Finding Existing Data


In the beginning of the first module, Alex, Beth, and Cristina all faced significant challenges in their roles as educators. By the end of the module, each one accomplished the first step in the data-driven decision-making process: narrowing the problem statement and posing the question. The next step is to find existing data that will address the problem, inform decision making, and help identify a solution.

The process of making data-driven decisions might sound overwhelming to you at first, but one of the great benefits of the information age is the plethora of information that is already available. The very data that could inform your question might already exist! This module will take you through some steps and best practices to identify existing data sources and to determine whom to contact to gain access.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Objectives & Keywords in the right-hand navigation.

Objectives & Keywords

Learning Objectives

After completing this module, you will be able to:

  1. Identify existing sources of data that may help you answer your question
  2. Identify possibilities for accessing existing databases
  3. Identify collaborators with similar data or similar questions

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Keywords in the right-hand navigation.


Collaborators: Entities, such as individuals, offices, or organizations, which work together toward a common goal.

Confidentiality: Proper use of information that can be tied to an individual; researchers or educators ensure identifiable data is protected to preserve individual privacy.

Data gatekeepers: Individuals who are responsible for maintaining and protecting data sources. Their permission is needed to access the information.

Data sources: Locations in which information can be found or extracted; these may be digital or hard copy. Data sources may include institutional records, surveys, departmental files, and databases.

Databases: Organized collections of information in digital format. Many databases are relational, which means they are comprised of multiple records connected with a unique identifier, like a student ID number.

FERPA: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which ensures appropriate privacy for student educational records.

Privacy: The protection of any information that would reveal the identity of an individual person or student.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Case Studies in the right-hand navigation.

Case Studies


At the Classroom Level: Alex

With the problem identified, Alex set out to identify sources of data that he could use to answer his question, “What factors are leading to students’ poor problem-solving skills in physics?” He brainstormed and jotted down some of his ideas, using his informal observations of his students over the years to guide his thinking.

Certainly a student’s mathematical ability would have an impact on his or her ability to manipulate the physics equations he was teaching; he had often seen students identify the correct equation to use but struggle to solve for the right variable. A student’s reading level could also have an effect, as Alex knew that poor readers were often reluctant to consult the textbook outside of class. He also suspected that nonacademic factors would come into play, including the degree of effort or persistence that students put into their work both inside and outside of class as well as other attitudinal factors. Students’ home lives could also contribute to their performance, as he often saw that students who came to school hungry or tired simply did not have the energy to devote to learning.

After a while, he realized many of the factors he had written down were measured by data he had or could access. Alex began to identify many data sources, including the district’s online database that contained students’ grades and other information. Using this database, he was able to extract his students’ math and reading test scores from 10th grade, which provided a snapshot of their abilities when they entered his class as 11th-graders. In addition, Alex made a call to his school’s database administrator, who served as the data gatekeeper, to explain the question he wanted to answer in his classroom and the data that he would need. After discussing privacy concerns the administrator had and how to best address them, Alex was able to obtain students’ attendance and tardiness records, indicating which students came to school consistently and on time. He agreed to abide by school confidentiality guidelines and FERPA regulations, ensuring he would only use individually identifiable data to match student attendance/tardiness records to physics scores and would not share any findings about individual students.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Beth in the right-hand navigation.


At the Department Level: Beth

Over the years, Beth had heard a lot of ideas from other faculty about what might be contributing to students’ inability to write well. During monthly faculty meetings, the discussions related to students’ writing skills often became heated and contained so many of the same arguments that she rarely took notes. Beth realized that she couldn’t be the only one working to address her question, “What factors contribute to students’ writing skills in their literature courses?” Before she could figure out what data she should collect, Beth needed collaborators to identify possible solutions. She decided to talk with individual faculty members to gather ideas in an environment that would be more relaxed than a contentious faculty meeting, hoping each faculty member would be more candid about their own opinions. The discussions took some time to complete, but she found that her colleagues had ideas she had never imagined, and by the end of the day she had assembled a long list of potential contributing factors.

Beth decided to dig a little deeper to see if there was any existing research on the issues the faculty members discussed in the interviews. She visited her campus library and talked with a librarian, another collaborator, who helped her find research in a number of journals, including College Composition and Communication journal. After reviewing this literature on college student writing skill development, she discovered the factors identified in the research were consistent with those that emerged from the interviews. The research also suggested some additional factors that affect student writing skills.

Reading through the list, Beth realized she could contact the registrar* at her institution, an important data gatekeeper, to obtain much of the data she would need to address her question. Beth drafted a summary of her question and her plans to investigate it, including the institutional data she would need. She set up a meeting with the registrar to discuss her idea. The registrar was supportive of Beth’s efforts but was concerned about student privacy, especially related to FERPA. After the two developed steps to ensure the privacy of individual students, the registrar provided a list of all students who had been enrolled in a literature course in the last year with generic identifiers, rather than student names or identification numbers. She asked the registrar to include those students’ first-semester freshman GPA and SAT scores as well as the grades for the first year composition course each student had taken.

*The central data office for your institution may have a different name other than registrar: Office of Institutional Research, Office of Accountability, etc.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Cristina in the right-hand navigation.


At the Institutional Level: Cristina

Cristina considered the question she had developed, “What trends in STEM attainment exist at our institution, and how do those trends compare to trends at our peer institutions?” She then decided that in addition to the data available at her own institution, she could attempt to gain access to state-level data, which would contain information from her peer institutions.  She also wanted to explore student performance in STEM gateway courses because this was a pressing issue at her institution and the subject of much discussion.

First, she hypothesized that access to and success in STEM courses early on in a student’s career would contribute heavily to a student choosing and staying in a STEM discipline. After discussing privacy concerns with the university registrar*, Cristina obtained data for the most recent graduating class, indicating the number of courses students took in their first year, including the specific STEM courses taken as well as students’ grades in those courses. She also wanted to investigate the interactions between students’ demographic information, such as gender and ethnicity, and students’ academic career paths with regard to STEM courses, so the registrar provided her with this information as well.

Once Cristina received all this information, she realized she had a massive amount of data, not all of which might help inform decision making. It was not feasible for her to analyze STEM degree attainment rates, performance in gateway courses, and variations by student demographics. She had a short timetable because she needed to provide data at an upcoming retreat, so she decided to narrow her focus specifically to STEM graduates by discipline. At a later point, she might decide to return to the issue of student performance in gateway STEM courses and/or demographic trends in STEM success.

Once she narrowed her question, Cristina went back to the registrar to obtain a spreadsheet of the number of graduates in each STEM discipline for each of the last fifteen years. Then, accessing the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) website, she downloaded the same data on a statewide level to have a better understanding of the degree attainment of her institution’s students in STEM disciplines compared to that of students at peer institutions.

*The central data office for your institution may have a different name other than registrar: Office of Institutional Research, Office of Accountability, etc. 

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Module in Action in the right-hand navigation.

Module in Action

Video 2.1 – Using Data in the Classroom: Part 1

In this video, Dr. Dawn Zimmaro explains how her data-driven decision-making process began in her college classroom and how she used existing data.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Locating Existing Data in the right-hand navigation.

Locating Existing Data


Although as an educator you face problems with circumstances specific to your environment, chances are that other educators are asking similar questions or facing common challenges. There are often published articles and research on your particular topic of interest or even databases with institutional, district, state, or federal level data that can help you understand and address the problem at your school. Part of the data-driven decision-making process includes taking advantage of existing data.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Video 2.2 in the right-hand navigation.

Video 2.2 - Data Gatekeepers

In this video, David Greiner discusses the common titles and roles of data gatekeepers.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Activity 2.1 in the right-hand navigation.

Activity 2.1 – Identifying Data Gatekeepers

Review the instructions in the activity below, and use your workbook to record your responses.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Using Research Literature in the right-hand navigation.

Using Research Literature

Consider Beth’s approach. She wanted to find data to flesh out some of the issues that came up in the faculty interviews. She found existing research on the factors that may explain or help predict student success in the writing components of literature courses. If you are not familiar with what journals or resources publish research in your field, ask a librarian or department chair at your institution. If you belong to any professional organizations for educators, their websites are also excellent places to seek recent research findings. Many of these professional organizations have their own journals. You may also seek help from a professional development consultant or training coordinator at your school. A simple Web search can also yield fruitful information; however, be cautious of online information outside of reputable sources, which may or may not be accurate.

Once you have located relevant material, try looking for other articles published by the same authors, who may have additional studies on the topic. The list of references at the end of an informative article can direct you to other studies to review. Frequent review of published research and other data can help you refine your own answer to your question. You may discover that many research journals or professional association websites require membership and login information to access materials. Check with your school administrators, or your librarian, to determine whether your department or school has a paid membership so that you can access what you need.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Accessing Databases in the right-hand navigation.

Accessing Databases


Public agencies frequently host large educational databases that are available to the public. Whether at the federal level ( and, the state level ( and, or the local level, there is a significant amount of data available online. It may just take a little time to explore each database to discover what is included. For Cristina, these databases provided the big-picture opportunity to compare degree attainment rates at her institution to those of peer institutions. 

Alex and Beth found they needed local data specific to their own departments and institutions as they were making decisions related to their respective questions. To locate and access these kinds of databases, you will need to be proactive. Contact your school’s registrar, information officer, database manager, or an individual in a similar position to learn how to gain access to these data. You will want to be aware of privacy concerns and how you can ensure confidentiality for individually identifiable student records. If your school has a student database system, as many Texas institutions do, the individual in charge of that system will likely be a great resource for you and can provide the needed permissions to gain access. He or she can guide you through the process of extracting the data you need to inform your question, help you understand how and why those data were originally collected, and even guide you through correct interpretation or analysis.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Activity 2.2 in the right-hand navigation.

Activity 2.2 – Locating Existing Data

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Activity 2.3 in the right-hand navigation.

Activity 2.3 – Searching Library Databases

Review the instructions in the activity below, and use your workbook to record your responses.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Finding Collaborators in the right-hand navigation.

Finding Collaborators


Finding colleagues, school leaders, or partners from across the state who are also interested in your question plays an important part in your data collection process. The more interest and support you can gain from others, the stronger your chances of collecting useful, timely data for making good decisions about teaching and learning.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Activity 2.4 in the right-hand navigation.

Activity 2.4 – Finding Collaborators

Review the instructions in the activity below, and use your workbook to record your responses.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Conclusion & Review in the right-hand navigation.

Conclusion & Review


Module 2 guided you through the process of finding existing data to inform your question. Deciding which data to use is as important as actually using those data. We encourage you to identify the data gatekeepers at your institution and enlist their assistance in locating, accessing, and understanding existing data. Tapping into existing data sources, whether via published research or local database systems, saves you time and effort in your journey to explore and answer your questions. In Module 3, we will address collecting new data.

To continue Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Review Questions in the right-hand navigation.

Review Questions
  1. Considering your question, how would you go about finding literature to help you better understand the issue?
  2. What are three to five search terms that you could use for a library database search?
  3. What data will you need to answer your question?
  4. Do the data already exist? If so, where?

To view supplemental materials for Module 2: Finding Existing Data, click on Supplemental Materials in the right-hand navigation.
To move on to Module 3: Collecting New Data, click on Collecting New Data in the left-hand navigation.

Supplemental Materials

Click the links below to download the supplemental materials.

To move on to Module 3: Collecting New Data, click on Collecting New Data in the left-hand navigation.