This article is online-only content from the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine.

Moving Theory to Practice: A How-To Guide

Eliza Moeller, A.M. '04, has become an expert at a task that few have mastered: making research results and complicated datasets informative, motivating and useful to practitioners in the field.

A researcher with the Consortium, Moeller also serves as the lead qualitiative researcher for the Network for College Success, working primarily on the College Counselors' Collaborative. A big part of her job is to help explain relevant research about what factors limit the college graduation odds for urban youth—and what strategies can maximize their chances.

"When the presentations work, we can help change the culture of a school. We show how hard work and tough classes can pay off in the end," she says. To do so, she's learned through trial and error what makes an impact.

Connect your information to what the audience cares about: "When I talk to students, to counselors, to school administrators, I don't go into, 'this finding is statistically significant,'" Moeller says. "They don't want to hear about that. They want to know exactly what our numbers mean for their students. That's what we focus on."

Build a community of learners: Moeller says members of the group are more receptive to the ideas than they once were, in part because the concepts are more familiar and in part because her audience has become comfortable with the source. "Over time, it's just natural to become less defensive and more ready to ask the tough questions," she says.

Use good graphics: One of the images that Moeller often uses to illustrate the importance of teaching about college choices to low-income high school students is a map of Chicago that shows where the college-educated people live. It makes it very clear that when a high school student is unlikely to know many neighbors or relatives who've gone to college, they're unlikely to have much information about how the process works.

Target the data to your specific audience whenever possible: The Network for College Success has a wide variety of types of schools, so what's important for one school might be largely irrelevant for another. When presenting to an audience from many schools, Moeller tries to ensure there will be something useful for everyone; when it's just for one school, she focuses on what their needs are.

Use case studies to make it real: Numbers only go so far in telling a story. Moeller uses case studies of students in the Potholes report who did or didn't get into college because of choices they made while in high school. "It drives home that this information has real implications," Moeller says. "People in the room think, 'I have 25 students right now at school who look just like that kid.'"