.

Always  remember to use the best methods which will provide answers your assessment and research questions. Although, mixed-methods can yield  multiple sources of data and perspectives, let the questions guide the approach to your assessment and research work.  However, don’t shy away from a qualitative lens simply because you may think it is less valid than quantitative methods. And by all means use a quantitative method if it makes sense for answering your questions.

So let’s make the best of our situations to best support our students and revive our qualitative lens.

Join the movement…!

You are the change we need in SA assessment. I want to persuade you to revive a qualitative lens in assessment and research work in order to help contextualize our results.

There is a lot of value in using multiple methods in assessment and research. There are creative ways to represent our story in metrics that are derived from qualitative research. Instead of being controlled by external factors, we need to guide based on external factors in regards to the student success conversations. There is value to both qualitative and quantitative methods, but when combined, the possibilities are endless.

There is both room for predictive analytics and phenomenological studies. There is a community around to support these efforts and never give up. This is a call to help encourage the use of qualitative methods…a revival of our SA lens and the ways we share the story of the student experience BEST.

I have seen some of my SA colleagues silenced because of their emphasis on feelings and attitudes of students in lieu of quantitative metrics. There is real power in the students’ voice  regarding their experience. Therefore, it is up to us to carry this heavy load to the top of our hierarchical structures and share it with administrators.

We are stronger together. I encourage you infuse the very impactful storytelling of qualitative methods.

In what ways can you infuse qualitative methods to answer some of your assessment and research questions?

Renee Delgado-Riley, University or Oregon

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