3.2 Better practice in questionnaire design and use in economics
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This section contains a review of the design and use of questionnaires in a sample of economics departments in the United Kingdom. I have identified various features of these that I believe are worth highlighting and which may be of use to other departments in designing or modifying their questionnaires.
The questionnaires reviewed have some common features. All but one of the questionnaires reviewed contain a number of ‘closed’ questions that require respondents to provide answers on a ranked scale of 1–5. Typically, students are asked to express a degree of agreement/disagreement with a series of statements. In some cases, students are asked to rate specific features of a course on a five-point scale from ‘excellent’ to ‘very poor’. All questionnaires contain some ‘open’ questions (or statements) that invite comments. The most common questions of this type are ‘What do you like least about the module?’ and ‘What do you like best about the module?’ All questionnaires provide space for ‘further comments’, giving students flexibility to say what they wish about the course or lecturer. Otherwise, there is significant heterogeneity in design of questionnaires, especially in the extent to which the attributes of individual lecturers are evaluated and in the use of closed questions.
Here are some observations and ideas that are worth flagging up:
1. Some of the questionnaires are much more attractive than others, in the formatting and layout of the page(s). As stated in section 3, it is always worth making a document as appealing as possible, as this will affect the response rate and the quality of the responses. A few forms use colour as background and in some of the text. Departments are always going to struggle to make students make the effort to complete forms in a useful way and touches like this can help.
2. A small proportion of questionnaires ask for information about the characteristics and behaviour of the respondent. For example, in one questionnaire, students are asked to state their degree programme, age (within specified bands) and year of study. A number of questionnaires contain question(s) about the students’ attendance at lectures. For example, students are asked to respond to the statement ‘I attended lectures regularly.’
Questions of this sort can significantly increase the usefulness of the questionnaire by revealing relationships between the characteristics or background of students and the types of responses and comments they make. For example, information on the degree programme of the respondent can be especially useful in interpreting responses to questionnaires on core modules that attract large numbers of students from a variety of degree programmes and departments. The heterogeneity of students is a growing problem that all departments have to face – a particular problem for economics departments in this regard concerns the issue of mathematics and its use in courses attended by students from other degree programmes who do not have a mathematical background.
The motivation and value of questioning students’ attendance at lectures and tutorials is not clear. The answer may have an impact on how seriously the lecturer and department view the student’s responses – it may subtly influence the student’s approach to answering the questions.
3. All questionnaires should contain a paragraph or two at the top of the form explaining the purpose of the questionnaire. It is important to stress that the forms are confidential and stress to the students the constructive purpose of the questionnaire process and that it helps to improve teaching and learning for students. It is also important to explain to the students how the results of the questionnaires are analysed and disseminated. For example, it is common that a summary report and action plan are presented to a student representative committee – making this clear on the form can help to convince students that their views will be considered seriously and raise the quality of response. Most forms contain a request for students to be honest and candid in their responses.
4. The length and nature of forms vary dramatically, from four questions in one case to 27 in another. However, none exceeds two pages in length, which is relatively short for questionnaires.
5. As discussed in section 2.1, one of the questionnaires relies exclusively on open questions – the form contains the following three questions:
What were the best features of the module?
Where could improvements be made in the module?
Are there any other comments you wish to make?
The questions invite discussion of the positive features of teaching and learning and, unusually, contain no questions with ranked answers. There is a means for students to express their opinions freely and express criticisms but there is no real attempt to evaluate teaching formally or to draw out specific concerns.
6. Questionnaires vary in the extent to which they directly assess the individual qualities and attributes of lecturers and tutors. In one example, students are asked to comment on the ability of the lecturer to communicate, his/her knowledge of the subject, whether the lecturer can be contacted easily and his/her level of preparedness for lectures. This is not usual, however. In most questionnaires, questions relate more to the characteristics of the module. For example, it is common to ask students to respond to the following statements:
The lectures were clear and understandable.
The lectures increased my understanding of the subject.
The lectures were interesting.
It is not straightforward to know how to interpret responses to these kinds of question, and unfavourable responses do not necessarily imply anything about the qualities or efforts of the teacher. For example, if students respond that lectures are not interesting and do not increase their understanding, this may be due to the nature of the topic and the match of the module with their background and interests, or it may be due to the lecturer’s presentation and use of the material. It follows that it is probably best to include at least one question about the lecturer’s qualities.
7. One tutorial evaluation questionnaire was divided into two parts and the first part asks questions about the ‘tutorials’. Students were asked whether they considered the tutorials to be valuable and stimulating, whether the tutorials were relevant and whether students learnt from tutorials. The second part asked questions about the quality of the tutor. Students were asked about the tutor’s command of the subject, ability to communicate, accessibility and so on. Often, weaknesses in tutorials can be attributed to fundamental problems in the structure, content and methodology of the tutorial – issues that often are out of the control of the tutor. This approach can usefully distinguish between such problems and problems related to the tutor him or herself.
8. A number of questionnaires ask respondents to identify ways in which the module may be improved. This is a useful question as it most directly relates to the purpose of the questionnaire.