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Alternatives to Surveys

It seems that surveys are often the first approach that people think of when they want to learn about the experiences of a group, or assess an activity. While it may be an excellent tool, it is not the only tool. Because we have such small populations at Swarthmore who may be asked to complete many surveys, we strongly encourage those considering a survey to think about other options.

In considering other options, remember to start with the most basic question: What is it that you want to know? Be creative about the many ways you could get this information without conducting a survey. This page suggests just a few ideas.

Focus groups, interviews, conversations — These face-to-face techniques can be structured to provide very useful information; they may also allow for probing and follow-up to capture nuances very difficult to learn with a traditional survey. These strategies may eliminate the need to conduct a survey, or may at least inform and hone the questions that need to be included on a survey. Be aware that focus groups and interviews are formal data collection techniques and conducting them properly will greatly increase their effectiveness.

Institutional data — Community members can draw on existing information available through the Institutional Effectiveness, Research & Assessment and other College offices about courses taken, athletics participation, changes of major, advanced degrees earned, etc .

Collect other (non-survey) data — Record performance indicators or other information, which might address your question or be compared against a goal. E.g., rather than asking students what their favorite foods are at the Dining Center, record the numbers visiting the various food areas for several periods of time. Rather than asking students if they are satisfied with how quickly transcript requests are processed, record the processing time for a period. Are the results acceptable? Rather than asking graduating seniors about their applications to graduate school, determine this information based on students' requests for letters of recommendation.

Alternative assessment techniques — Workshops and other instructional or service activities lend themselves particularly well to assessments beyond satisfaction surveys. Think about the outcomes you'd like to see, and then find creative ways to determine if they happen. (Be sure to check out our assessment page.) Some ideas are:

  • Embed an exercise near the end of a workshop that demonstrates learning of the key points. Participants' aggregate performance on the exercise will reflect the effectiveness of the workshop. This can also be done at key points in the presentation — participants may be asked to answer questions about the material presented. These should be brief and focused on the most important ideas. Even a simple show of hands (as long is it won't embarass the participants) will give the presenter immediate feedback about whether the information is getting across.
  • Find behaviors that link to the goals of the activity, and see if those behaviors differ for participants and non-participants, or before and after the activity. For example, do calls to the ITS help desk decrease after an awareness campaign about malware; are requests for residence hall room changes lower for students who participated in conflict-resolution training than for those who did not.
  • Determine the relative effectiveness of different formats for outreach or advertising by having participants indicate when they register, call, or sign in how they learned of the activity.