The misinterpretation of data: why we all need to be data literate

by Guest Blogger, 13 July 2020
image of graphs and calculators

Having identified a growing need for practitioners to understand and utilise data as a part of their working life, particularly in the field of educational assessment, Cambridge Assessment Network developed a new online course, A103: Introducing Data LiteracyAs we come to the end of the course pilot, we spoke to participants on the importance of data literacy and how their learning has impacted their professional practice.

Data literacy is a life skill

Data is often thought of as something scary, an intimidating and impenetrable set of facts or figures. It’s used to impress us, with big numbers, colourful graphs and interesting insights. 

But it shouldn’t be like this - data has the power to answer questions faster, drive smarter decision‑making and provide powerful insights. And a lack of data literacy can lead to the misinterpretation, or misrepresentation of the facts. Consequently, data literacy should be considered a life skill.

From our discussions with the A103 course participants, it seems that a little understanding can go a long way, and with the right guidance, we all have the ability to unlock the power of our data.

Data is everywhere, but how do we make sense of it?

Student results, performance metrics, budget spreadsheets – we come across sets of data at every corner of our working lives, and it often gets collected more frequently than we can actually make sense of it. When we are not as data literate as we might like, this can become overwhelming.

This is a really good course to change your perception, improve your skills and give you the confidence to deal with data.

“Without any academic background on statistical analysis, I was a little resistant to deal with data before,” says Yin Chang, Senior Manager at Cambridge International’s East Asia office.

“This is a really good course to change your perception, improve your skills and give you the confidence to deal with data … I can now tell myself data is not as horrible as it seems.”

Knowing how to effectively source, store and manage your data it is the first step in being able to properly utilise it. These simple preparatory stages will make everything more straightforward, and ensure you get the most accurate and impactful results.

Telling a story through data

Data story telling is about helping an audience develop a connection to the information presented. It is about visually representing the data in a way that makes it more tangible and easily digestible.

Learning how to do this effectively will not only help you tell your own story through data, but it will allow you to read and critically analyse the story presented in others’ data.

I thought I was data driven prior to this course but now I am even more keen on looking at the story that data tells with a more critical lens.

Penelope Bowers, Head of Prince Andrew School, St Helena, highlights the benefits of this, “The course has greatly enriched my understanding and interpretation of the use of data in my life and work."

“I feel I can look at data from another point of view and carefully peruse it rather than just believing the story it appears to be telling.”

Arthur Semwogerere, who works as an Examiner for OCR, adds, “I thought I was data driven prior to this course but now I am even more keen on looking at the story that data tells with a more critical lens.”

Presentation of data

There are many different approaches to presenting data and statistical analyses and how you present them can make a big difference. If you are not communicating it clearly to the audience then it’s easy for them to lose interest or misunderstand.  

As someone who is an end user of reports, this course has helped me understand how data is presented in statistical reports and the pros and cons of each type.

Abanti Mukhopadhyay, an Assessment Specialist for Cambridge Assessment, commented, “The course made me more alert to how to present data to engage the audience. A clear and concise presentation needs different tools, different approaches. It helped me to understand the narrative and the techniques.”

Mark Barber, Head of International Business Development, CEM, echoed these sentiments, “As someone who is an end user of reports, this course has helped me understand how data is presented in statistical reports and the pros and cons of each type. (I’ve learnt that) how statistics are reported can alter the meaning.”

Becoming a data sceptic

Being data literate is as much about presenting and utilising your own data as it is about understanding other people’s data and being able to determine whether the interpretation presented is supported.

It is important to take time to explore the data first, as the ‘story’ it is telling may not be as obvious as first believed

Penelope Bowers describes one of the most important lessons she will take away from this course, “It is important to take time to explore the data first, as the ‘story’ it is telling may not be as obvious as first believed.”

Thinking about whether the questions posed can really be answered by the data is something that many of the course participants felt was an important take-away from the course.

“I learnt how to be a sceptic …. when some potential customer or business associate is trying to submerge me with data, I can see that they may not be able to support their statement at all,” says Yin Chang.

Putting it into practice 

Not only does A103 cover how to understand, present and critically analyse data, it also offers practical advice on day-to-day data management tools, including Excel. 

It is very easy to be biased if it is your own research and show only what you think is relevant or proved. Questioning the work every step of the way is a skill I have gained

“Thanks to this course I am now able to make Pivot tables, Vlookup and other formulas to make my work more effective,” noted Jamie Jin, Senior Manager, Cambridge International.

The course is a great starting point in getting to understand and interpret data, and importantly developing a critical eye. 

As Lilia Costa, Digital Products Coordinator, Cambridge English, said, “It has given me the understanding that I have a lot more to learn and shown me how important it is to be objective ... It is very easy to be biased if it is your own research and show only what you think is relevant or proved. Questioning the work every step of the way is a skill I have gained.” 

Mark Barber added, “This (course) has helped me critically analyse better and become more objective when presented with a report. Basic understanding of data is vital in this respect.”

As Yin Chang puts it, “Comfortably working with data is so important in everybody’s work.”

A103: Introducing Data Literacy is one of four online courses offered by Cambridge Assessment Network. The course will run again from the 14 September 2020, to find out more please visit the course page.

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Saul Nasse Blogger
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Tim Oates

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