Data Stories - 1(1)

Elsewhere: Data Stories to Communicate Value

Our comrades in the Association of College Unions international often have interesting reflections. Here student activities professionals Kurt Moderson & Sherry Woosley discuss articulation of the value of student unions.

Too often, we are focused on surviving and thriving in our current week. While understandable, our daily tasks often command most of our attention. As a campus starts talking about competing interests and limited resources, we need compelling stories to articulate the value of student activities, student leadership, and student unions.

On a daily basis, we see the impact of our programs on individual students. As professionals, we chose this work largely for the affect we can have on students and our institution. Therefore, our value is apparent to us. We know that student involvement matters, leadership opportunities create life opportunities, and our programs contribute to institutional goals. This knowledge and experience can make us complacent about these contributions that are so obvious to us. So, we must remind ourselves to develop and share the stories of our contributions. Our regular interactions with students provide rich narratives. These, when combined with data, create stories that demonstrate our value.

Data Stories

For years union and activities professionals have recognized the importance of evaluation and assessment. We have ample data at our disposal and regularly collect even more. However, in most instances, data analysis occurs with an exploratory mindset and ends there. We might develop some charts or graphs, but such reporting tactics lack the ability to present the narratives that humans are hardwired to seek.

Data could be much more meaningful if explanatory analysis also occurred—delving deeper to tell a story. Stanford University marketing professor Jennifer Aaker studies happiness and how stories affect us. In her video Persuasion and the Power of Story, Aaker described how—in a world saturated with information—stories make statistics more memorable, provoking an emotional connection.

When the story is focused on issues relevant to the audience, “people are more willing to listen,” says Anil Batra, a web analytics consultant. According to Batra, elements of a good data story include:

  • What we are observing
  • Why it matters
  • How it compares to past performance, baseline, goals, etc.
  • Whether we will be able to achieve the goals
  • What is effective and what is not
  • What we can do today
  • What we learned that we can apply to the future

This does not mean oversimplification or censorship; rather, it is about knowing the audience and finding a compelling narrative, according to the Harvard Business Review article “How to Tell a Story with Data.” In the article, Dell Executive Strategist Jim Stikeleather described how an average member of the campus community might simply want a general plot outline with an overview of themes whereas one’s supervisor wants an actionable understanding of a story’s intricacies and interrelationships with access to detail.

Each department has stories to tell, stories that would appeal to many audiences. Union and activities professionals must continually tweak, deepen, and reiterate these stories for colleagues, campuses, and students who need reminders of not only what we do but why and how it contributes to the success of our institutions and our students.

In the spirit of reminding ourselves and reiterating our stories, we explore three themes that can be used as the basis of a story: involvement, leadership, and learning. Each theme is often reflected in institutional missions and goals, and they are linked to union and activities work in obvious ways. In addition, most campuses have data that support these stories. For involvement, a campus may know how many people visit the union, how many students are involved in student organizations, or how many students attend particular events. Regarding leadership, campuses often have counts of student leaders or leadership training activities. For both leadership and learning, examples abound of individual students who have gone on to significant achievements, crediting their student organization experiences. Any and all of these can create strong stories. Highlighting national data related to these same topics, clear stories emerge to demonstrate the significant and widespread impact of college unions and student activities.


As student affairs professionals talk about the importance of student activities, data can be applied to create powerful broad stories. Campus activities provide something for everyone. It is important to explore the range of student experiences and how they link to critical or strategic institutional outcomes. One source of data is the ACUI/EBI Student Activities Assessment. It measures participation, satisfaction, and learning. In 2012–13, 11,916 students from 23 campuses completed the assessment. Eighty-five percent had attended at least one student activity, while 15% had not attended any activities. The differences between these two groups (involved and uninvolved students) highlight a national story about the outcomes associated with student activities.

Involved students are more likely than uninvolved students to report that their college experiences contribute to their self-awareness of skills and their skill development. For instance, in the ACUI/EBI assessment, involved students reported that their college experiences enhanced their awareness of their own talents (50%) and their limitations (55%). These percentages were significantly higher than uninvolved students. Similarly, the majority of involved students indicated that their college experience enhanced their ability to think critically and make decisions (58%) and their ability to be assertive (52%). In terms of teamwork and leadership skills, involved students indicated that their college experience had enhanced their ability to work in teams (51%), to present to groups (51%), and to influence others (49%). Uninvolved students had lower percentages (43% to work in teams, 45% to present to groups, and 40% to influence others). Fifty percent of involved students indicated that their college experience enhanced their ability to manage time effectively, compared to 44% of uninvolved students. Thus, students who had participated in at least one student activity were more likely to see their collegiate experience as growing their skills.

Interestingly, involved students were not only more likely than other students to see college as affecting their skills, they were also more likely to see college as enhancing their relationships and choices. Involved students were more likely than other students to indicate that their college experience had helped them develop interpersonal relationships (51% compared to 39%) as well as healthy relationships (52% compared to 40%). Similarly, involved students were more likely than uninvolved students to report that their college experience had enhanced their ability to make healthy choices (46% compared to 39%). Half of involved students reported greater ability to balance academic, work, and social responsibilities. This was a higher percentage than uninvolved students (45%).

The largest difference between involved and uninvolved students was whether students indicated that their college experience had enhanced their participation in volunteer and service opportunities. The percentage of involved students was significantly higher than uninvolved students (44% compared to 26%).

Overall, the national data tell a clear story: Students who were involved in at least one student activity were more likely than other students to report positive outcomes related to their collegiate experience.


A favorite story to tell is about the exemplary student leader, who grows from a quiet first-year student to a graduating senior, holding numerous positions and developing marketable skills along the way. These stories are easy to see on graduation day, but in the midst of a hectic work week, we forget to capture the various stories of all students around us. The ACUI/EBI Student Leadership Assessment is designed to take a broader snapshot of students’ current skill set and the impact of their leadership positions. In 2012–13, 5,625 student leaders from 17 campuses responded to the assessment. One-fourth of the respondents reported they were involved in only one student organization. Three-fourths were involved in two or more student organizations. Four out of 10 held one formal leadership position, 19% held two positions, and 8% held three or more leadership positions.

Because most students are involved in multiple student organizations and 27% hold more than one leadership role, the natural assumption might be that their time commitment would be substantial. Yet, more than half of respondents reported they spend five hours or less participating in all of their student organizations. Ten percent of students spend more than 10 hours a week. Therefore, it is not surprising that two-thirds of students reported their involvement in student organizations did little to affect their GPA: 16% of students reported an improvement in their GPA as a result of their involvement, and 18% reported some level of decline.

Academically related organizations were the most popular among respondents, with 33% of students indicating an academic-related organization as their primary student organization, 15% fraternities and sororities, and 11% campus government or programming boards. Concerning their primary organization, only 34% of student leaders reported receiving leadership training of any type. Within this group, 31% received leadership training directly from the university, while 40% received training directly from their organization’s advisor. Fifty-five percent of students indicated that this training was valuable in their success as a student leader.
In addition to anecdotes about individual student leaders who demonstrate significant growth, students themselves see and describe development that they attribute to their leadership experience.

According to ACUI/EBI Student Leadership Assessment respondents, involvement in student organizations enhanced students’ abilities to develop trust (58%), earn the respect of others (68%), manage conflict (60%), work effectively with others (72%), listen effectively (71%), and motivate others (65%). Two-thirds of students indicated that their participation in student organizations enhanced their ability to build professional relationships. Sixty-five percent reported their involvement enhanced their self-confidence and motivation.

Students also reported that their experience enhanced their ability to learn more about others (71%) as well as more about themselves (65%). Six out of 10 students indicated that their involvement increased their interactions with people who are different than themselves. Sixty-nine percent felt their involvement helped them to understand their ability to contribute to the success of a project. Seventy-one percent of students reported that their involvement gave them the confidence to assume greater responsibility.
Similar to the data from the ACUI/EBI Student Activities Assessment, the data from the student leaders is also clear: Involvement and leadership have a great effect on student experiences, skills, and outcomes.


How and why students use a physical space can tell powerful stories about the value of that space. Their activities, both social and academic, give meaning and life to the physical space. The ACUI/EBI College Union/Student Center Assessment measures students’ use and satisfaction with union. In 2012–13, 30,949 students from 48 campuses completed the survey. Two-thirds of students indicated that they visited the union on at least a weekly basis. Meeting others, studying, eating, and visiting the bookstore were the top reasons for visiting the union.

Students described the importance of having a safe and welcoming space so they could be free to focus on learning. Most students (75%) felt welcome in the union, and 83% described the union as a safe place. Fifty percent of students were satisfied with the sense of community created by the union. Two-thirds of students reported the union as an enjoyable place to spend time.

Students also were satisfied with the services provided in the union. Seventy-one percent were satisfied with the variety of services offered by the union. Fifty-eight percent of students indicated that the union was a source of information about campus events. Fifty-five percent of students found the union to be a source of a variety of entertainment options. Seventy-one percent of students indicated that the union was a student-oriented facility.

Stereotypically, unions are often thought of as social spaces, but they also have academic value. Seventy-seven percent of students reported that studying was one of their top three reasons for visiting the union. Additionally, 59% indicated that the union was a place to relax and 43% a place to study. Seventy-one percent reported that the union was a central meeting place, and two-thirds found the union to be open convenient hours. Sixty-nine percent of students were satisfied with the atmosphere.

Despite the high level of satisfaction with their union experience, just 23% of students indicated that the union enhanced their educational experience. The academic support environment is more nuanced than the overall numbers suggest. Looking at only the students who indicated the union was a place to study (10,420 students), the results are more encouraging. Two-thirds were satisfied with the sense of community created by the union, and 88% found the union to be an enjoyable place. Nine out of 10 felt welcome in the union, and 87% reported the union is a place to relax. Eighty-eight percent of students reported that the union is student-oriented, and 82% found the union to be open convenient hours. Eighty-five percent of students indicated that the union is a central meeting space, and 84% were satisfied with the atmosphere in the union. In this case, the story of academic value is clearer when we focused on the experiences of students who use the union to study.


These national data highlight the importance of student involvement, leadership, and college unions. Involvement in student activities is connected with skill development, teamwork, and interpersonal skills. Student leaders linked their involvement with self-confidence, self-awareness, and peer interactions. Students who use the union to study found it to be a safe, welcoming, and enjoyable environment. These three themes, along with the data that support each, play together to create a powerful story of the role of union and activities professionals on campus. The data contribute weight to the multitude of student stories we use to describe our contributions. Combined with local and qualitative data, these stories more persuasively share how unions and activities departments are achieving their goals why their work matters. Clearly, union and activities professionals make significant contributions in the lives of their students and on their campuses. Now that story is more powerfully told.

This article originally appeared in the ACUI Bulletin

Posted in Elsewhere and tagged , , , .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *