You have data, now what?

Students can be great at collecting data. But once they have a table of data, many are not sure how to proceed. As teachers, we often toss students data in different forms to analyze and interpret: pre-made graphs, data collected during labs, small tables of data to graph by hand, or tables of data to graph in Excel or Google sheets. We hope they will “analyze” the data and come up with meaningful insights and explanations of the data as evidence. But we are often discouraged by what students hand in. What does one actually do when analyzing data? More precisely, what are some of the decisions that students can wrestle with and come to own as they turn a table of data into evidence and useful information?

Over several years of working with teachers to engage students with real environmental investigations in their own communities, we identified a sequence of prompts to help students become more self-driven when graphing and analyzing data to find meaning.

The following prompts assume students are starting with a dataset, whether it is data they collected, or a spreadsheet of data they obtained from somewhere else. The idea is to start with the data, let questions emerge from the data, let graphs emerge from the questions, let patterns emerge from the graphs, and let meaning emerge from the patterns, circling back to the context of the question.

  • What data do you have to work with? (What are the attributes? Which attributes are categorical? Which are quantitative measures? What categories and ranges are included within different attributes? What are the units?)
  • What would you like to find out? (What questions can be answered with these data?)
  • Which attributes (or subsets of the dataset) are needed to answer that question?
  • What kind of graph would make sense for the question?
  • Which attribute(s) should go on the axis or axes?
  • What patterns or relationships show up in the graphed data?
  • What does the graph mean in terms of the question? (Do the patterns make sense?)
  • How certain can you be in any claims you make?
  • What new questions arise?

A one-page handout with these prompts can be downloaded here. This bullet list is just an overview, a keel in the water to help you steer students so they stay on course as they analyze data. Subsequent blogs will explore examples and deeper reflections about individual prompts.

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