Resources and Methods in Assessment Data Visualization

Content originally presented by Courtney Vengrin, Ph.D., Director of Curricular Assessment and Teaching Support, Assistant Teaching Professor, Iowa State University – College of Veterinary Medicine

A picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to data visualization, how do you make that picture?

In the world of assessment, we are constantly inundated with data. Often this data only makes sense to a select few who are working with the figures on a regular basis. Through data visualization, you can tell the story of your critical data to a broader audience – be it faculty, students, stakeholders, or accrediting bodies.

Why Visuals?

Visuals matter. For most of us, we are able-bodied sighted individuals. We process most of our information every day in a visual manner. If you think about driving, most signs are visuals. It speeds up our process time and overcomes language barriers, and is used to communicate quickly and clearly what is important.

Research also shows that data visualization matters in an institutional setting. A study by Azzam in 2013 found that:

“The use of data visualizations can provide a better means of communicating impacts on student success.”

Visualizations can also help our students in assessing and monitoring their own learning.

Benefits of Connecting Visuals to Assessment Data

So how do we take this strong method of storytelling and connect it to communicating our assessment processes and overall narratives? Data visualization is a great way to make people care about the data and tell a story about the students, teaching in the programs and learning. As an assessment professional, you can take your rows and rows of data and translate it into something that matters and makes sense to people who don’t speak assessment language. You can easily demonstrate and clearly convey that our programs are making an impact, and our students are finding success.

What is Assessment Data Visualization?

First, let’s go over what the definition of data visualization is. Data visualization is combining the data gathered from an evidence-based practice, whether teaching or programs, with a visual to tell a larger impactful story, whether of the class, improved learning over a program, or whatever you need to communicate to a broader audience. It’s a really effective way to get across the information in those spreadsheets to the public who might not be involved with the program.


5 Questions to Ask Before Visualizing Data

This isn’t creating any old chart. This is a refined process that hones in on the data that is crucial to the story and what really matters. It leaves no data behind and allows us to focus on the main point. There are 5 questions to ask ourselves before we begin engaging in data visualization.

  1. What data do you have?

    Start with thinking through what kind of data you have to start constructing a message of what you want to convey. Examples could include quantitative and qualitative data; including student scores, predictor exams, survey data and other metrics from employer and alumni surveys. Comment sections and timelines can also create good visuals. As you collect your pieces of data, ask yourself – is there more analysis to be done?

  2. Is your data ready for visualization?

    Are your pieces of data just numbers on a spreadsheet, or do they need to be analyzed to come alive, have meaning, and start telling a story? As assessment professionals, you are most likely already doing some of this analysis. Do you need to do additional statistics on this data? Ask yourself, what will make the most impact on the overall story and start brainstorming some ideas. Do percentages or mean scores work better than plain data?  Are there any ranges that will help illustrate your main point? Any pull quotes or pictures that will tell a better story?

  3. What are the key points of your message?

    When you are working on the specific message of the story, think through why you have been tasked with creating this visual. Is it for accreditation purposes? Did the Dean ask you to create an annual report? Keep in mind the key points to drive home your overall story, and if those key points are answering the initial question you set out to explain. Note that you don’t have to go overboard on the visualizations, either. Your objective is clarity over quantity. Also, consider asking an outside perspective on what you have constructed so far to see if your data is tracking to your key points and overall story.

  4. What important facts often get overlooked?

    As an assessment professional, you know your data very well. You most likely have great insight into what might get overlooked in presentations and final reports, or if your message is not effectively coming through in the key points. We don’t want the potential audience to play “Where’s Waldo” with the facts and supporting data. If there are any muddy or confusing points, consider adding a visual to help clarify.

  5. What does a good visual look like?

    After answering the first four questions and getting clarity on what your message is, what the key points are to support that message, and what could potentially be getting overlooked within that narrative, you are armed and ready to start creating your first visual. As you begin, here are some helpful design principles to craft a compelling and effective visual.


These principles are drafted by Dieter Rams and are widely accepted as a good foundation for visual design. that are modified for data visualization,


  • Innovative, modern and current
  • Making data useful
  • Aesthetic pleasing to view
  • Making data understandable
  • Unobtrusive or distracting – act as a microphone, not a megaphone for your data
  • Honest – don’t alter axes or change the visual to sway or skew your analysis and point
  • Long-lasting and stands the test of time
  • Thorough down to the last detail – every aspect of the graph is considered and intentional
  • Economically friendly – how can you make these visuals easy to create?
  • Simple and involves as little design as possible – less is more


In Conclusion

Data visualization provides a means to view data in different ways and gives us a better chance of detecting obscured patterns and connections. Visuals are a strong tool in your toolbox to help your audience better understand the good assessment work you are doing at your institution.


For more detailed information on this topic, including some step-by-step examples, watch the Resources and Methods in Assessment Data Visualization webinar recording.


Courtney Vengrin, Ph.D.

Dr. Courtney Vengrin is the Director of Curricular Assessment and Teaching Support for the College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences. However, she is quick to point out that she is a social scientist and data nerd at heart. Dr. Vengrin has an M.S. degree in Agricultural Extension Education and a Ph.D. in Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, both from Virginia Tech. She likes to say that she is a “recovering” high school teacher and is trying to cope with the fact that she began her career in education 10 years ago this year. Dr. Vengrin’s research interests include evaluation and assessment culture, technology-enhanced educational practices, and student success in the college environment. She is passionate about data science and data visualization and loves to engage in conversations about statistics!



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