An Introduction to R for Educators

Updated: Jul 18


Educators today know more about their schools and learners than ever before. The education profession is flooded with an insane volume of data that is ever changing and steadily flowing. The challenge for most educators is simple – what the heck are we supposed to do with all of this data!?!


Data analysis remains a challenge for most educators. We aren’t taught deep level data analysis in school – and depending on your major, you may not have even had to take a math class in college. I didn’t! I was grateful for that at the time, but as my career unfolded, I have learned that that was actually a huge problem because I didn’t have the skills necessary to do anything with the mountain of data available to me.


When I started to learn data analysis, I began with Microsoft Excel. It was accessible to me – provided by my employer for free – and there are TONS of website and videos dedicated to teaching the skills. I have even made some for my own website. I love Excel, but it has some problems that I just couldn’t seem to overcome.


First, Excel is slow. If I pull data for every student in a school district, I may be working with more than half a million data points. While Excel CAN handle it, it doesn’t handle it smoothly. Next, Excel involves many manual processes, where formulas must build off of one another. Finally, Excel doesn’t print nicely meaning I have to transfer information into a Word or PowerPoint document before I can share it with my peers. I needed a new solution. I turned to R.


R is a statistical programming language that makes large scale data analysis easy. It is open source, which means that it is free, and is used by a wide range of professionals from many data heavy fields. Since learning the basics of R, it has become my go-to tool for all education data analysis. Here is why I think R is a great tool for educators to use when analyzing data:


1. Its fast! When I have an Excel document with half a million data points, my poor government issued computer often struggles to open the document – let alone perform sophisticated analytic procedures. It is not uncommon for me to open a document before lunch in order to allow my computer enough time to open and populate the sheet. R makes working with these spreadsheets super easy because it doesn’t have to open Excel to access the data. It runs in the background and saves me a load of time.


2. Its free! Data analysis software is super expensive. When I was in graduate school, I paid out the nose for fancy software that doesn’t exist in the real world. I learned so many techniques that I simply cannot use because I cannot afford the professional version of the tools I was taught.


3. It is repeatable! When working with student and school level data, I often find myself performing repeated tasks. Maybe I want to analyze behavior traits in my building once a month. R allows me to write a single page of script that I can reuse over and over. All I have to do is refresh the data and click “run”.


I want to teach you to use R to conduct deeper analysis of your student data. I believe that if educators can learn to use data in new and creative ways, they will be empowered to make better and more creative decisions that lead to rapid changes to student performance. Are you ready to get started? The first step is to download the software.


Downloading R

As I mentioned earlier, R is a FREE software! It isn’t very pretty, but we will deal with that later. To download R you need to visit www.r-project.org. The directions are right on the home screen. Simply click “download R” to be taken to the CRAN Mirrors list.


What is a CRAN Mirror? CRAN stands for Comprehensive R Archive Network. Remember how I told you earlier that R is an open-sourced platform? CRAN Mirrors are all the various servers that support the use of R. In order to download R, you must select a CRAN Mirror. Which one? Well, it honestly doesn’t matter. It is suggested that you select an institution nearest to you. I live in Kentucky in the United States, so I use the CRAN Mirror hosted by the National Institute for Computational Sciences in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.


When you select your CRAN Mirror, you will be taken to a page that gives you options to download. R is available on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linus. Select your operating system to launch the download process. Simply follow the prompts to complete the download.


Making R Usable

The basic R platform isn’t super user friendly. When you open it, it looks like a hacker’s screen from your favorite TV show. That is why you need to download RStudio. To do this, jump straight to the downloads page. You will see that there are multiple versions of RStudio that do various things. Unless you are a serious data scientist, you will be well served by the basic Desktop package – which is FREE! If you decide that you love R and you want more tools, you can always upgrade to a fancy package later.


Just like before, all you have to do is click the download button, select your operating system, and follow the prompts to get going.


That’s it! You are ready to get started with R. The next thing you need to do is familiarize yourself with the RStudio platform and learn about packages. Once you have these basic skills under your belt, I will teach you some specific and targeted language to get you started using R for education related tasks. Let me know how it goes in the comments below!

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