Surveys in Sixty Minutes

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Focusing on a popular tool in the HE researcher’s toolkit – the survey

Sian Lindsay, Lecturer in Learning Development

Ajmal Sultany, Research Assistant

Learning Development Centre, City University London

What we did in a nutshell

For one of the LDC’s monthly research and journal club meetings, we decided to present on what we have learnt from carrying out several surveys in our own research in the LDC. Survey design is a bit of a minefield for newer researchers and we have found the literature explaining ‘how to do surveys’ pretty mind-numbing to say the least! Some of the literature explaining survey design can also be unnecessarily complex. So we wanted to provide our participants with a condensed, simple and interesting journey through the world of surveys in Higher Education, in other words, surveys in sixty minutes!


We used Prezi to present with, combining this with diagrams made using PowerPoint, to create a “PowerPrezi” (a term coined by Ajmal) – please access our PowerPrezi here

In the beginning there was… Higher Education Research

We kicked off our presentation with a discussion about the field of Higher Education (HE) research; this led onto us saying how important the use of surveys are within this field. So what do we mean by HE research? Well:

  • It’s a relatively ‘new’ field, being defended as a “valid a field of intellectual inquiry as any specialised discipline” by Studies in Higher Education Editor-at-the-time Tony Becher in 1976
  • We discussed the field as having little or no ‘border control’, permitting access into it from a variety of other academic fields, using Bruce MacFarlane’s 2010 refugee/nomad/tourist/native analogy to describe who HE researchers today are

What are surveys?

We like Creswell’s 2009 definition of a survey as “a quantitative or numeric description of trends, attitudes or opinions of a population by studying a sample of that population”. Ajmal explained how surveys have evolved over time, with Charles Booth’s “Inquiry into Life and Labour in London (1886-1903)” providing an early example of social cartography, where using surveys each street in London was categorized to indicate the income and social class of the people living there

We described why we used surveys and described how effective survey design should follow a process of exploring the literature relevant to the research question first of all – this would not only help in question design, but would also allow you to discover whether similar surveys had been carried out around the topic you were researching – so avoiding reinvention of the wheel. We then discussed how survey design was also underpinned by theory, and finally how the questionnaire itself was at the heart of survey design.

It all boils down to three things

Toward the end of our presentation we focused on three key aspect of survey design:

1.       What are you going to ask? (the questionnaire) – we’ll talk more on this below

2.       Who are you going to ask? (survey sampling) – this is always tricky to explain, and in our session we still struggled. A great guidance on this can be found on the Qualtrics website, on their Sample Size, What’s the Deal? page

3.       How are you going to ask them? (different survey modes)

11 top tips for writing effective questionnaire questions

Here’s our 11 top tips for writing good questions for surveys, we based some of these using guidance from Cohen et al (2007) – please click on the image below to see a larger and more readable version of it:

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