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The art of survey design: 5 principles for creating your next school survey

Teachers have a discussion about the contents of a binder

Designing a survey is an art. Thankfully, it’s an art that can be learned. 

People often focus on getting the survey distributed, and they don’t spend enough time strategically thinking about survey design. 

Taking a thoughtful approach to how you design your survey — including what questions you ask and how you phrase them — can help ensure you collect meaningful data that can help you make decisions in the best interest of your school community. 

As you craft your next school or district survey, here are five principles to keep in mind:

1. Determine the survey’s purpose

Designing a survey is a lot like lesson planning: You want to start with the end in mind. Who do you hope to hear from? What data do you need to inform your decision-making? Where might you need open-ended feedback or qualitative data in addition to quantitative? 

Knowing your research goals will help you select relevant surveys, dimensions, and questions to garner meaningful — and useful — results. 

2. Keep the environmental impact in mind

Survey design (not to mention analysis) cannot be effectively done in a bubble. When asking your community for input or analyzing what they have shared, you need to keep the current climate and culture in mind — at a local, state, regional, and even national level.

The current pandemic is a prime example. COVID-19 is impacting families, teachers, and staff — including the way they live, learn, and work. Any survey you run during this time should be cognizant of the times and what your stakeholders are going through. It doesn’t mean you can’t run your usual annual surveys, but it might mean you consider adding some new relevant dimensions — such as feedback on distance learning, crisis management, access to technology, or social and emotional needs. 

4 practical strategies for administering school and district surveys during a pandemic

You need to consider context when it comes time to analyze your survey results as well. For example, what teachers and staff say about present professional development needs or what families say about safety will be heavily influenced by the pandemic. That’s okay — great even — because it allows you to understand and respond to the current needs of your community. 

3. Align questions and answer scales 

Be intentional in how you ask your questions and the answer options you provide. This means ensuring consistent formatting and answer scales. Similar question types, especially within dimensions, should use the same type of likert scale, such as “strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, and strongly disagree.” 

Survey scale

When possible, align survey questions and answer scales across the various stakeholder surveys. A notable exception might be if you are surveying younger students, like grades 3-5, where simplified questions and answer scales may be necessary. 

Ensuring question and answer scale consistency within and across surveys helps eliminate potential confusion, supports data validity, and helps identify perception gaps across stakeholder groups. 

4. Determine disaggregations 

Before administering your survey, think through how you might want to segment and drill down on findings. Take a critical look at the demographic questions you’re asking, such as race and ethnicity, school site and grade, and work location. You might also consider adding a question around participants’ learning/working environment (in-person, virtual, or hybrid) as that can have an additional impact on stakeholder perceptions and needs. 

Collecting this information will provide an important and relevant lens for drilling down on and understanding survey results — including participation gaps by stakeholder groups, which can tell you where you need to employ alternate research methods like focus groups or listening sessions. 

5. Ensure an equitable survey experience 

Creating a survey your entire community can easily access and comprehend is crucial. 

Take a close look at how you administer your survey. Can stakeholders participate via smartphone, tablet, or computer? Do you provide paper copies for those who may not have reliable internet access or prefer it? If your survey is long, are you providing a “save and continue” option so it’s easy to return to and complete the survey later?

You should also consider potential language barriers. If pockets of your community are non-native English speakers, you should translate your survey into languages your stakeholders are more comfortable with. If this is not prioritized, you risk alienating portions of your community and collecting data that isn’t necessarily reflective of the larger community’s needs. 

By meeting stakeholders where they are, you can ensure higher response rates and feel confident that what you’re hearing is a true reflection of your community’s needs. 

Want to learn more about how to implement these survey design principles or about how K12 Insight can support your school or district’s research needs? Request a free, no-obligation consultation. 

About the Author

Jennifer Coisson, Ph.D.
Dr. Jennifer Coisson has extensive experience in education research, including college and career readiness; diversity, equity, and inclusion; employee engagement; school quality; student engagement; strategic planning; and superintendent searches. Dr. Coisson earned a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Florida Atlantic University. She also has a master's degree Counselor Education and a bachelor's degree in Communication, as well as a graduate certificate in Student Affairs and a certification in Appreciative Advising.

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