By Teachers, For Teachers
At times it may be useful for you to conduct a survey of parties who can provide critical feedback for your school or classroom.
When making an important decision, collecting the experiences and impressions of stakeholders will help ensure that you possess an effective school data set that gives you a grander view of what you’re considering.
But there is an art to creating surveys. Here are a few key points to think through when conducting a school data survey of your own.
A survey will give you targeted feedback on select topics from a specific group of people you’re interested in learning from. It will give you information on the trends, averages, and overall perspectives of a group, equipping you with school data for making decisions and taking action.
Surveys prove to be valuable tools because they look at groups rather than at individuals. Individual perspectives are important, too; but when it comes to making a decision or taking action that affects a larger group, it’s helpful to know in general what that group is thinking. The perspectives of any one individual don’t necessarily reflect those of the group. Surveys are also helpful when the future decisions or actions affect those you’re surveying, since they allow people to have some ownership as to what that decision or action might be.
Surveys can be collected anonymously, which also means that surveys might give you more honest feedback than from instances where the individual knows their name is attached to their answers. Anonymous feedback helps the group without individuals feeling like they are singled out or targeted.
When questions are well crafted, biases on the part of the researcher (you) and the participants can be eliminated. Also, surveys can provide you with quick feedback, especially if you use online tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms. Ultimately, if you’re looking for the preferences, perspectives, or needs of a group, a survey might be a great tool to collect the information you want.
I made my first education-related surveys for my students at the end of the school year. I asked them to tell me about their experiences in class, what they liked the most and least, and how I could be better. Since then, I’ve made surveys for parents, and others for colleagues depending on my role and objective. Each time, surveys have provided crucial feedback that has helped guided my future actions.
Before you create your survey, you need to decide exactly what type of information you’re looking for. This will help you target your questions and determine the length of your survey.
Length: Speaking of length, remember that completing a survey takes time, and you want to respect the time of your respondents as much as possible. If you give you survey to students, you’re likely taking time away from class instruction. If you’re distributing it to colleagues, they’re busy folks and aren’t looking for something that’s going to take them serious amounts of time. Make sure that you consider how long it will take to complete your survey. Usually no more than 20 questions is a good ground rule.
Question Types: There are two main types of questions you can include – close-ended and open-ended questions. Close-ended questions give respondents yes/no, true/false, multiple choice, or Likert-scale answer choices. Open-ended questions provide a large blank space for respondents to write out their answers.
When creating your survey, consider which question types will provide you with the kind of information you’re most likely to need. If you’re looking for data points and a general consensus, then closed-ended questions can get the job done (they’re also faster to answer). If you’re looking for more precise, individualized answers, then open-ended questions will be better. Often, good surveys include a combination.
Likert-scale answer choices are very commonly used, as they allow participants to answer on a spectrum. Typically Likert-scale answers ask participants how much they agree or disagree with a certain statement, and offer “Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree” as choices. Some surveys include a neutral fifth option in the middle, or even expand the scale to include up to nine answers on the scale. Variations might be necessary depending on the type of questions you’re asking. I recently distributed a survey where my scale was “Very Often, Often …” etc.
Question Phrasing: The way we phrase questions is very important, since we want to eliminate bias and ensure that our students, colleagues, or whoever is taking our survey will provide the best information possible.
First go for clarity. Only ask one thing at a time, and avoid making questions unnecessarily lengthy or complicated. For example, don’t ask, “How helpful and organized were class notes?” This asks two things at once, and makes interpreting results difficult. Break this out into two different questions.
Also, remember that your respondents will likely complete the survey in your absence, so make sure that your survey is free of phrases or terms that would confuse participants. If there are terms that they might not know, define them for your users.
It can sometimes take trial and error to ensure that you phrase questions as effectively as possible. It might prove helpful to give draft versions of your survey to colleagues to invite their feedback or see how they perceive the meaning of certain question prompts.
Structure: When organizing your survey, try to group similar questions or topics together. This helps streamline the formatting and question types that participants see, making it less confusing. Often, open-ended questions appear at the end of surveys, too. Whatever your structure, try to make it as easy-to-understand as possible for your users, since they will likely complete the survey without you being there to explain demystify it.
Disclaimer and Info: Informal surveys in your classroom or building don’t require a disclaimer; however, it is important that participants know exactly what the survey is about, how their information will be used, and who will see the answers. Put this at the very beginning of the survey so that participants will see this before they engage with the questions.
Creating a survey is one thing; distributing it and collecting it back is quite another. Take a few of these ideas into consideration, too.
Ask permission if necessary: It might prove necessary to get permission from administration before distributing a survey to staff. This way administration is aware of the survey and approves your collection of information, and they don’t feel circumvented. You probably don’t need permission if you’re informally collecting information from your students. But be mindful of the context and get the blessing of those in charge.
Electronic or Paper?: Another question is how you want to distribute the survey. If you take the electronic route, then you can e-mail links to individuals, and your survey results are compiled and stored electronically. Using paper means distributing surveys to individuals one-by-one, and having to personally compile the results. Paper copies can easily be lost or destroyed as well, making the process frustrating. Still, paper copies allow for more personal interactions instead of asynchronous electronic interactions.
Personally Reach Out: If you ask a large group of people to complete a survey, your actual response rate (the number of people who complete it for you) will vary. Some will do it right away, some will ignore it, some will “Get to it later” but forget, and so on. If you want to collect the maximize number of surveys, then you might be best off when you personally invite people by name on an individual basis to complete it for you. You can do this in person or even by sending a personal e-mail. The more singled-out a participant feels, the more likely they are to complete it for you.
Make It Easy: The easier you make the completion and collection process, the more likely you are to get a good set of results. Asking a reasonable number of questions is a start; but making it easy to navigate and submit goes a long way too. If your survey is electronic, then it is submitted automatically for you. If you have paper copies, include instructions for submission directly on the survey, and make your bin/box/tray for collection clearly labeled. They’re doing you the favor, after all.
So you’ve created and collected your surveys – well done! Now the important part: action. Surveys are great data-collection tools for identifying the trends in a group’s perspective or experience. But surveys must lead to decisions and action.
Once you collect surveys, compile the results into a format you can use. For example, if you’re looking for how many people answers “Yes” to question #7, then count the total, tally the percentage, and mark it down. You’re now armed with information you can act with.
If you’re giving an end-of-the-year survey to your students, then your actions won’t be targeted toward those students. Your survey results are feedback for you to apply the next year. As I tell my students, “Tell me what I did that worked, and don’t make future students suffer through what didn’t!” When distributing a survey to colleagues, it’s helpful for them to know what the purpose is, and once future actions are taken I point out how their survey responses contributed to that decision.
Since surveys equip you with information, it’s essential to utilize that information to better improve our practices. Whether we’re looking for self-reflective material to improve our teaching, or looking for feedback for implementing the next school initiative, making sure to solicit others’ input so that you can move forward with the best information possible.
How do you use surveys in your school setting? Tell us your thoughts and techniques in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.