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What to Think About When You’re Surveying Students

What to Think About When You’re Surveying Students

By Pamela Jakwerth Drake, PhD & Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | September 22, 2016
Senior Research Scientist & Senior Editor, ETR

First published on the EdSurge blog on July 20, 2016.

Students hold a lot of useful information that you can use to find out all kinds of things. Assess school climate or student engagement. Identify teaching strategies kids like best. Measure health behaviors and attitudes. Learn more about student interests. If you can gather this information, it can help you make better decisions about students.


Do you want to find out whether students feel their teachers are doing a good job of teaching? Whether students feel safe at school? Would you like to know students’ level of engagement and sense of belonging at the school? Do you want to gain a better understanding of student health risk behaviors so you can focus your health education programming in an efficient way?


A survey may be your answer. 

Surveys are a great way to collect information from a lot of people in a fairly straightforward manner. They’re reasonably easy to develop. While there are plenty of online survey tools educators can use, effective surveys can also be done in pencil-and-paper formats.

So—should you plan a survey to gather some of that valuable information from your students?

Whether you’re a school-based educator or someone working with students in out-of-school settings, four questions will help you figure out whether a survey might be right for you.

1. What Are Your Purposes and Goals?

This is critical. Once you know what kind of information you want and how you plan to use it, it will be clear if surveys can get you there. The benefits of surveys are that they:

  • Simplify information from a lot of people
  • Are relatively inexpensive (both in costs and time)
  • Can capture a broad range of information
  • Provide results quickly
  • Offer privacy in responses

It’s important to understand, though, that surveys do not do as well as other methods (like interviews) at:

  • Addressing complex issues
  • Gathering in-depth responses
  • Providing opportunities for individual follow-up
  • Assuring that all respondents answer all items

Surveys are better at answering “what” questions than “why” questions.

2. Is a Survey Right in Your Situation?

If a survey can get you the information you want, you next need to ask if a survey should get you that information. There are some good reasons a survey may not be the best course. Here are some things to think about.

Consent: In the research world, conducting surveys with youth is challenging. Minors are a protected class, so parents must provide consent for participation in some studies. In our own survey projects, which often address sensitive issues, we use human subject review boards and generally obtain consent from both parents and students.

In educational settings, issues about parental consent are still a concern, especially if the survey asks personal questions. Guidelines vary by state. In addition to state regulations, it’s important to be aware of local laws or school and district policies that address student surveys.

Burden: How great a burden would your survey create? Students will be taking time from learning activities to complete the survey. In some communities, students are already spending a good deal of their time completing answer sheets for standardized tests. They may also be filling out surveys for research studies or federally funded school programs. Are they “surveyed out”?

Sometimes it will be easier, and less of a burden, to gather the information in less formal ways—a brown-bag chat or focus group, for example. It might be possible to gather the necessary information by surveying a limited sample of students. It may even turn out that the information has already been collected through previous surveys.

Community: It’s prudent to consider the content of the survey and how it might be perceived in the community or among staff. Are any of the questions sensitive in nature? Are these appropriate questions for educators to ask? Could there be any sort of controversy as a result of the survey? Are school or program administrators ready to back up the survey effort if challenges arise?

By thinking through these matters carefully, educators who move ahead with a survey will be prepared to deal with the most common obstacles related to consent, burden or community sensibilities.

3. What Does a Good Survey Look Like?

Best practices for student surveys are the same as for any other setting. These include:

  • Design the survey with clear goals and objectives in mind. The more thought you put into this, the more likely you are to collect useful information.
  • Use well-written items. Questions need to be appropriate to the topic and the age of the survey-takers. Wording must be clear and reflect the appropriate reading level. Items must be precise.
  • Pilot test early in the process to check on reliability and validity. Reliability refers to stability of results—would the same respondent answer the same way each time? Validity refers to the “truth” of the results—are you measuring what you really intend to measure? Revise after piloting and, if possible, pilot test again.

4. What’s the Best Tool to Use?

As for format, paper-and-pencil still works for surveys. It’s an inexpensive and ubiquitous format, familiar to all, easy to implement, without the need for specialized training. But there are many online programs for creating surveys available as well. Online programs, often free or low-cost, provide greater confidentiality for students. They also allow you to skip data entry and sometimes have good analysis and reporting programs built in.

SurveyMonkey, one of the most popular online survey tools, also offers a list of education, school and academic survey templates that you can use as is or adapt. Google Forms also offers educational survey templates, though their list is not extensive. Another source of items, if you’re considering surveying high school students on health-related issues is the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey, meticulously constructed by experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s even a student survey page on Pinterest, though the quality of the surveys there can’t be guaranteed.

There are also subscription-based companies that specialize in implementing school-based surveys. Most can tailor surveys to the specific purposes of a school or district. Panorama Education offers an open-source set of survey questions.

Remember…The most important questions to ask are (1) what is your purpose; and (2) is a survey right in this circumstance. Use due diligence on these two points, and the rest should follow fairly clearly.

Pamela Jakwerth Drake is Senior Research Scientist at ETR. You can reach her (and find out more about ETR’s evaluation services) at Marcia Quackenbush is ETR’s Senior Editor. She can be reached at

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