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Early this year, the Association of College and Research Libraries compiled their top 5 articles about open educational resources (OER). The topics of these five posts focus on how libraries can participate in the integration of OER at their school from simply supporting the integration of these resources to becoming more vocal about their availability to actively engaging in OER adoption and authoring.

Each of these topics are relevant to today’s librarians as they work toward ensuring they offer beneficial resources to students as well as faculty to make content accessible.

According to an article posted on EdSurge, more colleges are setting up support systems to encourage OER adoption, using the campus library as the pitch center for OER. At the University of Texas at Arlington, a full-time Open Education Librarian is employed on staff. A recent project she did to bring OER to the forefront was create a series of videos promoting professors who replaced commercial textbooks in their courses with OER. These videos also addressed common pain points associated with traditional textbooks and how OER can help remedy those issues.

Marilyn Billings, the Scholarly Communication & Special Initiatives Librarian at University of Massachusetts Amherst, spearheads the Open Education Initiative (OEI), a faculty incentive program that encourages the use of OER to support student learning along with the creation of new teaching materials and the use of library subscription materials. The library has a dedicated space on their website for OER and accepts grant proposals which require an anticipated OER implementation date.

The importance of the role of the librarian in establishing OERs into curriculum was evaluated in a study done by the Centre for Academic Practice & Learning Enhancement (CAPLE) and Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards (CETIS), at the University of Strathclyde. This study looked primarily at higher education OER projects worldwide. The main objectives, according to the study, for these projects were:

    Implement repository or content management/publishing system for OER release
    Release existing institutional content as OER
    Raise awareness of OER and encourage its use

Findings showed that in three out of four project teams, at least one librarian participated, and from those teams, the library was either leading or a partner of the initiative 50 percent of the time.

The expertise librarians are able to offer related to content-focused OER initiatives can greatly benefit teams working to create new curriculum or content management processes as their relate to OER.

Advocating effectively for faculty to incorporate OER has many benefits for students and educators, but it can also lead to additional responsibilities for librarians when their workload is already full. In the paper, Librarians and OER: Cultivating a Community of Practice to Be More Effective Advocates, librarians in British Columbia, Canada came together as a community (BCOER Librarians) to focus on education and professional development that would help libraries facilitate the use and decampment of OER.

Through a monthly, virtual meeting, the librarians in this group share ways to support the use of quality OER by collaborating on ideas, tools and strategies. To date, according to their website, there are 40 institutions participating in OER and students have saved over seven million dollars.

In an article from the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), it’s recommended that librarians integrate open practices and cultivate leaders who can share their knowledge about OER policies and practices. An example of how this works can be seen at Granite State College in New Hampshire where a new Library Media Specialist certification program enables faculty and advisors to integrate open education practice and OER creation and improvement into course creation workflows. Additionally, OER courseware is being utilized for the certificate course itself.

Regardless of the educational model being used in conjunction with open content, it’s important to note, says Stephen Downes in Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources, that the nature of the content must be taken into consideration. Content needs to have longevity, and to do so should be flexible and adaptable to local needs. It also needs to be modifiable and adaptable based on licensing models. Think of content in a local context, how it pertains to your school and to the course it will be used for, and whether it requires changes in order to be relevant and appropriate.

With so much discussion going on around OER and effectively utilizing it for academic purposes, there’s no shortage of content around these five key topic areas. The common thread, however, when thinking about how you, as a librarian, can bring OER into the curriculum at your school is collaboration. Connect with your local faculty to gain support, but also see what other schools are doing and how their strategies are working for them.

~Collaboration Will Aggregate and Assemble Relevant Open Education Resources and Institution’s Library Materials to Improve the Teaching and Learning Experience ~

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The collaboration with Intellus Learning allows for interoperability that enables libraries to increase use and efficiency of their collections.


EBSCO Information Services (EBSCO) and Intellus Learning, an educational platform as a service company, have partnered to provide academic libraries with a content curation, assignment, recommendation and analytics tool. The collaboration will benefit college and university customers as they strive to offer affordable, reliable and relevant resources to students, while supporting faculty’s teaching and learning goals.

Intellus Learning empowers instructors to access high-quality open education resources (OER) and other openly licensed content, as well as their institution’s academic library materials to help meet budgetary goals. By offering curated content, Intellus Learning enables instructors to quickly capture robust and affordable course materials. Students can seamlessly engage with assigned course materials via the institution’s learning management system, including all EBSCO resources to which the library subscribes.

According to Craig Bleyer, the General Manager of the Institutional Business at Macmillan Learning, “Our customers are rightfully focused on providing the most affordable learning experiences that engage and retain students. Yet, finding the right mix of content and tools that answers both teaching and institutional objectives can be challenging because of the amount of time it takes to curate and assemble course objects. Via this partnership with EBSCO, we are providing a powerful search and discovery tool, which enables instructors to identify the highest-quality and best-rated free and openly-licensed content, as well as access library content to make the most efficient use of content already available at their institution.”

The technology integration between EBSCO and Intellus Learning helps institutions launch and maintain affordability initiatives by facilitating efficient and insight-laden access to high quality, free learning content. Through an intuitive interface, faculty can curate and quickly assign pertinent OER and library content to students. The Intellus engine also offers a robust reporting dashboard that provides real-time insight into students’ engagement with the assigned materials. This pre-built feedback loop enables faculty to tweak the curriculum on the fly to suit students’ needs.

EBSCO Information Services Senior Vice President of Business Development, Mark Herrick, says the integration will help libraries promote their valuable resources and improve the workflow process for faculty. “The collaboration with Intellus Learning allows for interoperability that enables libraries to increase use and efficiency of their collections. By integrating technologies, the content selection process works better and faster for faculty while enabling them to select from library resources in the context of their courses and already subscribed to by their institution.”

To learn more about EBSCO and Intellus Learning, please visit: and

About Macmillan Learning 
Macmillan Learning improves lives through learning. Our legacy of excellence in education informs our approach to using user-centered design, learning science, and impact research to develop world-class content and pioneering products that are empathetic, highly effective, and drive improved outcomes. Through deep partnership with the world’s best researchers, educators, administrators, and developers, we facilitate teaching and learning opportunities that spark student engagement and lift course results. We provide educators with tailored solutions designed to inspire curiosity and measure progress. Our commitment to teaching and discovery upholds our mission to improve lives through learning. To learn more, please visit or see us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN or join our Macmillan Community.

About Intellus Learning 
Intellus Learning empowers instructors to quickly access high-quality open educational resources (OER), other openly-licensed content, as well as their institution’s academic library materials to help replace expensive course materials, while providing powerful, real-time insight into students’ engagement with the assigned content. To learn more, please visit:

About EBSCO Information Services 
EBSCO Information Services (EBSCO) is the leading discovery service provider for libraries worldwide with more than 11,000 discovery customers in over 100 countries. EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) provides each institution with a comprehensive, single search box for its entire collection, offering unparalleled relevance ranking quality and extensive customization. EBSCO is also the preeminent provider of online research content for libraries, including hundreds of research databases, historical archives, point-of-care medical reference, and corporate learning tools serving millions of end users at tens of thousands of institutions. EBSCO is the leading provider of electronic journals & books for libraries, with subscription management for more than 360,000 serials, including more than 57,000 e-journals, as well as online access to more than 1,000,000 e-books. For more information, visit the EBSCO website at: EBSCO Information Services is a division of EBSCO Industries Inc., a family owned company since 1944.

For more information, please contact: 
Nikki Jones 
Sr Director, Communications 
Macmillan Learning 

Jessica Holmes 
Communications Director 
EBSCO Information Services 
978-356-6500 ext. 3485

By David E. Hubler, Contributor, Online Learning Tips, and Andrea Dunn, Associate Vice President of Electronic Course Materials, APUS

There once was a bookstore owner whose media pitch was short and simple. “Books cost too much,” he said, explaining why he founded his discount bookstore chain. However, he wasn’t thinking of the ever-increasing cost of college textbooks.

Perhaps stirred to action in part by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) call for free college tuition for all, American colleges and universities today are looking for ways to reduce the cost of higher education tuition, room and board, and of course textbooks.

Institutions of higher learning are examining steps they can take, so students won’t have to make the hard choice between paying all their fees and eating. Above all, they hope to reduce the overwhelming average student debt of $39,400 that can follow college graduates for decades.

New York University recently made national news when it announced that its School of Medicine would provide full scholarships to all current and future students in its doctor of medicine program. The free tuition includes the current incoming class and all students in their second or third year as well. However, “most medical students will still foot the bill for about $29,000 each year in room, board and other living expenses,” NPR noted.

Bill Conerly, writing in Forbes in 2016, reported that 38 community colleges were developing curricula to use Open Educational Resources (OER).

As Conerly explained, “Think of public-domain textbooks, but textbook is too narrow a term. Many courses involve interactive learning modules as well as tools for professors. It’s no surprise that this move came from community colleges, which are more sensitive to student costs than traditional four-year colleges are.”

Totally Free Online Textbooks Are Available for Common Undergraduate Courses

Totally free online textbooks are available for many common undergraduate courses, such as economics and biology. Courses that require non-textbook readings can be inexpensive if the material is out of copyright. For example, Plato’s Republic is available online for free, Conerly said.

APUS’ book grant program provides textbooks and/or e-books at no charge to doctoral students and students earning undergraduate academic credit. OER brings together teaching, learning and resource materials in any medium that has been released under an open license.

APUS Converted 222 Courses to Open Educational Resource Status in 2017

Open Educational Resources include textbooks, curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation products. In 2017, APUS converted 222 courses to OER.

“With publishers having more flexible options these days, it’s getting better for students,” says Andrea Dunn, Associate Vice President of Electronic Course Materials at APUS. These options help lower the cost of purchasing class materials. Students can access free materials – textbooks, articles in journals, and articles written by professors specifically with OER in mind – through the university’s online library and open Web.

“We’re not just adopting a resource because it’s free. We’re using it because it’s of equal or better quality than a mainstream textbook publisher such as a Pearson or a McGraw-Hill can provide,” Dunn explains.

Last year, APUS made the OER initiative a priority for all academics. That extends now to graduate students and instructors. “There are five APUS programs that don’t have any associated textbook costs with them at the graduate level. The term for that is the ‘Z-degree’ for zero-cost degree,” Dunn explained.

Currently there are five Z-degree programs in APUS master’s programs:

  • Management
  • Political Science
  • Environmental Management
  • International Relations
  • Public Policy

“We’re reducing the cost to the student while maintaining the quality of the learning materials,” Dunn said.

One advantage of using timely online articles and government documents rather than textbooks for courses in International Affairs, for example, is that current events change too rapidly for textbooks to stay current.

APUS is partnering with Intellus Learning, which has integrated some of the university’s library collection so faculty and students can search for and access OER materials as well as licensed library content. The company has an index of digital assets available from OER repositories — video, ebooks, text, audio, interactive, assignments — that support teaching and learning.

The Intellus website explains that its “simple interface improves the usability of digital content by connecting faculty and students with resources aligned to specific learning objectives. All digital content is then matched with faculty and student learning objectives.”

“It’s kind of a soup-to-nuts solution that takes the heavy lifting away from those who are not familiar with the Open Educational programs in repositories,” Dunn explained.

College Libraries Are among the Leaders in OER and Lowering Higher Education Costs

College libraries are among the campus leaders driving the OER movement at APUS and elsewhere. For example, in Ohio, a library consortium called OhioLink is part of a statewide effort to curate and enhance a set of OER course materials for 21 course subjects. The University of Texas at Arlington has a full-time OER librarian. The University of Minnesota has an Open Textbook Library from which textbooks can be downloaded for free or printed at low cost.

Cooperation among University Libraries and Private Learning Companies Are Creating a New Era in Information Services and Academic Research

Cooperation among university libraries with private learning companies like Intellus is creating a new era in information services and academic research that are significantly reducing the cost of higher education for all students.

APUS librarians and course materials staff work closely with faculty to find suitable resources for their classrooms. The collaborative, cross-departmental approach supporting the OER initiative involves faculty, program directors, deans, course material support staff, project managers, compliance staff, information technology specialists, and instructional designers.

The APUS faculty has created open textbooks that are still in use in undergraduate courses and are free for other institutions to adopt as well. If suitable resources cannot be found in the OER realm or within the library, there could be more of in-house content creation.

APUS aims to use Open Educational Resources and library materials in all courses where it makes sense to replace current textbooks. While OER may not fully support some courses, the great majority will utilize these kinds of resources to lower costs for the University and students alike.

Calls to adopt and support open educational resources (OER) are on the rise across higher education. Because of the interdisciplinary and often abstract considerations that accompany an institutional embrace of OER, early expectation setting is important for everyone involved. In this first webinar in our On the Open Road series, participants will learn about some of the early planning and ongoing practices that have led to successful university initiatives in OER.


Open Educational Resources are, by definition, free to learners. Still, running an effective OER initiative to get these free resources into the hands of students in a meaningful and pedagogically sound way takes time, energy, and money. In this webinar, TJ Bliss will explore the various ways colleges and universities are financing their successful OER initiatives, including methods for internal funding and an exploration of the external funding landscape.



Faculty are continuously searching for textbooks and materials that fit course requirements and their teaching style. Before the availability of open educational resources (OER), faculty were restricted to commercial publications designed for broad audiences with general theories and concepts across a wide array of topics. Though these resources offer relevant information and supplemental materials, they do not always meet the needs and interests of faculty and students. Adopting and creating free, openly licensed resources (OER) offers faculty the freedom to reuse and remix materials that complement their teaching style and approach based on their discipline training, expertise, and knowledge of their students. In this webinar, faculty will learn about free open educational resources, benefits of going OER, and ideas on their use and application.


As the open educational resources (OER) movement matures, questions continue to emerge about how to best support and sustain the use of OER at scale. Instructors and librarians maintain valuable partnerships for managing OER adoption but may need additional assistance when it comes to ensuring ongoing use and (re)development of resources. Instructional designers and technologists, in particular, have the skills, resources, and experience necessary to shepherd sustainable simple OER adoptions into long-term learning innovations. In this webinar in our On the Open Road series, participants will learn how those who support the design, implementation, and technology of teaching and learning on campuses might further expand the potential of OER in higher education.


Implementing an institutional OER initiative takes planning, communication, and coordination across stakeholders, sufficient funding, and faculty, staff, and administrators. In this webinar, Dr. Gerry Hanley will present the California State University system’s strategy for implementing its Affordable Learning Solutions program which showcases the adoption of OER and other affordability solutions to better meet the needs of California's students.


Join us as we walk you through the new Intellus Open Course: Chemistry. Intellus Open Courses are pre-built, fully-customizable courses that make adopting and implementing open educational resources (OER) easy. Courses are:

  • Created and curated by a team of subject matter experts and Macmillan Learning’s editorial team
  • Built to leverage Intellus Learning’s native customization and analytics tools, both of which enable you to meet the unique needs of your students
  • Delivered via your campus LMS, which simplifies student access to the content
  • Supported in and out of the classroom by a suite of instructor resources, including PowerPoint slides, a 500+ question test bank and on demand support materials.


Many instructors have embraced Open Educational Resources (OER) as a way to take charge in addressing the rising expenses that their students bear en route to a college degree. Framing the value of OER around textbook cost, however, is only recognizing one of the qualities that make OER such a valuable innovation. In this webinar in our On the Open Road series, participants will learn how OER may sponsor new pedagogical strategies, dynamic learning environments, and improved student outcomes.



At a recent conference, I was approached by a campus colleague about how we seem to focus our research on the same issues time and time again. He wondered why the issues we end up addressing on campus each year, like homesickness and social connections, don’t seem to change that often. After mulling over the topic further, and hearing similar comments from others, I decided to take some time to study our Skyfactor data to see what I could find on our student issues and interventions.

To explore the question of why we keep addressing certain topics in both research and daily practice on campus, we calculated the mean scores for each survey factor across all first-year students from each Mapworks Fall Transition survey dating back to 2010. When we do this, we see a remarkable level of stability in factor scores, across multiple years and multiple first-year cohorts. Sure, there are some spikes and dips here or there. But all things considered, first-year students’ self-evaluations of their skills, interactions, behaviors, and commitment are remarkably consistent over time, especially considering the sheer number of students surveyed year over year (in the hundreds of thousands, if you were wondering).

Successful student interventions begin with analyzing the available data. From 2010 to 2015, Mapworks data shows students struggle with the same issues consistently year over year.

So, to my colleagues who have commented how it seems like we are all addressing the same issues each and every year—that’s because you likely are. And that’s not a bad thing. The data we have on first-year students reflects a logical explanation for this pattern. Our first-year students are walking in the door with the same issues each and every year. Each year, we are going to have students who are homesick. We are going to have students who struggle with basic academic behaviors like showing up to class. And we are going to have students who come to college and struggle to make connections.

Given this reality, it’s easy to fall into a repeatable pattern: focusing on the same topics at the same time of year. However, there is a benefit—predictability. As you begin to amass longitudinal assessment data on your students and campus programs, you should begin to come into each academic year with a game plan that has evolved from a history of addressing certain issues at certain times. For instance, your campus may do a big push to get students involved at the beginning of the semester. It could be planning an outreach program to students who will have midterm deficiencies. Or, it could be an early-spring outreach to students who will most likely have high unmet financial need by that time. Regardless of the trigger or the outreach itself, the tendency to fall into a repeatable pattern is only natural. While these patterns likely became patterns for good reasons, it is imperative to periodically take time to step back and reconsider our approach. Specifically, does all of the data we have on our students lend to adjusting the timing of our interventions?

To give us an example, a common time to address academic issues and course struggles is around the mid-term. For many students, a failing grade on a mid-term exam or their first paper may be the initial flag for a professor or a campus running an early alert program that something could be going wrong. That flag then prompts us to action—reaching out to the student and trying to coordinate interventions before it’s too late to right the ship.

But did you know that first-year students can begin to see issues much earlier than that? While professors, academic advisors, and success coaches may begin reaching out to struggling students around the time mid-terms are popping up, students may already know that there are problems. According to data from the 2014-2015 Mapworks Fall Transition survey (typically administered in the third to fourth week of the first term), 59% of first-year students report that they are already struggling in at least one course. So, while some student advocates may wait until a failed mid-term to intervene with struggling students, the students themselves see the problem before they do. With only one in three first-year students saying they communicate with instructors outside of class regularly, the message may not be getting through early enough.

So what does all this mean? First, simply addressing the same issues every year does not mean something is broken—you cannot control your student population’s problems. However, just because our students are walking in the door with the same issues doesn’t mean we can’t evolve how and when we address these issues, or evaluate the effectiveness our interventions. Think about it this way—if you’re noticing a pattern on your campus, that means you’re already doing the hard work of collecting and assessing your institution’s data. Now, as the academic year starts, take that data and think about how you can use it to make targeted improvements to the efforts you implement each year to address reoccurring issues.

Interested in finding out how one campus used Mapworks data to prove the effectiveness of their student retention efforts? Meet Beth Stuart & Shariva White, Student Success Coordinators at Queens University of Charlotte.

You know the drill. As calls for accountability and the justification of allocated resources in higher education increase, so too does the need for institutions to be able to quantify the success of their students. But there are challenges in defining student success. In most conversations, “student success” typically focuses on academic performance, retention (especially from the first to second year), and graduation rates. It makes sense, especially given the movement in recent years toward performance-based funding models that commonly use metrics such as retention as part of state funding for public higher education.

But, how often do we take a moment to step back and think about how, and why, we define student success as we do? And is there a benefit to broadening our perspective?

It may come as a surprise, but emerging research and literature on student success are already broadening the accepted definition to focus on other outcomes and measures, including student engagement, personal development, and even post-college outcomes. When combined with the existing, traditional measures such as academic performance, retention, and graduation, the concept of student success becomes vast indeed. Even so, there are few high-level models that address the real breadth of student success definitions. Most existing definitions of student success are focused on narrow topics:

  • Most definitions focus on academic-related topics, such as grades, year-to-year retention (in particular, from the first to second year) and degree attainment (Kuh et al., 2006).
  • Cuseo (2014) noted that the most common measures of student success include retention, educational attainment (degree completion), academic achievement, student advancement (ie, that students proceed to other endeavors for which their degree prepared them, such as graduate school or gainful employment), and holistic development (intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, etc.).
  • One study on perceptions of success as defined by students includes categories such as academic achievement, social engagement, life management, and academic engagement (Jennings, Lovett, Cuba, Swingle, & Lindkvist, 2013).
  • Additional efforts have begun to shift definitions of success to include post-graduation outcomes, the most common of which is employment.

Challenges in Defining Student Success: Domains, Measures, Levels

The challenge in defining student success—and sharing those definitions within an institution or department—is that there is no overarching framework in the literature and research to help us think through the possible options. Any single definition of student success could fall under various domains, measures, and levels.

As an exercise, let’s take a look at what challenges in defining student success arise when we consider just one of those three factors –levels.

For every institution there are challenges in defining student success at all levels.

The diagram above frames various levels within (and outside of) an institution at which student success could be measured, starting from an individual level and moving all the way to a global/humanity level. At a glance, the levels seem intuitive enough. But, have we stopped to consider how definitions of success across levels can be contradictory?

For instance, success at the individual or student level may not be the best outcome for a department or an institution to measure. Major changes are a common part of the college experience. In fact, according to Mapworks data, one in four first-year students who have declared a major are already saying they are not committed to that major at the beginning of fall term. Many of these students will change majors and go on to graduate. While this would be considered successful for both the individual and the institution, it may not necessarily be successful for the academic department, in particular if number of students in a particular major is a driving factor in funding decisions. Success is not simply a black or white issue as soon as we start to think within a broader, unified framework.

This framework gets even more complicated if you consider levels above and outside of a single institution. What if a student transfers to another institution, graduates with a nursing degree, passes a certification exam, and becomes a high-performing professional? By most standards, this should be considered a success. But, again, it depends on what level we are looking at. This would be considered successful for the student, the institution from which the student ultimately graduated, the healthcare industry, and for humanity as a whole! But no matter what the first institution did to help this student along their path as a nurse, at the end of the day, student attrition is rarely a marker of any institution’s success.

As we start a new academic year and begin building or refining our plans related to retention and success, let’s begin by reflecting on a few things that can help guide our efforts when addressing the challenges in defining student success:

  • What do you think of when you hear the term “student success?” Why?
  • How does your campus currently define and measure student success?
  • When you talk with others on campus about student success, are you taking time to define what you mean by success?
  • Are there ways that we can work across our institutions to ensure our definitions of success are not contradictory?

Looking for more information about defining success, including how we measure success? View our recent webinar on the challenges in defining student success.

Cuseo, J. (2014). The Big Picture: Key Causes of Student Attrition & Key Components of a Comprehensive Student Retention Plan. Esource for College Transitions.
Jennings, N., Lovett, S., Cuba, L., Swingle, J. and Lindkvist, H. (2013). What Would Make This a Successful Year for You? How Students Define Success in College. Liberal Education, 99(2).

Before we begin dig into using storytelling in assessment, do me a favor and just think about your favorite story. This could be a book, a movie, a television show, an anecdote from a friend or family member—whatever first comes to mind. Think for a moment about what it is about that story that captures your attention, engages you, and drives your imagination. Think about what it is that makes you recall this story so quickly. As you’re thinking, consider your reactions to the story, the emotions that you feel, and the real power that story has in your memory.

Now, compare that experience to a meeting where you talked about assessment data.

You likely laughed in your head. The first time our director of Analytics & Research, Sherry Woosley, said that to me, I laughed out loud. Sharing assessment data with others can be a challenge. For those of us who work with assessment data, we’ve all been there at one point or another. Whether it’s the presentation that is entirely text-heavy slides, the binder of data that never seems to end, or the most painful charts to decipher you have ever seen—when we’re in these situations, we lose the big picture.

Now, if this happens to those of us who work with assessment data on a regular basis and love assessment more than most, imagine what it must be like for our colleagues on campus who do not enjoy data, are new to it, or simply find it intimated or uncomfortable.

Think: if the point of our assessment work is to drive action and change for the better on our campuses, what good is it if this is the reaction it creates?

Storytelling in Assessment

This is where storytelling comes in as a tool for sharing assessment. If you think about assessment data, it is often drowning in research language and buried in methodology. Many times, we focus on the little pieces or the individual data points. When this happens, we lose context and fail to frame the data in a way that resonates with our audience.

Now, back to the little thought exercise we used to open this blog—let’s contrast the above horror story of sharing assessment data with storytelling. When someone is telling a story, they are in essence painting a picture for an audience. They are creating a visual in their audience’s head about what is going on, often using plot, subjects, scene, and sensory details. The best stories are told in a way that engages the listener from start to finish. We may not remember the fine details, but you can recall the overarching theme or the big picture. This is why your favorite story is your favorite, and this is why you still think of it after so many years.

So, for many reasons, taking a storytelling approach to sharing assessment data makes sense. Stories engage audiences, connect assessment to existing knowledge, provide a structure we can all relate to, and have the power to show us information (current situation, parties affected, potential outcomes, motivations, etc.) rather than simply telling us.

Using storytelling in assessment can be a compelling way to share your data and motivate others to embrace your findings.

Challenges to Storytelling

Of course, there are challenges that must be acknowledged to using storytelling in assessment as a method of communicating data. It is research, after all. All of the particulars—from the response rates to the methodology to the survey sample and more—all matter greatly, and not just to the “data nerds.” It is important to make sure you aren’t cherry picking individual pieces that fit the story you want to tell. Even if you manage to tell a compelling and thought-provoking story, it will mean nothing if you lack credibility.

At the end of the day, it boils down to doing quality work as an assessment professional. If you know your data inside and out, are prepared to answer questions as they come up, and carefully consider your audience, you can tell a rich and compelling data story. And, your audience will have confidence that your assessment results are solid.

Our Goal: Action

We want folks on campus to use assessment data to benefit students. Whether it is reinforcing existing practices or driving changes, we assess because we want to make a difference. We want to improve the lives and experiences of our students. And, if using storytelling in assessment is one way to achieve our goals, why would we pass it up?

So, whether it’s designing data visuals that make good use of best practices, going through multiple interactions of your work with colleagues, thinking through the needs of your audience, or making sure you data slides are not a rainbow of clashing colors, take the time to think through the underlying story of your data. Consider: what is the one thing you want your audience to remember, and make sure they do.

Are you reading this and wondering how to build visuals that support the rich data stories on your campus? Then check out Sherry Woosley’s recent webinar that provides practical tips and resources for anyone looking to add a splash of seduction to data visuals. Link coming soon.

The communities our students bring to and build on our campuses are a key component of the portrayal of the college experience. The most memorable and lasting experiences for many when looking back on the college experience are the connections forged during that time. And, these connections are happening across our campus. But, what do we really know about student community and its relationship with student success? For a thorough examination, student community has to be: defined, developed and sustained, and evaluated.


In particular, colleges and universities put significant efforts towards strategic initiatives to help students feel a sense of belonging to their campus community. Many of these efforts stem from years of research framing the role of social interactions and connections to and within the college environment contribute to desired outcomes, like performance and retention. For instance, Vincent Tinto’s (1993) classic theory of student departure identifies issues related to social integration as a major source of departure for college students. Social Integration is the means through which people interact, connect, and validate each other within a community. Social integration theory proposes that people experience mental, emotional, and physical benefits when they believe they are a contributing, accepted part of a collective. (Skipper 2005). Tinto’s model of social integration illustrates the connection between social integration and student success by showing how a student’s feeling of connectedness relates to their connection to the institution as a whole and ultimately their individual persistence and success (Tinto 1993) (Fig 1.1)


In many ways, the (much used) saying, “it takes a village to raise a child” could be expanded to say that it takes a community to produce a graduate. Student community are not limited by a single classification or origin. And, community develops both formally and informally across our campuses. There are the communities that develop organically in residence hall and classrooms. There are hybrid communities, both formal and informal, built and strengthened through attending programs, taking a common course, or participating in engaged learning opportunities.

There can also be more formal and strategic initiatives that schools can put into place that foster student community so that students aren’t left feeling disconnected. Research has shown that the feelings and effects of marginality diminish when people feel like they matter and are a part of something. Schools that put intentional effort behind not only developing formal strategy around student community but also support those informal and organic communities have a better chance of deepening institutional commitment (which might bode well for schools wanting to keep a connection with alumni).


While many of us intuitively know of the importance of helping our students to feel a sense of belonging, it is vital that we put data behind our stories and theories. There is a proven correlation between students’ academic performance and their feeling of connectedness as well as the decision to remain in school. For instance, data from Mapworks, which collects both institution-provided data on outcomes and student experience data in the form of surveys, frames the relationship between social integration and retention. In a recent webinar on first-year college students, Skyfactor Research Manager Matt Venaas highlighted survey and outcome data from Mapworks showing the importance of these connections. Not only is social integration statistically related to one-year retention rates, but it is also related to key academic concepts, like academic resiliency, academic self-efficacy, academic integration.

This community is not a one sided relationship with the students, as this data proves. There is also a sense of accountability to the community as well, to show up as a member of the community that gives as much as they receive. Mutual trust can be developed and strengthened between faculty and students which can only enhance the learning process for everyone involved and create a space for a stronger school community as a whole.

Schlossberg, N. (1989). New Directions for Student Services, p.5-15

Skipper, T.L. (2005). Student Development in the first college year, pg 69

Tinto, V. (1993) Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition


BLOG | Survey Design 101

Posted by XIAO TAN Aug 16, 2019

Simply put, the best surveys yield the best, most useful data. No matter the style, the length, or purpose, strategic and purposeful planning are important to solid survey design. To further highlight this importance of the process, we can examine survey design through five lenses:

  • The Foundational Lens
  • The Research Lens
  • The Critic Lens
  • The Useful Lens
  • The Inclusive Lens

The Foundational Lens

This lens epitomizes nearly every Survey Design 101 course and survey design textbooks. For folks who have taken any formal training or course work related to survey design, this lens will seem very familiar. This lens considers many basics of good survey design. A few of the lessons from this lens include avoiding questions that are double-barreled, contain jargon, or lead respondents to particular answers. A foundational approach to survey design will also focus on the structure of the survey, for instance putting the most important questions first.

But, while this lens is the most common approach to thinking through survey design, it is not always the most engaging and accessible. And, approaching the topic from an alternate lens can help to uncover potential problems that a foundational approach might overlook.

The Research Lens

This lens focuses on using research and theory as a foundation for survey design and also emphasizes using research methodology to continually test survey content. When “testing” survey content, Skyfactor Director of Analytics & Research Sherry Woosley suggests ensuring the survey adheres to and is underpinned by research. For example, a survey question that asks students, “To what degree are you struggling with homesickness?” seems useful and relevant on the surface, and may check many boxes when viewed from a foundational lens. But, it actually ignores the research, theories, and literature about the different types of homesickness and misses concepts that relate to student outcomes.

The Critic Lens

Getting pushback on your well thought out survey can be slightly annoying, but it is ultimately extremely helpful. The snarky participants who question survey language or offer alternative thoughts test not only the limits of patience but also the strength and validity of your survey. Their critical feedback provides marginal perspectives that might be unintentionally or even historically overlooked. Embrace the critics in the spirit of continuous improvement and a solid survey.

The Useful Lens

A question may be well-designed and produce valid results, but it may not be possible to affect change with the results. This lens weights the concept of “interesting vs useful” in regards to survey design. When designing a survey, it is important to not just ask, “What do you want to know?” Good survey design means considering what you will do with the information collected. Whether it’s acting on it unilaterally or being able to pass the results to someone else who is able to take action, consider how the results will be used when designing a survey.

The Inclusive Lens

This final lens, inclusivity, can support a participant’s full and authentic engagement with the survey. Higher engagement with fidelity leads to richer and more useful data. Inclusivity allows the participant to see themselves accurately portrayed and identified, which in turn allows for a greater confidence in the usefulness of the survey. Inclusive language and response options related to concepts like gender and race signal that there is value in a broader voice. Inclusivity also takes into account other demographic information about the potential participants that might affect their reaction or understanding of a survey question. For example, questions about summer vacations might be inappropriate for participants who are not privy to such luxuries. And poorly-worded questions about family can be isolating for participants whose situations are not represented.


Fowler, J., Floyd J. (1995). Improving survey questions: Design and evaluation. (Vol. 38). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2017, January). Equity and assessment: Moving towards culturally responsive assessment (Occasional Paper No. 29). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

Suskie, L.A. (1996). Questionnaire survey research: What works (2nd ed.). Tallahassee, FL: The Association for Institutional Research.