5 Tips to Streamline Your Data Cleaning Process

Data cleaning is possibly the most critical step in running statistical analyses. A general rule of thumb is to spend 80% of your time cleaning data and the remaining 20% on data analyses. It is important to carefully clean your data because it takes only one error to impact the results of your data analyses. At Magnolia Consulting, driven by our values of integrity, excellence, and utilization of results, we have developed processes to ensure that we provide our clients with valid and reliable findings.

Based on our experience, here are some key tips for effective and consistent data cleaning:

1. Create a checklist. We recommend creating a data cleaning checklist for two reasons. First, creating and following a checklist ensures that you have taken all necessary steps in the process. Without a checklist, it can be easy to accidentally skip a step or overlook an error. Second, different people may have alternative approaches to data cleaning. A checklist can streamline the data cleaning process and ensure consistency across different team members. At Magnolia Consulting, having a checklist has helped us to align data cleaning approaches, making it easier to address issues and to check each other’s work.

2. Check your data early. Provide yourself plenty of time to explore the data and identify questions. By checking the data early, you will improve your chances of obtaining any missing data or clarifying inconsistencies. Sometimes you cannot avoid receiving data late, but at least you have given yourself ample time to identify all potential issues rather than letting crucial ones go unnoticed.

3. Take your time. Take time to fully understand the context of your data. This includes knowing what to expect before you receive the data. For example, will you be looking at student assessment data, student demographic data, pre- and post-test data, or something else? Understanding the context will make it easier for you to understand and identify any inconsistencies, such as duplicate cases.

4. Consult with others. While cleaning data, you are often forced into “playing detective.” Before making a judgement call, identify all the information that you know so that you can have a fruitful conversation with your team. These conversations will help to acquaint other team members with the data should they be involved in the analysis or reporting phases.

5. Keep a thorough record. Data cleaning can involve a significant amount of changes and decisions, making it difficult to remember everything you did. Remembering the smallest action might be important in answering questions later when you need to revisit previous decisions. Ultimately, creating a detailed data record will save you time and spare you frustration. It will also allow you to replicate data cleaning processes in the future. Versioning is also useful—saving every version of your database makes the process more efficient. If you make a mistake, instead of starting over, you can easily return to a previous version.

What Adult Learners Need: In Support of Community Colleges

I recently came across an NPR article entitled “What Adult Learners Really Need (Hint: It’s Not Just Job Skills)” by Anya Kamenetz (2018). In the article, the author interviews David Scobey, PhD, who argues against the idea of 2-year degrees, stackable credits, and short-term workforce credential programs. Instead, he suggests that more than 70% of community college students want to get a bachelor’s degree; highlights the importance of a broad, liberal arts education; and suggests that many of the jobs accepting students with third-party credentials will be gone in the next decade.

In reflecting on this article, and drawing on our work with community colleges on Department of Labor grants, including multiple focus groups with a wide variety of community college staff, students, and employers, we believe that several other points should be considered:

  • Community college programs can be responsive to regional workforce needs by having honest conversations with area employers, who can be partners in training and education. When community colleges work with local workforce advisory boards on curriculum development, regional needs, and program implementation, students and employers both benefit. Employers have shared that they want students with basic workforce training and soft skills, and community colleges have partnered with employers to provide students with a foundation for success. Once students receive their credentials or certifications and are employed, the partner employers have stated that they will work with their new employees to advance their training and education. As a result, completing a short-duration program oftentimes does not signify the end of a student’s education or training, but could be just the beginning.
  • Community colleges can provide additional “vertical supports” such as training in soft skills, Microsoft Office, and career readiness, as well as tutoring and coaching. Within these supports, students take courses together and create peer learning communities and cohorts that encourage students and motivate them to persevere (similar to “horizontal supports”). In focus groups, students regularly spoke to the benefits of these supports, commenting on staff and instructors who would do anything to see students succeed and a motivating and supportive “family” of peers in their programs.
  • Remedial education experiences differ, with remediation acting as a potential barrier to continued education. Consider that 91% of 2-year institutions have an open admissions policy, compared to 27% of 4-year institutions (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). As a result, the needs of remedial education students at the community college level are likely very different from the needs of those at the university level. In community colleges, adult learners who pursue additional education after years away can face anxiety as they find themselves in need of remedial math and English courses, and they may be at greater risk of dropping out (Pruett & Absher, 2015). Community college students may also be older and have poorer college adjustment, more difficulty with finances and with accessing college services, and more difficulty with transportation (David et al., 2015; Simmons, 1995). Because of these differences, these students may not have the same opportunities (or desires) to pursue a 4-year degree.
  • Remedial courses can be effective in community colleges if they are contextualized and supportive. We have seen that remedial education at the community college level can be very effective at increasing students’ knowledge, self-confidence, and career self-efficacy if such instruction is included within an overall program model of contextualized support. At capstone presentations at the end of their 6-month programs, we have heard community college students speak to the positive impact that these short-duration programs and remedial courses had on their lives. Many students did not realize that they were “good students” until they participated in these courses.
  • A broad liberal arts curriculum is not for everyone. Many community college students that we have talked to mentioned the benefits of completing an applied program in their chosen field. These students specifically noted that they were not interested in a broader or more expansive liberal arts curriculum.
  • Adult learners should have the option of a shorter-duration program. Students enter these programs for several reasons, such as (a) a belief that their bachelor’s or master’s degree is not helping them to find a job; (b) an eagerness to get back into the workforce after being laid off; or (c) a determination to limit any personal or family financial struggles associated with taking time off from work.
  • Community colleges can support students in going farther than they thought possible. We also heard from community college students who were so motivated and engaged by their supportive, contextualized experiences in 6-month programs that they continued on to other 6-month programs, and some went on to attain an associate degree. Several students who furthered their education shared that they were initially not expecting to seek anything beyond a 6-month certificate, noting that they previously lacked the academic self-efficacy to consider anything else.
  • Short-duration programs can be successful in training students and preparing them for the future, and more models should be shared. It may be that more needs to be shared around successful program models at the community college level. We intend to be part of that discussion. If you are interested in learning more, please see our presentation on a successful cohort-based program model for recruiting, retaining, and employing advanced manufacturing students at the High Impact Technology Exchange Conference (HI-TEC) in July 2018 or contact us for more information.

 

References:

David, K. M., Lee, M. E., Bruce, J. D., Coppedge, B. R., Dickens, D., Friske, J., . . . Thorman, J. (2015). Barriers to success predict fall-to-fall persistence and overall GPA among community college students. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 21(1), 5–13.

Pruett, P. S., & Absher, B. (2015). Factors influencing retention of developmental education students in community colleges. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 81(4), 32–40.

Simmons, D. L. (1995). Retraining dislocated workers in the community college: Identifying factors for persistence. Community College Review, 23(2), 47–58.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Fall 2000 and Fall 2010 Institutional Characteristics component and Winter 2015–16 and 2016–17 Admissions component. Table retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_305.30.asp?current=yes

 

Crafting a Powerful Message: Steps to Develop an Impactful Infographic

In late February we visited Columbia, South Carolina to deliver our Introduction to Infographics and Strategies for Use in Evaluation workshop at Children’s Trust of South Carolina. Children’s Trust is a statewide nonprofit focused on strengthening families and leading communities to prevent child abuse and neglect. Children’s Trust uses infographics to share statewide data with policy makers and legislators in a visually compelling and succinct way. The workshop audience included participants from several different agencies who provided unique perspectives on data visualization and different ways to “tell the story” using an infographic.

We used this workshop as an opportunity to debut a new resource for creating infographics, a worksheet titled, “Crafting a Powerful Message.” The goal of this worksheet is to serve as a guide in developing an infographic’s audience, purpose, and message. The worksheet provides several examples, as well as a framework to assist you when creating your own infographic. Clearly and intentionally defining these three elements is a critical first step in developing an infographic, and makes the process of creating an infographic much easier! To read more about these first three steps in our 10 Steps to Creating an Infographic, check out a blog post from Stephanie Wilkerson here. Crafting a Powerful Message and several other resources for creating infographics can be found on our website here. We hope you find these resources useful as you begin creating your own infographics.

Save Time and Add Style: Creating an Icon Gallery for Reporting

At Magnolia Consulting, we use icons in a variety of ways to illustrate key ideas and takeaways in our reporting. Icons provide a quick visual reference for readers of infographics and written reports. Once we began incorporating icons into our various reporting methods, we quickly learned that there are a lot of available icons. To streamline our process for selecting and using icons, we created the Magnolia Icon Gallery. This tool saves time and ensures a consistent icon style across reporting methods.

If you spend a lot of time hunting for icons, it might be useful for you to create an icon gallery of your own. Below are some tips to consider when creating an icon gallery.

  • Locate icons on the web. We recommend checking out The Noun Project and IconFinder (see our full list of icon websites here). While some of these resources offer free icons, others require a paid account for full use of the icon collection. When looking for icons, always pay attention to the citation and license requirements of the icon.
  • Use the right file format. If you download icons in PNG file types, they are easy to resize and have a transparent background. This makes it easier to insert your icon on any color background. If you use Inkscape or Illustrator, you can also download them in an SVG file. This format allows you to change the color and design of the icon (again, pay attention to copyright requirements).
  • Consider icon style. When putting together an icon gallery, remember to be mindful of the style of icons that are being used. It will look more professional to have a consistent style of icons across all of your reporting. For example, some icons are simple outlines, while others are filled in or block style. Identify your organization’s preferred icon style and try to stick with that when downloading icons.
  • Identify commonly used phrases for icons. To determine what icons are needed, try working collaboratively with colleagues to identify key words and phrases that are commonly expressed as icons in any reporting. This decreases the need to search for icons every time they are required. For example, we regularly use icons to represent the words “student,” “teacher,” and “school.” We recommend having a few options for each key word to prevent repetitive icons.
  • Download icons. Create a process for combing through the key words and downloading icons. At Magnolia, we divided up the key words between team members, downloaded three to five options for each word, and then voted on our favorites.
  • Organize your icon gallery. Once the icons have all been selected, organize them in a readily accessible location. Ours are available in shared folders for quick access.

If you are regularly using icons, you may want to consider creating an icon gallery to save time and ensure consistent icon style and usage. Try out the tips above to get started on creating your gallery!

Lights, Camera, Action: Using Video to Share Evaluation Findings (Part 2)

Part 2: Tips and Tricks for Creating a PowerPoint Video

Have you ever wanted to create an animated video but aren’t sure where to begin? One program to consider is PowerPoint. Believe it or not, PowerPoint is good for more than just slide shows— its many design capabilities make it a powerful choice for producing videos.

We used PowerPoint to create our video submission to the American Evaluation Association’s 2017 video contest. We learned a lot along the way, and now we’re sharing our tips and tricks to help you as you create your own video in PowerPoint. (This official resource provides a great overview of PowerPoint’s animation tab.)

Designing

  • Start simple. For beginners, abstract animations tend to look more professional than trying to create very realistic animations. It takes a lot of skill to create realistic animations, so play it safe and design animations that match your skill level.
  • Less can be more. Once you figure out all that PowerPoint animation can do, it’s easy to go overboard and make your video too busy. Make sure that each animation serves a purpose by telling the story, creating a transition, or adding emphasis.

Creating

  • Effect options. Each animation effect has its own options. You can change the direction of the effect, specify the color or size, or set text animations to occur by letter, word, or paragraph. When exploring the animation effects, also take a peek at “Effect Options” to see all the possibilities for the animation.
  • Copying animation. You can use the Animation Painter (similar to Format Painter) to easily copy the animations of one object onto another. Total time saver!
  • Start options. When starting an animation, you can select “Start On Click,” “Start With Previous,” or “Start After Previous.” We recommend using “Start With Previous” wherever appropriate because this allows you to tweak the durations and delays to make the animation occur at the right moment. When an animation starts before the previous animation has finished, the video appears smoother and more professional.
  • You don’t have to always rely on animations to make things happen. There are some cool transitions that can help your video. For example, the morph transition can save you a lot of time. Take a look through all of the transitions and keep them in mind. As with animations, use transitions only when they are helpful to the video; too many transitions can quickly look unprofessional.

Recording

  • PowerPoint is a one-stop shop. You can record your voiceover in PowerPoint and then export it as a video.
  • Tweaking the timing. Animations require constant tweaking of the timing. Don’t hesitate to revisit the timing of each animation and slow it down or speed it up to flow better and match the voice recording.

There are many reasons why a video might be a useful tool for your evaluation (see Part 1 of this series). We hope these tips and tricks are helpful as you begin to explore this feature of PowerPoint.

Lights, Camera, Action: Using Video to Share Evaluation Findings

Part 1: Why Create a Video?

As evaluators, we are always looking for compelling ways to share our work and connect with our audience. One way to effectively achieve this goal is through video. In Part 1 of this two-part series, we outline why you might consider creating videos to disseminate your work. In Part 2, we detail how to produce a short animated video using PowerPoint, including tips and takeaways from our own experience creating Magnolia Consulting’s submission for the American Evaluation Association’s 2017 video contest (check out our video below!).

Through this process, we learned about video’s potential for disseminating information and sharing findings. We have added this option to our dissemination toolbox, and we encourage you to do the same. Here are some reasons why:

  • Videos are more visually compelling and accessible than text. A short video will hold the viewer’s attention more easily than a dense, text-heavy report. Given that a video relies on visuals and audio to convey its message, this form of media will share your story and draw on viewers’ emotions in a more powerful way than text alone.
  • Videos are concise. You can convey key findings in a few minutes, making video a much more concise way to disseminate findings than a lengthy report.
  • Videos can be inexpensive and easy to create. In today’s world of accessible technology, including cell phones and a multitude of free editing software, it’s easier than ever to create a video as a beginner. We made our video in PowerPoint, which is a program that most evaluators have ready access to and already know how to use.
  • Videos can be disseminated to a wide audience. Videos can reach a wider audience via YouTube, social media, and other online platforms.

Are you ready to create your own video? In Part 2 of this series, we’ll show you tips and tricks for creating a video in PowerPoint.

Get the Story Straight, and the Rest Will Follow: Developing infographics with a purpose

Too often, people begin developing infographics by playing with templates, images, and data visualizations. And who can blame them? It’s fun! But while this process will produce an infographic, it might not result in a story that connects with your audience. A better approach is to begin by making intentional decisions about your infographic: clearly defining your audience, purpose, and message constitutes three foundational and critical steps for developing an effective infographic.

Identify Your Audience (The Who). The first step of 10 Steps to Creating an Infographic focuses on identifying the information needs and interests of your intended audience. What information matters to them? How much do they understand about research and evaluation, and what might this mean for the tone and language you use? The local context in which your audience will access and use your infographic has implications for design elements you choose during later steps of infographic development, such as layout, size, and visualizations.

Clarify Purpose (The Why). The second step is about determining what you hope to accomplish through the infographic. Why are you creating it? What do you hope will change for your audience as a result of reading it? The purpose of an infographic can range from increasing awareness of a topic, issue, or research finding to improving program implementation or instructional practices based on study results. Think of purpose as the intended outcome of your infographic.

Create Story and Message (The What). The third step involves creating your main message, with primary points, secondary points, and supporting details. The story is what you share with your audience to achieve the infographic’s purpose. An effective story that conveys a compelling message includes an engaging title, an introduction with the foundational information the audience needs to grasp the main message, and a conclusion with a call to action that reinforces the purpose of your infographic. The story is intentional. It is not an afterthought or a by-product of populating a page with super cool images and data visualizations.

Getting the story straight by identifying your audience, clarifying your purpose, and creating an intentional main message will set the course for subsequent design decisions for your infographic. As you contemplate design elements, keep yourself in check by asking, “Does this support the main message and purpose of the infographic? Will this resonate with my audience?” Following this process will result in an infographic with greater coherence, clarity, and relevance for your audience.

Share your experiences with these three steps by joining our Magnolia Infographics LinkedIn community!

For more information about Magnolia Consulting’s infographic services, tools, and resources visit the Tools and Resources page!