Toolkits for IR Practitioners

Ask eAIR covers topics about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. This month’s question is answered by Eric Lovik, Director of Institutional Research, Reporting, and Assessment at Radford University in Virginia. Please contact Eric via email with questions about the tools discussed in this article.The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Subscribers are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Dear Eric: What should an IR professional/practitioner have in his/her toolkit?

With the availability of so much technology and so many data sources, IR professionals are better positioned now to collect and analyze data than ever before. We are explorers in this age of big data and analytics, but within the context of our institutions' immediate demands for decision support, we must make wise use of our resources. To that end, there are a number of items that IR professionals should have in their toolkits.

Organizational Tools

Due to the nature of IR work, we engage with colleagues across campus, within a state or regional system, and with external constituents. At the very least, be sure to keep the most frequently used contacts handy. In addition to email and phone lists, there are some programs that are helpful in staying on top of your communications and organizational routines. Doodle can help a group of people arrive at consensus on an appointment time or another type of group decision. This quick poll website is very user friendly. The suite of Google products is also quite useful. You can use Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Hangout, and Google Drive to organize your office processes.

Data Tools

There is a wide variety of tools for data collection and analysis. Numerous state and national databases provide us with quick access to relevant information. In addition to the IPEDS/NCES databases with which we are familiar, there are other national sources from which IR professionals retrieve useful data. Some examples include Census QuickFacts, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, NCAA statistics and reports, the National Student Clearinghouse, and news sites such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed that publish their own reports of postsecondary data on special topics (e.g., Almanac of Higher Education). The collection of eAIR Tech Tips is very useful in getting specific guidance for using technology commonly used in IR settings. Software essential for data analysis includes Excel with its add-ins, SPSS, and depending on your level of ability, more advanced programs such as SAS and R. Commercial products are providing more options for data dashboards (iDashboards), but you can also develop your own custom-designed free dashboards via Excel.

Presentation Tools

PowerPoint is always a good place to start when preparing presentations. To take it a step further, Prezi offers dynamic, creative options that enable you to prepare presentations for a stunning impact. Tableau provides free and paid access, and I highly recommend that you see what Tableau has to offer. Many Eyes is another option for data visualization. The collection of samples at eAIR's Visual Display of Data can give you some helpful ideas about using creative visualizations for your own work. Infographics are becoming increasingly popular, and sites such as, Piktochart,,, and Venngage can get you started.

Survey Tools

You might be expected to design and administer surveys to students, employees, and other groups. There are many survey products to choose from such as QuestionPro, Qualtrics, SurveyMonkey, SurveyPlanet, TypeForm, Zoho, and Zoomerang. If you are looking for something free, then GoogleForms might have what you need.

System Reports

Depending on your institution, you may belong to and report data to a system or major organization. For example, as a university in the commonwealth of Virginia, Radford University reports institutional data to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). Thus, it is valuable for IR professionals within Virginia to have the SCHEV resources and materials readily available. Many private liberal arts institutions belong to the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), which provides its own tools and benchmark reports. Again, whatever sector your institution belongs to, be sure to know your unique performance measures and have an archive of prior annual reports and scorecards nearby.

Conference Handouts

We all appreciate opportunities to learn from our peers, build relationships, and so on, at conferences when we travel. One benefit of association membership is that we have access to the Forum handouts and can download them whether we attended the presentations or not. Other associations provide resources such as conference handouts. For example, various accreditation agencies post handouts on their websites for public use. Google searches often lead to downloadable handouts and presentation slides, and these resources can provide helpful guidance to us as we handle IR-related activities.

Print Resources

Even though most of what we do in IR is electronic, it is also helpful to keep physical, hard copy tools within reach. Print publications, particularly The Handbook of Institutional Research and Leadership & Management in Institutional Research, are especially valuable. Other easy-to-use publications are Excel for Dummies, SAS for Dummies, SPSS for Dummies, SQL for Dummies, Statistics for Dummies, and Statistics DeMystified.

In summary, as Sir Arthur Charles Clarke stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In some respects, IR professionals are viewed as campus magicians—analysts and researchers who can work their magic by providing timely, relevant data to key decision makers in such a manner that make our colleagues outside of IR wonder in awe how we did it. With a carefully selected toolkit, we can continue to promote data-driven planning and assessment in higher education.



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Total Comments: 3
Bill posted on 5/14/2015 10:30 AM
This is excellent advice, Eric, thanks so much fr sharing. Bill Knight
Tara posted on 5/14/2015 11:54 AM
Nice breakdown. This is very helpful for new IR people.
Dina posted on 6/18/2015 4:22 PM
Great and helpful advice Eric! Thanks