Survey Practices

Survey Practices

Best Practices for Surveying at UVA

Institutional Research and Analytics conducts select institutional surveys of students and faculty and provides advice to units on effective survey practices.

Requests for access to student data for the purpose of conducting a survey need to be submitted electronically through the Office of the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer.

IRA works with Student Affairs to review and approve submissions related specifically to proposed survey research. IRA also coordinates with the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost on access to faculty contact information for the purpose of survey research, and on the administration of institutional faculty surveys.

For questions related to survey research, please contact Sarah Schultz Robinson

Ten Steps to Successful Surveys…

1. Ask Yourself: Do You Really Need to Conduct a Survey?

The information you want may already be available.

On behalf of the University, IRA regularly administers large surveys to students at various times throughout their academic career. The survey questionnaires and the results are available on the IRA Survey Data page for your review. Please consider whether this archived data may fit your needs.
A survey may not be the best technique to get the information you want. Especially if you are conducting exploratory research or wish to gather direct, in-depth information, then focus groups or structured interviews may be a better fit for your research questions.

2. Develop a Reasonable Timeline

Give yourself time – four to six months – to develop a quality questionnaire AND have your survey reviewed and approved by IRA and the VPCSAO (for students) or the Provost’s Office (for faculty).

Draft a survey that respondents can complete in 15 minutes or less.  Write survey instructions and the invitation to take the survey—be consistent and clear. Pilot test your survey on a small group from the population of interest before launching it more widely. This will help you to identify instructions or questions that are confusing or that don’t elicit good information.

You will also need to have your survey administration schedule reviewed by Student Affairs and IRA to make sure that there are no potential conflicts between your survey schedule and an existing survey schedule. This is an important step in minimizing respondent survey fatigue and helps all survey researchers increase response rates. When you are ready to request review and student contact information from Student Affairs. For requests that involve faculty, please contact IRA.

3. Define Your Research Questions

Process carefully what you are trying to measure. Vet your research questions with colleagues, advisors, relevant decision-makers, and other professionals in the field. Extensively review the literature on your topic so you know how other professionals have (or have not) framed their research questions. Write down your research questions and put them in a conspicuous place throughout your research process.

Before you begin your survey, develop a plan for analyzing the data and reporting the results. How will you use the data you collect? With whom will your results be shared? In what format will results be shared – as visual presentations, written or electronic reports?

4. Design Your Survey Instrument

The content of the survey stems directly from your research questions. Still, much care is needed to develop survey questions that will effectively and efficiently elicit the information you want. Ideas for specific survey questions can come from existing instruments, colleagues, members of the target population (collected via focus groups or interviews), and your own observations. It is important to balance adequate coverage of your research questions (comprehensiveness) with conciseness.

Surveys should begin with a statement that clearly explains:

  • The purpose of the survey
  • That participation in the survey is voluntary
  • That respondent can skip questions he/she would prefer not to answer
  • Whether responses provided will be treated as anonymous or confidential data
  • How information from the survey will be reported and used 

When composing survey questions, here are some general guidelines to bear in mind:

  • Survey methodologists specialize in the construction of survey questions and their response categories. Consider having someone with survey design expertise review your survey instrument.
  • Response categories should reflect a comprehensive array of choices, including “not applicable,” “don’t know,” and/or “other,” where appropriate
  • Limit the use of open-ended questions; as much as possible.
  • Short surveys generate more responses and minimize the imposition on the valuable resource of our students' time

Survey questions should not be “leading” or contain jargon or technical terms that may not be understood by all respondents. Pretest your survey instrument with a subset of your target population. This provides a critical test of the clarity, comprehensiveness, and length of your survey.

5. Review by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) May be Necessary

If your survey can be considered “research” it needs to be reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Research is defined by federal regulations as “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”

If you are unsure whether your study meets the requirements for review, please contact the IRB before completing and submitting a protocol form to the board,

6. Select the Sample

It is not necessary to survey an entire population to have valid, generalizable results. A random sample will do the job while minimizing costs—including the costs of survey fatigue. Texts on survey research design provide guidelines for setting sample sizes; sample size calculators are also available on the Internet. If your survey is not for research purposes (e.g., is a class project) you may have to accept a larger margin of error than is ideal (or suggested by sample size calculators) and use a smaller sample size.

IRA can provide your sample (that is, contact information for a random sample of students from your population of interest), but only after your survey has been approved by the appropriate office (see #2 above).

7. Consider Incentives

The literature on survey methodology suggests that incentives such as gift cards and personal electronic devices have a modest impact on increasing the response rate.  Financial incentives are not necessary, however; students may respond to a survey because they think the topic is important or the results will be put to good use. If incentives will be provided to students, coordination with the office of Student Financial Services is required.

Surveys that offer incentives to respondents must track respondent identities in some way so that “prizes” can be awarded. If identifying information (such as names, e-mail addresses, or student identification numbers) are kept with the survey responses and confidentiality is promised to respondents, the study needs some security protocol for keeping the data safe (see item 8).

8. Collecting Data: Data Security

Survey respondents need to be told if their responses will be anonymous, or kept confidential.

Anonymous data do not include names, addresses, student identification numbers, or any other personal information that would make it possible to associate a response with any given individual.

Data that are confidential contain information that may identify an individual respondent. There are significant advantages to collecting identifiers, including the ability to do pre and post studies through linked data files, and providing incentives. However, files containing individual identifiers must be stored with considerable attention to data security and access.

9. Analyzing and Reporting the Results

At a minimum, most reports of survey results provide a full set of frequencies (e.g., how many/what percentage of students answered “yes” to a question). Cross-tabulations of responses (e.g., how do men and women compare in their responses to a question) are also useful. For cross-tabulations especially, care must be taken to protect individuals’ privacy; as a general rule, do not report results for categories containing five or fewer respondents. Remember that how you publish survey results when related to research requires IRB approval.

10. Contact us If You Want Help

IRA is committed to promoting excellence in surveying at UVA and we will be happy to help you.

Some of the content of this page was developed by the Office of Institutional Research and Planning at Cornell University and is being used with permission.