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Student Surveys That Work

"People worry about doing too many surveys. If students see that you're making improvements based on what they're saying, they're willing to give you that feedback."

How to Ask Questions That Provide Meaningful Results

Educators and program administrators require direct learner feedback to adapt and improve their courses. But asking for this feedback can be a challenge. Learners have limited time and attention, so it’s essential to ask the right questions, communicate the value of giving feedback, and make it as easy as possible to complete.

Digital surveys are an excellent tool for assessment, but only if you know how to structure and distribute surveys that inspire high response rates and honest feedback. Unfortunately, there's been a decline in survey response rates over the last 20 years. So, what can educators and program operators do to encourage higher response rates?

Below are four best practices for effective student surveys:

1. Meet learners where they are. And maybe that’s on their phones.

In the age of remote education, adult learners have diverse experiences. Many juggle hybrid in-person and online courses or enroll in fully remote programs. Most have additional responsibilities beyond their academic goals like childcare and jobs. Schedules are no longer set as much of the coursework is asynchronous and self-paced.

In these circumstances, it’s important to allow learners to respond to surveys whenever and wherever they like by designing a survey that works for a mobile lifestyle. Preview your survey on a mobile screen to ensure that questions are readable and responses are simple to provide. Cluttered mobile layouts discourage respondents from reading carefully or, worse, they may abandon the survey altogether.

Check the following to ensure your mobile-optimized survey hits the mark:

  • Write short questions to keep screens readable.

  • Beware of “false bottoms” or screens that look complete but actually have additional information that is only visible when users scroll.

  • Ask simple questions to answer with a limited keypad, such as multiple choice and short answer questions.

2. Ask the right kinds of questions.

Determine what kind of data you need to understand specific learning challenges and ask questions that get to the point. A survey is not an interview. Open-ended questions require long-form answers and may turn respondents away from answering. Multiple choice and short answer questions are easier to answer. Design surveys that focus on a single course area and write questions providing quantifiable information about that topic. Long or overly complex survey questions are more likely to be skimmed than read carefully, which can skew the results. Concentrating on easy to answer questions about a limited topic list will boost response rates.

Follow these guidelines to write survey questions that encourage responses:

  • Write questions that focus on one topic per survey.

  • Use multiple-choice or short answer questions only to promote higher and more precise response rates.

  • As a final question, provide a text field to capture feedback from students who want to contribute longer form input but allow this field to be optional to encourage higher response rates overall.

3. Ask frequently.

You may be tempted to address student overwhelm by limiting the number of surveys you ask students to answer. Shorter surveys focused on narrow topics, asked regularly, will encourage better response rates than long, complicated surveys presented only once. Solicit feedback regularly to build the process into the course. Learners will come to expect frequent surveys, and response rates will rise. Frequent, smaller surveys also offer actionable insights for course improvements. Analyze the results to understand whether your changes create the desired impact. For example, has the needle moved on learner satisfaction from one survey to the next?

Instructors may require students to complete a survey before gaining access to tests or lessons. Alternatively, you could require surveys just like assignments, knowing that a 100% response rate will be unrealistic. Either way, this method will raise response rates significantly, and higher response rates provide a more accurate picture of how your course is going.

Consider these options for incorporating frequent surveys into the course without overwhelming learners:

  • Communicate the benefits of survey response by letting learners know that course feedback will directly influence changes in the course.

  • Determine a regular cadence for surveys so that students begin to expect a survey after all major tests or at another regular interval.

  • Include surveys in course calendars to signal that surveys are an ordinary aspect of the course.

4. Follow-up on feedback.

The best incentive for providing regular feedback will be your new ability to adjust the course in ways that positively impact students. When learners experience better outcomes based on evidence-backed adjustments to your course, they will understand the direct benefit of responding to survey questions thoughtfully. EdTech expert Phil Hill recently commented, "People worry about doing too many surveys. If students see that you're making improvements based on what they're saying, they're willing to give you that feedback."

Convey the value of providing candid feedback by being explicit when you have made changes based on their responses

  • Forecast examples of possible course adjustments for learners to help them understand how instructors will use their input.

  • Set realistic expectations by explicitly acknowledging when feedback will not be used. But be clear about why.

  • Draw attention to survey-inspired changes by sharing the changes as soon as they go into effect.

Actionable insights can be challenging to uncover in most modern learning environments. Limits on time, physical proximity, and relationship-building opportunities create barriers to collecting the data we need. At the end of the day, students want an outlet to share, but they need to feel confident that their time and voice are valued. We hope these tips and best practices for excellent surveys will enhance the value of your survey responses.


If you enjoyed this post and are actively building online education programs or supporting adult learners, consider applying to the Learner Success Guild.


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