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The survey is one of the most frequently used modes of research in the social sciences, as well as market research and political polling. A typical survey involves selecting a sample of respondents, usually individuals, who fill in a standardised “questionnaire”. The most prevalent use in educational context is the end of course student evaluation form. Indeed, due to its widespread use for evaluating modules or courses, there is a misconception that ‘evaluation’ equates to asking people to fill out a questionnaire. However, the data collected from the “sample” of survey or questionnaire respondents is intended to represent a “population” too large to observe directly and which may reflect certain characteristics of the group as a whole. It is can therefore be argued that formal surveys have a limited role in small scale educational evaluations.

Survey questions may be closed, choice, open or a combination of these depending on whether the survey is for descriptive, explanatory or exploratory purposes. Herein lies the issue of choosing and combining effectively quantitative survey methods with richer qualitative approaches. Quantitative techniques tend to yield general statements derived from large sampling methods in situations where a large number of variables are at play. They allow some form of number to be used to assess or quantify these variables and tend to require a standardised question format that is self-administered by the participants. Qualitative techniques are concerned more with the individual experiences of events or situations. They involve more open-ended questions, which are best asked through face-to-face or telephone interviews using a semi-structured questions approach to the survey. A common compromise is the use of a self-administered, standardised questionnaire but one that includes both quantitative (fixed choices) and qualitative (open comments) components.

The design of the survey and the questions – your ‘research instrument’ - may be determined by the nature of your evaluation and whether it is used to collect baseline data, pre-course data, in-course (formative) data or post-course (summative) data. For example, if you were to look at collecting student feedback at the end of a course, the survey might seek views of the students’ learning experience in terms of:

  1. Students as customers - in order to rate satisfaction with teaching and services
  2. Students as learners – in order to gain an understanding of perceptions and experiences in relation to study approaches and learning outcomes.

The first is likely to rely more on a quantitative method while the other will require more qualitative questioning.

  1. Think whether a questionnaire or survey is the best way of getting the information (data) you need or whether you can use direct observation or a carefully controlled experiment.