You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know: Information Gathering as a First Step to Reform
What is higher education’s “go-to” strategy when starting a major student success initiative? Form a committee, of course. Who is on the committee? The people you work with and talk to every day. What does the committee do? Dive right into what needs to be accomplished with action steps and assignments. A committee structure can be a powerful tool for building consensus and moving an effort forward, but it is not an ideal format for generating direct, honest input to inform the strategy.
This all-too-common approach leaves out a critical step to any major change effort: the information gathering process. But why? If the desired outcome is known, why not just jump right into committee work? Food often makes the best analogy, so let’s imagine we are getting ready to bake a cake. How hot should the oven be? How much milk, eggs, and flour do we need to buy? Without knowing the right temperature, timing, and mixture of ingredients, our chances of baking a delicious cake are much lower. In the same way, a reform effort that doesn’t take into account people, processes, and perspectives is significantly more likely to fail or prove unsustainable. The information gathering process is an essential step in developing your recipe - an action plan for success.
In order to create a customized action plan, institutions should conduct interviews, focus groups, and sometimes even broad surveys to ensure all voices are heard and incorporated, including leadership, faculty, administrators, external stakeholders, and most importantly - students.
SRS frequently conducts information scans for institutions and organizations. When we do this for our partners, we have the benefit of being the “outsiders,” and often get more candid and honest responses as a result. But institutions can, and should, do this themselves if they do not have an external partner working with them on their reform efforts.
What does an effective information-gathering process look like? These are the principles we believe in and regularly use with our partners:
Determine which groups need to be represented, with a focus on diversity. The specific goal of the reform effort should be the most important consideration to determine which groups are included in this process and how they are engaged. Think about all the people who will make your efforts successful or who will be affected. This group will likely include a variety of areas of the institution, like advisors, the registrar, or technology. Drawing out people in different roles, who see the institution from a different lens and have different interactions with students, will produce a much fuller, richer picture. It will also likely increase the overall diversity of age, gender identity, income-level, and race in the interviewee pool, leading to a more equitable approach to reform.
Carefully consider how best to gather information. To maximize your time and elicit the most thoughtful, candid responses, be thoughtful about how best to engage certain groups or people. Some people feel more comfortable sharing in a focus group with their peers, while others may offer more thorough answers in a one-on-one interview setting. This also involves crafting very intentional interview and focus group protocols to elicit the responses needed to inform the plan.
Invite input from outside of your institution. Colleges and universities may feel like small cities, but they are definitely not islands. They exist within states and regions that support them in myriad ways. Local businesses, services, and schools in the communities around campuses often have a vested interest in their success. Engaging these external stakeholders and soliciting their input can provide a unique point of view, one that helps to gauge public perception and build external support for the reform efforts, ensuring the institution serves all of its constituents.
Center the student voice. Students are an institution’s true constituents, and as such, their experience should be a guiding factor for all transformation efforts. While interviewing staff who work with students can help to shed light on issues they may be facing, it’s still secondhand information. Whenever possible, go directly to the source and include students in the information gathering process through interviews or a survey. Make sure it isn’t only students who are actively involved in student government or fraternity and sorority life who are asked to participate, but purposefully seek out diverse perspectives, with tactics such as conducting a two-minute survey in a dining area or high-traffic outdoor setting.
Analyze data to see how it aligns with or diverges from interview results. Qualitative inputs gleaned through interviews, focus groups, and surveys is one half of a robust information gathering process. The other is a deep, disaggregated dive into institutional data, including student enrollment, progression, and graduation rates. Often, the qualitative and quantitative findings fit together like puzzle pieces. In other cases, they reveal a disconnect between hard facts and perceptions. Either way, these two strands of inquiry provide much needed information for planning your reform effort. Think of it like this: if data tell you the “what” of the problem and the interview results give you the “why” - it is much easier to figure out “how” you’re going to fix it.
Above all, it’s imperative to keep equity at the forefront of the information gathering process. If equitable student success is the goal - and it absolutely should be - barriers that disproportionately affect Black, Latinx, poverty-affected, first-generation, and adult student groups won’t be addressed in reform efforts if they aren’t uncovered, understood, and intentionally addressed.