Survey tools and resources
The tools and information on this website were developed to help individuals and units at VCU successfully administer surveys while better coordinating their efforts to improve the quality and quantity of responses, minimize duplication of effort, and optimize the use and sharing of results. Please review the resource links (right) and "Ten Steps For Successful Surveys" below, then complete the Survey Support Checklist before requesting survey support.
Ten steps for successful surveys
For researchers thinking about running a survey utilizing IRDS support, please consult the following list of steps. Before you can begin collecting any data with IRDS, you will be expected to have taken these issues into consideration. If you have any questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The information you want may already be available.
On behalf of the University, the Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support (IRDS) regularly administers large surveys to students at various times throughout their academic career. More information about these surveys is available through:
- Institutional Survey Reports
- VCU Survey Inventory
- IRDS Data Portal (Request authorization via Dashboard Access Request Form)
Please visit these links and consider whether the available archived data may fit your needs. If you have questions about how available data can address your research objectives, please contact Connie Peyton (email@example.com).
You may also want to consider alternative methodologies for collecting relevant data such as focus groups and face-to-face interviews. These approaches have important advantages and may be a better choice than a survey if you are exploring a topic about which relatively little is known (in which case, it would be difficult to develop appropriate survey questions) and/or you would like to elicit candid, in-depth information.
To learn more about the scope and capabilities of survey research, check out the IRDS Survey Guidebook.
While this may seem too obvious a step to mention, it is a critical part of the research process. Before starting any project, you should take the time to clearly describe your:
- Research Question(s): what are you trying to learn about a specific population(s)?
- Variables: what do you need to know about your population to answer these questions?
- Measures: what items/questions will you ask participants to measure these variables?
A single study can have multiple research questions, multiple variables to help answer those research questions, and multiple measures to accurately assess each variable. Ideas for specific survey items/questions can come from existing instruments, colleagues, members of the target population (collected via focus groups or interviews), and your own observations. The Survey Guidebook document provides useful information and advice for developing and conducting surveys.
It is important to balance adequate coverage of your research questions (comprehensiveness) with conciseness. A greater number of measures and/or items can deter participants from fully and accurately completing your survey. Avoid the temptation to include questions that may provide interesting but not particularly useful results. Also, consider whether some of the data you want is available through other sources such as institutional files (see #1 above).
When developing your research questions, you should also be able to clearly communicate how this survey will serve either (1) an institutional strategic goal or initiative or (2) a clear functional assessment need. This includes being able to describe how your survey will be used and by whom. We recommend visiting VCU’s Strategic Research Priorities Plan website for more insight.
Once you have determined your objective(s), variables, and measures, you can begin to construct the survey instrument you will eventually send out to participants. VCU supports the use of three survey tools, REDCap, QuestionPro and Google Forms. You can choose which tool is most appropriate for your survey using the following table. For more information about these tools, visit VCU Technology Services Survey Tools website. If your survey is being administered by an external vendor/consultant, please submit a Service Desk ticket with the vendor/sender allowlist information to notify Collaboration Services and assure email messages arrive in inboxes as expected.
|Confidential & sensitive data
|Built-in analytics (stats)
|Google account required
Regardless of what tool you choose to use, you should begin your survey with an informed consent that explains:
- Purpose: Why are you asking participants to give information about themselves, and how will you use their responses?
- Voluntary Nature: Participants should be aware that their participation is voluntary–that is, they will not experience any repercussions for not participating. Additionally, participants are free to skip any questions they do not wish to answer for any reason, and they have the right to stop participating at any time without penalty (though they may not be eligible for compensation).
- Anonymity/Confidentiality: Will responses to the survey be:
- anonymous (the participant will not give identifying information), or
- confidential (the participant may give identifiable information, but only primary researchers will have access to this information)?
- For more information, see below regarding participant information protection
- Contact information: Who should participants contact if they have questions or issues with the survey? This should include your information, as well as information for IRDS (firstname.lastname@example.org) and, if applicable, VCU IRB (email@example.com)
- Other useful information, such as estimated survey length and compensation (see below)
As you enter the rest of your survey into your selected tool, be sure to review the IRDS Survey Guidelines document for useful information, advice, and best practices for developing and organizing survey questions. We recommend you draft a survey that respondents can complete in 15 minutes or less, as well as write survey instructions and the invitation to take the survey—be consistent and clear.
If possible, 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. Although IRDS staff can assist while reviewing your survey, more thought up front will save time and generate more useful survey responses.
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 plan to publish your results or present them beyond VCU, you will need to contact the VCU Human Research Protection Program/Institutional Review Board for review. Their website has more information about how to submit your survey for IRB approval. You should make sure to give yourself adequate time to complete any training, await review feedback, and submit any requested revisions.
If you are unsure whether your study meets the requirements for review, please contact the IRB (firstname.lastname@example.org) before completing and submitting a protocol form to the Institutional Review Board.
As part of research development, you should have an idea of what population you are trying to learn about. This generally can include Undergraduates, Graduate Students, First-Year Students, Transfer Students, Alumni, Faculty, and/or Staff. You can also specify other specific populations of interest. Note that you may need specific unit approval in order to survey some populations. Depending on the nature of the survey, you may need the approval of the department chair, Dean, Vice Provost, Vice President, or President. It is the responsibility of the researcher/administrator to seek the necessary approvals.
Once you know your population, it is not necessary to survey everyone in that category in order to have valid, generalizable results. A random sample will do the job while minimizing costs—including the costs of survey fatigue. You should choose a reasonable number of responses you are hoping to collect. If you need help determining an appropriate sample size for your project, please contact Connie Peyton (email@example.com) for assistance. The IRDS Survey Guidebook provides guidelines for setting sample sizes; sample size calculators are also available on the Internet. If your survey is not for research purposes (i.e., 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. Again, this helps to control widespread survey fatigue.
Based on your sample requirements, IRDS can provide your sample (that is, contact information for a random sample from your population of interest), but only after your survey has been approved. When requesting a list of student names for a survey, contact the Records and Registration office to ensure the information you are requesting or sharing with a vendor complies with FERPA.
We all live busy lives, and potential survey participants are no different. Taking the time and mental energy to complete your survey may feel like not much of an ask from your point-of-view, but your sample may feel different. For a survey to be successful, researchers must attract potential participants in ways that ethically surpass any perceived inconvenience.
Often, researchers will attempt to attract participants by offering some form of compensation for their expended time and effort. For example, survey researchers commonly offer a chance to be entered into a raffle drawing for prizes, such as gift cards and personal electronic devices. The literature on survey methodology suggests that these kinds of incentives have a modest impact, increasing the response rate slightly. Financial incentives are not necessary, however; participants may respond to a survey because they think the topic is important or the results will be put to good use. Thus, you should carefully consider both the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations people have for participating in your study.
If you chose to offer incentives, you 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 below).
Survey respondents need to be told whether their responses will be (1) anonymous or (2) 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.
- Confidential data contain information that may identify an individual respondent. However, no one should have access to this information–or the ability to connect the information to specific responses–except for the primary researcher(s). There are significant advantages to collecting identifiers, including the ability to do “pre and post” studies through linked data files or providing incentives to participation. However, files containing individual identifiers must be stored with considerable attention to data security and access.
Note, even seemingly non-identifiable information can be used to identify someone when provided information can be used to triangulate an individual if the constellation of their responses is relatively unique. For instance, examining results by age, race, and major may not seem identifiable, but these data can be problematic if there is only one person of that age and race within that specific major. This is an especially common occurrence for underrepresented minorities (URM), and has the potential to create research mistrust. Please consider carefully the necessity of every variable you collect, and only report findings where at least five individuals fall into a specific constellation of variable responses.
Once you have considered all of the elements of your research and constructed your survey instrument, you should decide on when you want to distribute your survey. The Office of Institutional Research and Decision Support administers multiple surveys throughout the year. Participants are less likely to complete your survey (or IRDS surveys for that matter) if they feel overwhelmed with the number of requests.
When planning surveys please review the VCU Survey Calendar to optimize response rates and to reduce survey fatigue. The VCU Survey Inventory provides detailed information about surveys that are planned or administered.
Once you are ready, you can register your survey on the University's Survey Calendar. This provides information that may be useful to other units conducting surveys on campus. Surveys with sample sizes greater than 500 students MUST be registered. Registration is not required for the following activities: course/faculty evaluations, class assignments, feedback from customers at the point-of-service, evaluations of events by participants, employee performance reviews, and employee exit surveys. (Note: Refer to Survey Tools for important information regarding the use of the approved tools and external vendors) Please click here to register a survey.
The IRDS Survey Guidebook contains information and advice on how to report survey 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 question #1?”). Cross-tabulations of responses (e.g., “how do men and women compare in their responses to question #1?”) across subsets of respondents 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 survey results cannot be presented or published beyond VCU without IRB approval (see above).