Day 2: The most valuable data tool in the world

Let’s get right to to the exciting punchline: A spreadsheet is the data analysis tool. These beautiful rows and columns were originally created by noted education investor and philanthropist Mitch Kapor in 1983. For over three decades, this tool has been the cornerstone of virtually every business in the world—and with good reason.

For one thing, they’re easy to learn. Spreadsheets make it simple to start small and add new skills as you need them over time. At their most basic level, spreadsheets are simply tables of numbers and text, like this:

Student IDLast NameFirst NameTest 1 ScoreTest 2 Score

Let’s take a look at how this table is organized, as its structure is one we’ll find useful in lots of cases. You can think about rows and columns as horizontal and vertical lists of data.

Each row contains a student record (except, of course, for the very first row, which contains column names):

Student IDLast NameFirst NameTest 1 ScoreTest 2 Score

Each column stores a specific piece of data for every student in the spreadsheet:

Student ID

We can group the columns in the table above into two categories:

  • Student identification
  • Student outcomes

Student identification includes intrinsic characteristics of the student, such as:

  • ID number
  • Name
  • Birthdate
  • Gender
  • Special education status
  • Socio-economic status

… to name a few.

Student outcomes can include any sort of student output, such as:

  • Attendance
  • Disciplinary referrals
  • Test scores
  • Test question responses
  • Exit tickets
  • Homework assignment grades
  • Quarterly transcript grades

Following this structure, we’ll be able to apply a variety of analyses to find interesting and important information about students. For now, let’s keep it simple and treat a spreadsheet as nothing more than a table of data.

Exercise: Get started with a spreadsheet

While there are quite a few spreadsheet software programs out there to choose from, we’d recommend you choose between these three:

We’re strongly partial to Google Spreadsheets for its automated backups, ease-of-use, and collaboration features… and did we mention it’s free? But all three of these tools can read and write Comma-Separated Values (CSV) and Excel Spreadsheet (XLSX) files, the most commonly shared formats. And while the screenshots we provide are based on Google Spreadsheets, all of these tools operate in very similar ways.

Installing spreadsheet software is beyond the scope of this lesson. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that on your own, ask a computer-savvy colleague or your friendly local IT department for help.

Once you have the software or a Google account set up, create a new spreadsheet. Now that you have a spreadsheet opened, let’s see how simple it is to navigate around it. Click a cell to select it, or you can use arrow keys to select adjacent cells. Start typing, and your keystrokes are recorded into the selected cell. Double-click a cell to edit it. You can use the formatting bar above the data area to draw borders, change colors, and change font attributes. Pretty easy, right?

If not, don’t despair. Here’s a video overview of creating and formatting a new Google spreadsheet:

Consider creating a similar spreadsheet containing your students and their data, and using that as the basis for future exercises. You could get a lot more out of the course if you do that!


  • I learned the basics of using a spreadsheet in five minutes today!
  • Spreadsheets are simply tables of data. You can learn the rest over time.
  • You have to store your data somewhere before you can tame it! Why not use a spreadsheet?

We think you’ll get a lot of mileage out of spreadsheets. The key is to realize how simple they are to start with, and grow your knowledge from there. Tomorrow, we’ll look at a couple ways to quickly summarize data and learn how to make your spreadsheet do the heavy lifting for you.

3 thoughts on “Day 2: The most valuable data tool in the world

  1. I already use self-created spreadsheets to track student progress. I also use them to track student response on specific performance standard. I use spreadsheets to show which concepts or standards had the most misses on assessements so that I can design effective groups for reteaching purposes. I use spread sheets for a host of things. The best thing about spreadsheets is that I can create a basic sheet and simply copy and paste then format to meet specific needs.

  2. I use either google docs or Excel to track, collect or separate data. Using a type of spreadsheet allows me to view the data or place the data in any order I want to look at it. As an assistant principal, data is the key driving component for change and spreadsheets is a tool I use to look at that data. Eduphoria is where our testing data is uploaded. Its uploaded in a spreadsheet format which allows me to download and share with pertinent personnel, PLC Teams, etc.

  3. I wrote a report last week and had a hard time creating a table for my data which made the report difficult to read. When I was able to display my data with a spreadsheet it the presentation was much better.

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