What To Do With Data

Deidre Jefferies says that the ‘numbers’ were what first convinced her to try her hand in the world of luxury fashion and designer clothes. From her first sale, keeping track of those numbers has become a large part of her business. To do that, she uses spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel. Excel is an amazing information management tool, and is the go-to standard for data organization, presentation, and analysis across career fields and offices to this day. This essential data management software is what we’ll be exploring for the next two weeks.

Dealing with your data

We all have important information or data that we need to manage. From keeping track of household budgets, to calendars and work schedules, to creating a time management plan to help prioritize classwork and assignments, to putting together a quarterly report to impress your boss, learning and understanding Excel will help you manage this data more effectively. It will also help you begin to see the story in your data. When you line up your classwork in a spreadsheet along with your calendar, do you notice you have more time on a particular day than you thought? When you look at the numbers from your household budget neatly laid out in a chart, maybe you realize that if you spend a little less money on work lunches, you could upgrade to the new cell phone you’ve been looking at.

Data does tell a story, if you know how to organize it and understand it. That’s exactly what you’ll be learning about as you get familiar with Excel.

Come on – let’s explore the world of data!

When you are working with words and written information, Microsoft Word is an excellent solution. But what about when your data is a little different? What happens when you are dealing with numbers, dates, lists, and details that need to be sorted, organized, tracked, and even calculated? In that case, you’re not using your words to tell a story, it’s all about your data and the story you need it to tell. This is where Microsoft Excel does exactly what its name implies: it excels! Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to focus on learning spreadsheet software and Microsoft Excel in particular. We’ll learn what Microsoft Excel is, why it’s useful, and when to use it. Combined with some practice in Test Out, you will be able to work with Excel confidently to help you save time, make smarter decisions, save money, grow your business or career, plan efficiently, and so much more.

First, let’s discuss the next step in our problem solving process.

The problem-solving process

Steps 3 and 4: create a plan (continued) and try your plan

At this point, you’ve identified a potential solution to your problem. Now you need to figure out the steps that will be involved in your plan, and how to implement that solution. Each plan should have major steps and smaller sub-steps. Ask yourself: What tasks do I need to do? What information do I need? What information or actions or help do I need from others?

Many problems can’t be solved independently; we need other people to answer questions, or to provide us with information or services. Inputting data into spreadsheets can help us create project plans, organize timelines, compare and contrast information, and track progress.

Start thinking about next steps, and what information you need to keep track of. Perhaps you need a task list, with a column for people you need to contact to take those steps. Would a column to keep track of deadlines help? What about a time estimate for each major step and sub-step? You will also want to start listing the factors you will need for your plan that will cost money, like paying for labor, supplies, and equipment.

Remember that you don’t have to get it right the first time. The key is to just get started. Especially if you aren’t already comfortable in Excel, this is the perfect chance to try it out. You can always add, delete, or revise your workbook/sheet as you figure things out. Start mapping this information out in your workbook now, because it is needed for your next assignment, due next week.

Excel can help you work through many phases of the problem solving process. Let’s start by looking at the kind of work Excel does.

What is a spreadsheet?

spreadsheet is basically a digitized sheet of paper with special tools and features—like Microsoft Word—but organized into a grid of rows and columns. You can input large amounts of data into the grid in order to trackorganizeevaluate, and present the data in different ways. Data in a spreadsheet can be both manipulated and calculated. At first glance, spreadsheets can seem hard to read and even a little intimidating, but once you understand how they work and what they can communicate, you will see exactly how useful they can be.

Why use Microsoft Excel?

Excel spreadsheets can help you with a huge range of tasks in many aspects of your life. Here are just a few examples:

Business / entrepreneurs

Whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur, spreadsheets can help you in your business life. Entrepreneurs have to make informed decisions in order to succeed. Can you afford to hire more people? Should you invest in a marketing plan in three months or six? Which project will ultimately result in the biggest profit? In order to make smart decisions, you need to be able to trackorganize, and evaluate data. Spreadsheet software like MS Excel can help you record and track the various factors involved in running a business, such as time, expenses (e.g. costs for supplies, marketing, sales, real estate, website, equipment), sales, inventory, and contact lists.


Making smart decisions is valuable in our personal lives as well. Ideally, we want quality goods and services for the least amount of money. We’ve already learned about the Web, a huge resource that makes doing research much easier—in some ways. But with so much information out there, it can be time-consuming to research, unwieldy to keep track of all the options, and therefore difficult to make decisions. Let’s say you have to make a decision about where to go for childcare, who to hire to fix a major home repair, where to go on vacation, or you just want a better system for tracking your family budget. Spreadsheets can help you record the essential data, and compare the various options (e.g. schools and daycares, contractor price quotes, travel destinations, flight costs, or everyday earnings versus expenses), so you can make an informed, data-based decision.


Mastering life’s logistics, or the ability to coordinate different tasks, schedules, people, and places, is invaluable when it comes to academic achievement, especially when school isn’t the only thing on your plate. Spreadsheets can help you organize your schedule, assignments, and to-do list, as well as provide tools to use on individual projects. For example, you could use an Excel spreadsheet to make a calendar to view due dates and schedule tasks, keep track of sources or interview subjects, and organize and categorize research for a research paper.

Working with Excel

Microsoft Excel is one of the most popular spreadsheet and data analysis software available. Since you’ve already spent two weeks working with Word, you’re starting off a few steps ahead with Excel.

First, notice that some parts of the Excel interface look familiar. As with Microsoft Word, we see tabs going across the top, and a ribbon with various tools. In the HOME tab, you once again see options for cut and paste, typeface, font style and size, alignment, and line spacing. These will operate essentially the same as they did in Word.

If you click around in Excel, you’ll see other familiar features that you can experiment with. You’ll also see some new features, and what these features do may be less obvious, because Excel is doing a little more behind the scenes. Before we get to those specifics, let’s define a few key terms. After you get acquainted with them, you’ll work with them in context to complete your next assignment, due in Week 8.

Note On Excel

When you enter text (letters, numbers, and symbols) into an active cell, you must hit the “return” key, the “tab” key, or an arrow key to complete the entry and move to another cell. If you hit “return,” the cell below the original cell will become the active cell. If you hit “tab,” the cell to the immediate right will become the active cell. If you hit an arrow key, the next cell in that direction will become the active cell.

Excel terminology

Workbook: an Excel file consisting of one or more worksheets.

Worksheet: an individual page in a workbook; it looks like a grid made up of rows and columns.

Tip: You can visualize several individual tangible worksheets making up a workbook to help you remember these terms.

A workbook can consist of one worksheet or several. You can add additional worksheets as needed with one click. Why would multiple worksheets within one file be necessary? Imagine you are working on a budget for the year. Within one workbook, you might want to have individual worksheets for each month of the year.

Charts: used to visually represent data; a very helpful tool in Excel to help you notice and understand trends or patterns in your data; can be embedded in a worksheet.

Chart sheet: a worksheet containing data represented in a visual way, e.g. a pie chart or a bar graph.

Cell: the location where a row and column intersect, and in which you can input one piece of data.

Cell reference: used to identify the specific location of one cell, consists of the column letter and the row number, e.g. A1 is the first cell located in the top left corner.

Cell range: a specified group of cells.

Active sheet: the sheet currently displayed and the sheet the user is working in.

Active cell: the selected cell and the cell the user is working in.

Name box: identifies the active cell.

Formulas: automated mathematical calculations (e.g. addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) that you can input. For example, if you had a column listing the prices of various products and wanted to calculate how much each item would cost including sales tax, you could enter a formula in Excel to multiply the product amount by the percentage of sales tax. Excel uses symbols to represent specific formulas and mathematical operations.

Formula bar: displays the formula being used in an active cell.

Functions: used to simplify formulas. For example, the “SUM” function can be used to add a range of numbers. You’ll learn more next week about the symbols used in Excel to represent functions.

Tables: tables in Excel are similar to tables in Word, but instead of data being in a fixed position, you have more options to organize, sort, filter, move, and categorize data.

Templates: pre-formatted, built-in worksheets in which you can replace the sample data with your own. There is a wide range of template categories, including: budgets, surveys, schedules, invoices, and fitness progress charts. Within each category, there are several template options.

Tip: If no appropriate template exists, and you create a new worksheet with a format you will need to use in several other worksheets, you can create a new template. You can then use the template as many times as you need without having to create the same worksheet over and over again.

Themes: options for customizing the design, look, and feel of worksheets; includes different options for colors, shading, borders, typeface, etc.

Alternatives To Excel

Just as Microsoft Word is not the only word processing application, Excel is not the only spreadsheet and data analysis application. We won’t dive into detail about the alternatives here, but we will make two points:

  1. It’s helpful to know the names and main features of the comparable applications:
    Microsoft (Excel), Apple (Numbers), Open Source Apache & LibreOffice (Calc), Google (Google Sheets)
  2. Keep in mind that these applications will have features and options that are very similar to Excel. Again, we want to reinforce that learning an application, such as Excel, is an investment that really pays off by giving you a head start towards learning other similar applications.


Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some of Excel’s features, including data entry best practices, formatting cells, and how to use formulas and functions.

Complete the week

Your next task is to go to the Apply section, where you will practice using Microsoft Excel in the TestOut environment, and begin preparing for your next assignment, due in Week 8. Answer your Reflect questions, and complete your discussion in the Share section. Be sure to check off each box on your TO-DO LIST when you’ve completed each section.