Spotlight: Tracing Students in the APA/NIGMS Scholars Program: A Model Using Microsoft Access
by Rosemary Veniegas, PhD; Beth Argus, PhD; and Hector Myers, PhD
How do we know that our efforts to mentor and support students have been successful? Tracking the achievements and monitoring the progress of students who have completed our research mentorship programs are essential to answering this question. Here at UCLA, we use the Microsoft Access© Database program to maintain records and to prepare summary reports on our students. UCLA offers beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes on this database. We have a separate database for each of the research mentorship programs in the department. We have begun collecting information on our APA/NIGMS Scholars Program participants, and we will be comparing their educational trajectory to that of students who have completed the psychology major in the department. Using data from the registrar's office, responses from psychology majors' exit interviews upon graduation, and data from our own students, we will be able to estimate the effectiveness of this program in promoting students' pursuit of advanced biobehavioral training.
Microsoft Access© works like Microsoft Excel©, but is more powerful because it allows you to store all of your information on students in one large database (versus several different sheets of data in Microsoft Excel©). For example, you can store all of the information from your program applications in a Microsoft Access© database. Users can then select the data fields they would like to print in summary reports. For example, if you would like only a list of the names and mailing addresses for students in the fall 1998 term of the program, you can obtain this information in a matter of seconds. In comparison, for Microsoft Excel©, for the same information, you would have to enter the data in a specific format. Microsoft Access© can also be linked to on-line/Web-based applications. Data from a Web-based application form can be directly uploaded into an Access database, eliminating the need for data entry. Like Microsoft Excel©, Microsoft Access© is also able to calculate formulas (average GPA, number of students in the program each year, average age).
Some general issues to keep in mind when designing a database (regardless of the software) follow.
(1) Being able to maintain contact with students over several years.
We have found that students sometimes did not include permanent mailing addresses or names of people who would always know where they are. Asking for social security information, driver's license information, or parents' addresses might allow users to track students more effectively after the students graduate.
(2) Limiting access to the database.
Given the kinds of information we request on our application, we are concerned about confidentiality and privacy of the information from our database. We shred all printouts that we do not use in reports and limit access to the database to only the coordinators and the graduate student assistant. Creating a password to access the database is also a useful strategy.
(3) Categorizing data that are collected.
Depending on what your reporting objectives are, you should think carefully about how to categorize the information collected on students. For example, students who complete the program may take a year off before going to graduate school, work in a research setting, attend graduate school in psychology immediately, or go on to medical school. A general way of categorizing this information would be to list the first two items as "not having attended graduate school" and the last two as "having attended graduate school." Another way of grouping the information would be to classify the second and third items as "doing work related to biobehavioral research" and the first and fourth items as "doing work not related to biobehavioral research." Microsoft Access© will not do the categorization for you. You must define the categories for these very different student educational trajectories ahead of time (i.e., at the point of data entry) or create coding categories for existing data (after applications have been submitted).
(4) Developing criteria for meeting the objectives of the program that you have established.
Related to the above concern is the question of what constitutes a "successful outcome" of your program. This will and must vary for all programs. Collecting data on whether or not a student attended graduate school (Yes/No response) may be insufficient to estimate success. For this reason, we ask a variety of questions, such as, did the student plan to go to graduate school, what kind of graduate school did the student attend, what kind of degree is the student pursuing, what did the student find most valuable about the program, and what is the student currently doing. This way we can compare students' plans with their current status, we can examine the areas of study they have completed, and we can identify those components of our program that have helped students to succeed in multiple biobehavioral or psychological research careers.
(5) Training multiple users on the database.
Regardless of the database that your program uses, it is absolutely essential that several people be trained to use the database program. This is a safety net in the event that the person who primarily administers the database leaves the program.
We currently include the following information in our database for the UCLA APA/NIGMS Scholars Program: name, mailing address (local and permanent), phone number (local and permanent), gender, ethnicity, date of birth, year in school, year of graduation, major, GPA at time of application, GPA at graduation, research project title, research sponsor(s), areas of interest for graduate school, whether the student was planning to attend graduate school, whether or not the student did attend graduate school, what kind of graduate school the student attended, current status, date of last contact. Fields that we will be adding include citizenship status, California driver's license number, and e-mail address. Institutions thinking of using Microsoft Access© should carefully consider the types of data they need to collect.
Currently, we manually enter data collected from the paper version of the APA/NIGMS Scholars Program Application. We are examining the feasibility of an on-line application so that the information is automatically entered into the database from the on-line application. Our database includes information on all students who applied to the program. We are working with a representative at UCLA to gain access to data for all Psychology Department African American and Latina(o)/Chicana(o) students in an effort to compare the academic trajectory of program participants with their nonparticipating counterparts (as stated in Objective 1-D of the Strategic Plan). We will be sending out a survey on a yearly basis to keep track of student participants once they graduate. Students are asked to provide updated address information and information on their current status (i.e., have they applied or are they in graduate school, are they working, etc.).
Microsoft Access© is only one of several database programs available. We support the evaluation of multiple tracking strategies in order to identify the best software for each program. We also welcome learning more about the variety of tracking strategies being employed by APA/NIGMS programs around the nation.
If you would like more information about UCLA's APA/NIGMS tracking efforts or would like to share your own tracking strategies, please contact Beth Argus.