Is now a good time? Surveying higher ed students in a pandemic

by | May 8, 2020

Cross-posted from Leadership Thoughts, a blog of the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership. View the original post here.


By Scott D. Crawford

One of the most common questions I am fielding today—with COVID-19 spreading across the nation, is now a good time to conduct surveys? Is the pandemic having an impact on response rates?

As one of my favorite grad school professors, Mick Couper, loved to say, “It depends.”

Whether one engages in a survey right now will depend on their current status. This may not be a good time to survey emergency department staff. Professionals who are engaged in conducting online surveys may also have their hands full of work (from home) and may not have much extra time to spare. But if you are surveying the general population, with exploding rates of unemployment, you may have better luck. Students in higher education have been ripped from their regular social routines and disconnected from others. They may welcome an opportunity to share their experiences.

The Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership was actively collecting data for a handful of schools when the pandemic broke out, and while the evidence is anecdotal, there does seem to have been a lockdown bump in response among undergraduate students.

In other efforts, SoundRocket (the MSL data collection partner where I work) has seen tremendous cooperation to other interview requests. These include web-based surveys as well as live televideo interviews (LTIs) conducted over video conference platforms like Zoom. In general, people have time on their hands and they welcome opportunities to engage with others in a positive way.

The survey industry is sharing what they are learning. I have included a few relevant articles that you may want to read on this topic.

But the real answer to the question about whether or not the coming months is a good time to survey students in higher education I answer with the return question—can you afford not to survey students in these challenging times?

  • In a time with limited contact with students can you afford not to have the deep insights a well-designed survey could bring you about their capacity to navigate this new world?

  • Can you maintain a competitive advantage in today’s environment without understanding how it is impacting your students?

  • Could a series of surveys help to reconnect your students and give them an opportunity to engage with the campus in new ways?

  • Could a survey give you and your students a small sense of normalcy that is lacking at the moment?

Survey professionals continue to survey and in higher education, there is growing evidence that students will engage.

So yes, you can survey during a pandemic.

The only question that remains is whether your student input is valuable enough for you today to help make decisions that could impact the future of your institution.


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Scott D. Crawford is the Founder and Chief Vision Officer at SoundRocket. He is also often found practicing being a husband, father, entrepreneur, forever-learner, survey methodologist, science writer & advocate, and podcast lover. While he doesn’t believe in reincarnation, he’s certain he was a Great Dane (of the canine type) in a previous life.