Using Surveys to Research Education

Social Surveys are probably the most practical method researchers can use to research education.

Both teachers and students will be relatively used to filling in questionnaires as part of providing feedback to improve lessons and school procedures, and they are relatively quick to complete compared to interviews, so they should cause relatively little disruption to the school day.

Practical Factors

Surveys are a good choice of method if you wish to collect data from large samples in a short space of time, and because students (when they’re in class) are a ‘captive audience’ this could make this a very time efficient method for researching in schools.

If a researcher can gain access and consent they could, with the co-operation of a head teacher, get hundreds of students to complete the same questionnaire in multiple class in one day, or on smaller scale, a researcher could work with a few teachers to get a slightly smaller sample.

If the researcher puts a survey online, management might give teachers more flexibility when they get their students to complete the survey – say in one tutorial session over a two-week period.

A closed-question questionnaire might be a good method for researching teachers, given their tie constraints.

Parents would be the most difficult group to research using the questionnaire method, as they spend less time in-school, so gaining access to them would be difficult, this would probably have to be done via the school, who could direct parents to questionnaires via newsletters, or may parents evenings could be used by the researcher to administer surveys.

Gaining access

Because surveys are relatively quick for respondents to complete and it’s obvious from the outset what questions are being asked (which wouldn’t be the case with interviews), then it should be easy to convince schools to gain access to students, teachers or parents, compared to more intensive qualitative methods.

Theoretical Factors – Representativeness, validity and reliability.

Representativeness

Schools have ready made lists of students, which would include details of their gender, ethnicity, FSM and SEN status, address (as a proxy of broader class status) and prior educational achievement.

IF a researcher could thus gain access to such a sampling frame, it would be very easy for them to get a representative sample of different students, or to select only one type of student (all boys for example), depending on the purpose of their research.

However, getting access to such a list with all of the above details may not be possible because of GDPR (data protection) issues, unless researchers work with school staff who select a representative sample on their behalf.

Response rate

Biased samples might mean a low response rate for some types of respondent

Questionnaire research might suffer from selection bias – pro-school pupils are much more likely to take them seriously, but more rebellious students who do not like authority might either not fill in a questionnaire or deliberately lie out of spite against the system.

Working-class parents might be less willing to fill in a questionnaire truthfully about their parenting practices, whereas for middle-class parents this would be more a positive affirmation of their ‘good parenting’

Non-native English speakers might not be able to understand the questions if the questionnaire is not in English. Although today there might well be programmes online that can translate online questionnaires.

Validity

Because questions are written in advance, this does not allow for an in-depth exploration of respondents’ thoughts and feelings, hence validity may be limited for some topics.

Researchers also must be careful that concepts (such as cultural capital) are operationalised in such a way that children (especially young children) can understand them.

As mentioned above, the formal nature of questionnaires may not yield valid data from rebellious students – and the more formal and more test-like the conditions of completing a questionnaire, the more likely this is to be the case.

Reliability and making comparisons

Questionnaires do allow for excellent reliability, which is useful if findings are to be used to inform educational policy – it allows the research to be scaled up and generalised to more areas easily.

This is also a good method for exploring differences between students from different social class, ethnic backgrounds, as well as gender differences, which is a huge topic in the sociology of education  

Ethical issues and questionnaires

A big strength of questionnaires is that it is easy to make them anonymous and so to keep pupil, teacher and parent data confidential, so they’re good for exploring sensitive topics.

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