Sensemaker: A scalable student-centered approach to understanding student experience

Concurrent Session 10

Brief Abstract

This session explores distributed ethnography as a scalable, participatory approach to institutional research. We will describe our experience with Sensemaker, a novel instrument for distributed ethnography, and its application in QEP assessment.  Session participants will be able to participate in a Sensemaker analysis and explore applications for their contexts.


Laura Gogia, MD, PhD has extensive experience in connected learning, competency-based education, and digital pedagogical design for higher education and faculty development contexts. She is a design strategist at iDesign where she leads research and development in instructional and operational design. Her previous work includes practicing women's healthcare in rural, underresourced communities. Dr. Gogia earned her doctorate (PhD) in Education Research and Evaluation in 2016 and medical degree (MD) in 2002, both from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Annie Sadler is the Digital Learning Fellow at Davidson. A recent graduate of Davidson College, Annie works on variety of projects related to digital learning. She is responsible for the operations of all DavidsonX, Davidson Next, and Davidson Now courses. She loves the outdoors and working with grassroots movements.

Additional Authors

Kristen Eshleman is Director of Digital Innovation at Davidson College. She leads a campus-wide innovation initiative focused on the design and research of mission-aligned experimentation that reimagines a traditional liberal arts institution in the current context. As part of Technology & Innovation, this initiative intentionally pushes the envelope to adapt and respond strategically to rapid changes in the digital age. In partnership with the Cynefin Center for Applied Complexity at the University of Bangor, she is also pursuing research on institutions as complex adaptive systems and how these might be optimally structured to foster and account for emergence.

Extended Abstract

For years, higher education research has linked student persistence and success to engagement, involvement, or sense of belonging.  In other words, a complex network of intellectual, social, economic, and cultural factors impact student learning and performance. These factors are relational, emerging from how the student and the institution "fit" together. Without a good fit, the student will fail to identify with and commit to their college experience and are at risk for leaving the institution prematurely.

For these reasons, institutional researchers expend significant effort to capture and report on the student experience. However, the complex nature of "experience" can make comprehensive understanding and representation elusive.  Traditional ethnography might represent an ideal approach to the student experience, but it has its challenges. Ethnography is time and resource intensive.  It is not designed to drive institutional decision-making, nor is it participatory or community driven.

Sensemaker, developed by Cognitive Edge and informally described as a "distributed ethnography," offers a potential solution. The research approach invites participants to share a micro-narrative or -observation from their experience via a web portal.  Then participants are asked to interpret their story through a series of "signifiers," or reflective questions. When participants engage in these interpretive tasks, the resultant data are visualized through graphs which, in turn, can be statistically analyzed for patterns demonstrated through time. The data points remain tied to the original narratives at all times, supporting traditional approaches to achieving qualitative rigor such as member-checking, auditing, and triangulation.

In 2016, the Davidson College Digital Learning Research and Development Team (DLRD) developed and implemented a Sensemaker pilot study with the following research question. How can distributed ethnography – specifically the use of a Sensemaker instrument – be used to support a systems or structural approach to exploring, enhancing, and evaluating conditions of inclusivity at Davidson College? The study indicated that Sensemaker was a potentially viable, scalable, and participatory approach to exploring the complexities of the student experience.  

The purpose of this interactive session is to introduce Sensemaker as a participatory, mixed methods research methodology; compare Sensemaker to more traditional institutional research methods including surveys and focus groups; discuss lessons learned in design, implementation, and analysis from the pilot study; and provide participants with the opportunity to engage in Sensemaker inquiry and design.   

During the session, participants will:

  • Understand Sensemaker as a participatory research approach to the complex questions of higher education institutional research.

  • Engage in a Sensemaker survey to better understand the participant experience and self-analysis.

  • Interpret Sensemaker results based on previously collected data.

  • Consider and receive peer feedback on potential applications in their professional contexts.