Smart Survey Design


By Sarah Enterline

With the modern era’s increasing focus on data collection, it becomes easier to lose sight of the purpose of your surveying efforts. Like other large, complex institutions, many school districts fail to consider what they hope to gain from the information they gather, falsely believing that simply conducting a survey is sufficient.

And this is why many school districts suffer from DRIP — data-rich, information-poor. They’ve run too many surveys without knowing what information they want to collect, without including key people in the process, without using reliable means and without considering costs.

Smart surveying is not just about the act of deploying a survey and gathering information. It’s about the entire process. It means deploying a survey with clarity and purpose.

Failure to adhere to the principles of smart surveying can lead to negative consequences for school districts, specifically diminished trust and decreased stakeholder engagement. The principles of smart survey design will ensure that your surveys facilitate important conversations that yield actionable results.

Smart Survey Design Requires Expertise

Survey design is a complex process requiring a team of expert researchers, analysts, communications professionals and product specialists to help districts evaluate data, determine actionable results and, most importantly, close the loop by communicating next steps.

Smart Survey Design Must Be Cost Effective

The media is quick to jump on the latest story about how public education is “wasting” valuable taxpayer monies — be it through salaries, testing programs, professional development and, yes, even surveying. While it’s crucial and commendable that district administrators understand that surveying requires communication and research expertise — expertise which may not exist within the district — they must always be mindful of survey costs and ensure that every survey has a purpose.

Smart Survey Design Involves Essential Constituencies

By now, we’re all well-practiced in the “No, thanks — please take me off your calling list,” response to telemarketers, fundraisers or political campaigns. But we may also take this stance when called by a pollster or surveyor. Because while the information we provide might be used to improve our favorite products or inform the view of an organization or politician we support, none of that matters if we don’t know how the data will be used.

Including members of the target participant group is an essential part of smart survey design. These constituencies can help create questions, specify essential demographic information and set the survey’s tone, all of which increase the chance that the intended participants will respond honestly and candidly. By involving them upfront, these people are invested, understand what information is needed to make important decisions or changes, and, most importantly, are prepared to respond when they receive an invitation.

Smart Survey Design Asks for Open Feedback

Whether through surveys, forums or focus groups, providing respondents with an opportunity to give open-ended feedback demonstrates that you value their input.

Smart Survey Design Circumvents Language Barriers

There’s no easier way to send a message of exclusivity than failing to promote a survey in the primary language of your community members. On the other hand, knowing the demographic information of the participant group — and providing different language options accordingly — will ensure widespread participation and constituent support.

Smart Survey Design Respects Participant Rights

Your survey participants have legal rights that must be respected, starting with informed consent.You must provide enough information so that potential respondents can decide whether or not they even want to participate.

Beyond the right to informed consent, participants should also be assured of whether or not their survey responses will be identifiable. In my work with parents, teachers, administrators and even doctoral level graduate students, I’ve found that most people don’t understand the difference between confidentiality and anonymity.

While a school district cannot be expected to educate all community members on the difference, they should be expected to direct questions about this towards someone who’ll provide a clear response. It’s inappropriate to presume that teachers will be able to explain this concept to their students.

If participants are required to submit identifiable information, whether through an identification number or an email address, the survey results should be confidential, which means that the administrator neither discloses who has or has not responded, nor reports findings that would identify a single participant. In other words, if identifiable information is attached to the survey, it’s not anonymous.

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