Category Archives: General

Tips on Transitioning to Remote Work

By a strange twist of fate, some of the research I was focusing on towards the end of my faculty time was actually on telecommuting and work-life balance. So, as many of us make this transition to working remotely, I wanted to share some general tips and things to think about when it comes to working remotely:

* Setup an “office space” in your home and treat it as such. If you have a spare room, great, but if not, even a table in the corner of a room can work. It’s easy for the lines between work and home to be blurred when you are working and living in the same space. Creating a dedicated work space can help you maintain that separation. This is one the first recommendations in almost all articles on working remotely.

* Keep a “work” routine. I know this is one that I struggle with if I don’t focus on it. It’s easy for me to just roll out of bed and stumble down the hall to the “office”, but the act of “getting ready for work” can make a difference in your day. Try to stick to your “normal” morning routine of getting ready to go to work (shower, get dressed, etc.) as much as possible (and reasonable). All of those behavioral cues tell your body that something is changing that separates “home” from “work”. You might have more time for your routine and be able to dress more casually, but going through the routine can help you refocus from “home” to “work”. Also, remember that at some point this is going to end and we’ll be going back into the office. Based on some articles, it takes about 30 days to establish a habit, but habits are hard to break. So, keep positive habits and that transition back will be easier when it comes.

* Take breaks, especially at night. During the work day we all get up and move around to some degree, even if it’s just stepping into the conference room for a cup of coffee. Although we need to be available and reachable, we aren’t in our office at all times. So, don’t be afraid to take those breaks to get up and walk around a bit. Just be careful they don’t become too distracting. (I had to remind myself today that the dishes could be done after I got off work even though they were sitting there when I finished lunch.)

* Set an alarm for the end of your work day. This can be important for helping keep the work-life balance in check. I know it’s easy for me to get focused on a task and want to keep going until it’s done. When we’re in the office we have a signal to “stop” because everyone is getting up and leaving for the day, even if we keep working beyond that point. At home it’s easy to just keep going since we don’t have that cue, so if you need to set an alarm for 5 PM to signal the end of your work day don’t be afraid to do it.

* Close down your “office”. Similar to setting the alarm to signal the end of the day, it might be worth “closing down” your office/work space to signal that you aren’t there. If it’s in a separate room, close the door. If it’s a table in the corner, throw a sheet over it. If you’re working at the kitchen table, back up the laptop and papers and set them aside to transition the space from “office” to “home”. Just try and do something to help separate work from home. It’s easy to think about “one more thing” related to work and want to jump on it right away when the office is just a few steps away, but keep in mind that it will be there tomorrow when you “go into work”. I know there are nights I bring work home, but more and more I’m trying to just make notes about the things to remind me the next day. Sure there will be times we need to work those extra hours to get things done, but it’s also important to remember that at some point the work day ends and our home life begins.

* Keep a “home” routine. Just like you have a routine to get ready to go to work, you probably have a routine for when you get home. Change your clothes (assuming you’re wearing some) or do something to signal to your body that “work is over” and that you are now “at home”.

Setting Defaults in Tableau

Here’s a quick tip/trick to using Tableau that I don’t see mentioned very often: Setting default properties for dimensions and measures.

Recently I was sitting in through some Tableau training at work, and the trainer was talking about setting up custom sort orders by rearranging the levels of a dimension in a table. This is what I typically see people do, and I admit that I usually do it that way myself. But then he pointed out the ability to set a custom order as part of the default properties for the measure so you don’t have to reorder things every time you use it. I vaguely remember seeing this mentioned somewhere before, but I can’t remember where and don’t think it’s mentioned often enough.

So, how do you do this? Well, in a worksheet, right click on the pill for the dimension or measure. Towards the bottom of the menu there should be an option for “Default Properties”. Now, the exact options you can set are going to depend on whether you are working with a dimension or a measure.

For Dimensions, you can set defaults for “Comment”, “Color”, “Shape” and “Sort”. In the realm of higher ed data, the sort can be useful for setting the default order in which Faculty Ranks or Student Classification or Level should appear. These are two examples where the default of alphabetical order is usually not the order you want, so a custom sort is needed. You can also set custom colors here to make sure they remain consistent across multiple sheets and dashboard you might create using that data source.

For Measures, you can set defaults for “Comment”, “Color”, “Number Format”, “Aggregation”, and “Total Using”. For measures, the default Aggregation is something to definitely keep in mind. Tableau likes to default things to SUM(), but there are situations where you might prefer to always show an average or count instead. Likewise, being able to set things to default as a percentage (under number format) can be useful, for example with retention and graduation rates in accountability data.

Again, I admit to not using this option very often, but it’s something that can definitely save you some time and possible frustration later down the road.

Tip within a tip: One thing that I did bite my tongue on during the training was a comment about the color of the “pills” in Tableau. In general, dimensions are blue and measures are green. However, the color is actually for distinguishing between discrete (blue) and continuous (green) values within either a dimension or a measure. This distinction determines how Tableau treats the variable when you move it onto a sheet. I’ll probably post more about this (with a link to the helpful Tableau help page) since sometimes getting Tableau to do what you want requires converting from continuous to discrete (or perhaps the other way around).

THECB Data in a (more) Usable Format

If you’ve read through some of my previous posts, you know that I tend to use Accountability data from THECB for several of the things I try in Tableau. One challenge has always been the way data is formatted by the Accountability system. It outputs data with one row per institution and separate columns for each measure and year. And of course, sub-levels of each variable are part of the measure names. Needless to say this format doesn’t work very well when trying to use the data in Tableau, or pretty much any program.

My early way of dealing with this was to simply pivot the columns into rows. This created a somewhat usable version of the data with fields for institution, year, name of the measure, and the value. Of course this came with it’s own set of problems. It was possible to compare various institutions on the same measure, but it never worked as well as I would like. Also, it was easy to accidentally include values from multiple measures in an analysis because all values were stored in the same field and you had to use filters to narrow things down to the specific values you were after.

Over Spring Break (week before last), I decided to sit down with my Excel macro and try a new approach to reformatting the data. Long story short, I was able to create a format for the Accountability data that, so far, has been significantly more user-friendly. I’ll be making use of this reformatted data in some of the Tableau examples I’ll be posting over the next couple of weeks. For those that might find it useful here’s the Excel file:

Reformatted Accountability Data (~45 MB)

Now, I should mention that this data is just for public universities and not all institutions in the state. I haven’t spent a lot of time verifying all of the data, so if you need “official” data, you should probably use the Accountability System, or at the very least double check the values you get from this spreadsheet against it. The first few columns include the name of the institution, FICE code, period/year, category, and sub-category. After that are the primary measures from each area of the Accountability system. If time permits, I might get around to providing better documentation for it, but hopefully it’ll make sense to you if you’ve used the Accountability system before.

US lags behind other countries in education (nothing new here)

An interesting read about the state of higher education in America. In a nut shell, having a degree in higher ed does give you more skills (ie higher reading and numerical literacy), but as a country we still fall behind other countries. Honestly, the finding that the US is behind other countries in terms of education is nothing new. The reason this study is getting attention is that it actually shows that education does actually teach people some useful skills. Sadly, up until now, this has largely been a belief without much empirical evidence behind it, especially on a global scale. So, although it is something that most people will look at and go “no surprise there”, it is useful to have the data to back up the claim.

What’s not mentioned in the article, but included in the report itself, is that we also fall behind in those skills at the High School level. To me this raises an interesting question given the debate over providing “free” college to everyone at either the 2 or 4 year level. My thought is that rather than everyone needing the college degree what we really need is to be doing a better job at teaching these skills in the K-12 arena. Let me be clear that I do not fault teachers for this problem. There are many issues that go into the quality of a K-12 education that are to a large degree beyond the control of teachers, and unfortunately that control often ends up in the hands of politicians. Having national standards is an attempt to raise the standard across all schools, but unfortunately those standards are often seen as a goal to reach rather than a minimum to maintain. If things were really working as they should in education the fear over whether a school is able to reach that minimum level of skills on some arbitrary standardized test would be a non-issue. Reaching the minimum should be a given. If it were, we could then focus on raising the bar for our students. But again, there are several other factors that come into play, so I’ll leave that discussion for another post.

Americans with bachelor degrees lag behind other nations in labor skills

Likelihood of graduating as a criteria for admittance

Although I haven’t seen it phrased that way before, colleges do admit students they feel will be the most successsful. The better they are at making that prediction, the higher their retention and graduation rates will be. The question then is whether you want to use retention and graduation rates as criteria for judging a school since it encourages schools to be more selective rather than more inclusive. What would be nice is a measure of how successful a school is with students they expect to fail. This is why sub-group analysis is important.

Graduation Rates by Selectivity: Freshmen, 2007

(And yes, this is a post from the blog I posted about a few weeks ago.)

Institutional Research Tools in Tableau

After a year of playing around and developing things in Tableau, we have finally been approved to release the new tools we’ve developed at work. Of course, by “we” I really mean “me”. To be fair, other people in the office have been responsible for gathering most of the data up to this point, and a few offered comments and suggestions on layout and colors. Still, it feels like I’ve been the lead on getting these tools developed in Tableau up to this point.

One thing I should mention is that Tableau is really designed as a way to visualize data (hence the term data visualization). In these cases we are actually using it as a tool to develop an interface to university data. The goal with many of these tools, especially the University Enrollment Explorer, is to allow people to find the information they are after, and at the same time provide ways of drilling down to answer additional questions once they have that information at hand. So far Tableau has proven to be very useful for doing this and considerably more user friendly than the pivot tables in MS Excel that we were using. One nice feature is that with Tableau you can export the data behind the tables, graphs, charts, etc. to create a pivot table if someone wants to do more with the data than the visualization allows. Anyway, here’s a link to the “Self-Service Tools” on our website.

IR Self-Service Tools

I should also mention that we’ve moved our “Facts and Highlights” into Tableau as well. It doesn’t allow for the interactivity provided by the other tools, but it’s more convenient than creating all the graphs and charts in Excel or Powerpoint like we were doing. That section of our website can be found here:

Texas State University Facts and Highlights

UPDATE 3/10/2016 – Coming soon there will be a link from the “Facts and Highlights” pages which will take you to the appropriate self-service tool in case you want to drill down and explore the data further. Well, most of them will have the link since we don’t have tools that deal with everything.

Welcome to Turner’s Lounge

Hello and welcome to the latest version of my blog. It has served many purposes over the years, but beginning this year I decided to redesign the site and focus on things more “work” related. My goal is to post something at least every other week related to Institutional Research (broadly defined) or tips and tricks for using Tableau. There will also be some posts related to technology from time to time. My guess is that starting out, most of the posts will likely be more focused on Tableau, but the examples I use will probably be related to the work I do in institutional research. The first real post should be available in the next few days.

For now, I’ve limited comments to only registered users in an effort to prevent too much spam from showing up. If you find any of my posts useful or informative, feel free to link to them. And I do welcome your comments and feedback via email even if you choose not to register.