Surveys and Assessment

I’ll be talking a lot about Assessment here, but one thing I’d like to get off my chest at the outset is to state that assessment does not equal doing a survey.   I’m thinking of writing a song about it.  So many times when I’ve talked to faculty and staff members about determining whether they’re meeting their goals for student learning or for their administrative offices, the first thought is, “I guess we should do a survey!”  I understand the inclination, it’s natural – what better way to know how well you’re reaching your audience than to ask them!  But especially in the case of student learning outcomes, surveys generally only provide indirect measures, at best.  In the Venn diagram:

Venn diagram shows little overlap between Assessment and Surveys.


(Sorry, I’ve been especially amused by Venn diagrams ever since I heard comedian Eddie Izzard riffing on Venn…)

Surveys are great for a lot of things, and they can provide incredibly valuable information as a piece of the assessment puzzle, but they are often overused and, unfortunately, poorly used.  While it is sometimes possible for them to be carefully constructed to yield direct assessment (for example, if there are questions that provide evidence of the knowledge that was attempting to be conveyed – like a quiz), more often they are used to ask about satisfaction and self-reported learning.  If your goal was for students to be satisfied with your course, that’s fine.  But probably your goals had more to do with particular content areas and competencies.  To learn about the extent to which students have grasped these, you’d want more objective evidence than the student’s own gut reaction.  (That, too, may be useful to know, but it is not direct evidence.)

I would counsel people to use surveys minimally in assessment – and to get corroborating evidence before making changes based on survey results.

What can you do instead?  Stay tuned (or for a simple preview, see our webpage on “Alternatives“)…


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Robin Huntington Shores

Currently the Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Swarthmore College, Robin has worked in Institutional Research for over 20 years at a range of institutions.