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End reliance on surveys

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: Opinions


They told us the Wabash survey was just an informal questionnaire, but it sure looked like an SAT exam. Thankfully, it only lasted one hour.

The Wabash survey was given to the incoming class of 2012 when we were first-years and then again last month with commencement on the horizon. Admittedly, my sole motivation for taking the Wabash was the chance of winning one of a number of valuable prizes, including a $400 gift card (full disclosure: I didn’t win). Seniors who took the questionnaire also received a $7.50 gift card to a local ice cream shop.

I’m certainly grateful for the ice cream. But, at the same time, I’m not convinced Brandeis will learn much from the responses I provided. The thinking behind the questions was to develop a profile of the accomplishments and perspectives of seniors who received a Brandeis education. But the questions were vague, broad and highly irrelevant, boiling important questions about alcohol and drug usage, personality traits, engagement with professors, and participation in student clubs to the one-to-five scale.

At Brandeis, students receive requests to respond to surveys almost on a weekly basis from academic services, the Hiatt Career Center and the Student Union. Surveys typically ask anywhere from 10 to 25 questions, ranging from name, class year and major to rating programs or services on the one-to-five scale to the usual, “feel free to add anything else.”

That’s a whole lot of data. But is the data useful?

From a statistical standpoint, probably not. The students who actually answer the survey aren’t necessarily representative of all students. Questions are often written by administrators who lack training in survey writing, which results in questions that are sometimes worded in a biased manner.

At the same time, students aren’t necessarily motivated to think carefully about questions, but merely to provide responses in order to be entered in a drawing to win a prize.

But the problems extend beyond the statistical. After the Student Union’s recent Pulse survey—a weeklong online questionnaire—we were promised that input would be used to improve student services. I reviewed responses to the survey, and what stood out was interesting information, but not necessarily actionable trends. The Union asked when students wanted the dining halls to be open. That one’s easy—24/7/365.

These surveys provide far too many data points, many of which yield meaningless numbers that don’t always tell the whole story.

Union leaders in particular are elected with a mandate, and that should be enough to bring about change. Endless surveys slow down the process and provide unnecessary information overload.

Administrators have more of a reason to use surveys, but they rely on them far too much because it is easy to do so. How can anyone hope to learn anything from bubbles darkened on a page? The real way to profile the graduating class isn’t to ask simplistic questions as part of the Wabash but to pay attention to students throughout their time at Brandeis, to engage them and meet them, to speak to professors and mentors who know students best, and to listen when students have concerns.

SurveyMonkey doesn’t bring about change. People do. These surveys could ask hundreds of questions in every possible way, but unless someone reads and acts on the answers, the surveys are useless.

At Brandeis, too many administrators and student leaders are relying on surveys to appear to be responsive to students rather than actually to be responsive. There are other ways. More students should be included in university committees and administrators should hold more regular forums to gather student input and open channels of communication with club leaders to be more connected to student activities on campus. They can also reach out to students, be present at events and really try to gather meaningful input before making decisions.

Sometimes it’s just easier to pay $7.50 for a survey than to expend time and energy in getting to know students. But that time and energy would be well spent.