Data the Ditch Driver

Jay's Seeds

This is a third grader’s response to a recent assessment. This is data, but unfortunately not the type of data we tend to see on “data walls” and in “war rooms.”

Data comes in both quantitative and qualitative forms. In our field, we are quite familiar with quantitative data. We use data dashboards, and deep dives, and drill downs so that data can drive everything we do. But if we only use quantitative data when analyzing the performance of human beings, then data can drive us into a ditch.

Quantitative data measures attributes and properties while qualitative characterizes them. Quantitative data defines while qualitative describes.  Among other things, analysis of qualitative data can help to accomplish the following:

  • Determine students’ intentions to explain causal relationships
  • Empathize with students to gain understanding of their perspectives
  • Make holistic observations of the total context (Gall, Gall, and Borg, 2006, p. 25)

Quantitative data is easier to analyze and manipulate because they are numerical. Qualitative data, on the other hand, is more challenging to analyze because they require you to seek out and generate accurate descriptions of what students think and feel. But qualitative data, when analyzed with quantitative data, tells a more complete story, and perhaps provides the opportunity for a more successful “drive.”

A cursory review of the student sample above can lead one to conclude that the student didn’t understand the problem; however, a more holistic analysis reveals some level of understanding. Without a holistic analysis a teacher can dive immediately into “reteach” mode without uncovering the real gaps in understanding.  (The Core Deconstructed can help you uncover gaps in understanding.)

Determining that the student did not master the standard is not enough. An understanding of how s/he processed the problem is necessary. This type of data analysis takes more time, but yields more substantive solutions. So here’s my question to you as a professional in the field of education: how are you using qualitative data to inform your data-driven decisions?



Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P. & Borg, W. R. (2006). Educational research: An introduction (8th ed.). NY: Allyn and Bacon.