How to Leverage Survey Data to Target Student Support
This content was previously published by Student Affairs Assessment Leaders.
Surveys play a pivotal role in assessment, allowing us to connect with a large number of students simultaneously to gain valuable insights into their needs, experiences, perspectives, and knowledge. When intentionally designed and utilized, surveys provide powerful data that can drive continuous improvement. However, we often overlook the fact that surveys are not just data-gathering tools; they also serve as a platform for real-time dialogue between students and educators, presenting an opportunity to provide timely support. In this blog post, I will provide strategies to begin leveraging survey data for this purpose.
In the world of assessment, surveys are a widely-used, sometimes overused, method for data collection. Students are often asked about their experiences in and out of the classroom, to share their perspectives about various topics, and to provide feedback about particular interactions. At any college or university, it is typical to see numerous surveys being conducted throughout the year. While survey administration tends to be a common practice, the utilization of survey results tends to vary.
Reports based on survey data are often used for compliance and/or programmatic improvement purposes. When used solely for compliance, in annual reports or accreditation documentation, the students who provided survey responses do not benefit from their efforts. When used to influence changes to events, programs, or services, some respondents may benefit, but the improvements will primarily impact future students. While this lag is common, it does not always have to be the case. We can use survey data to help our current students too!
Let’s take a few common survey types and explore how they could be used for this purpose:
Satisfaction & Student Experience Surveys
If a student responds negatively or scores low on certain items on a satisfaction or experience survey, it could be beneficial to proactively intervene to better understand their perspectives and attempt to improve their situation. Below are several examples of items that could be used in this way:
- Academic path: My college clearly communicates the requirements for the degree I am pursuing.
- Access: How satisfied are you with the ability to access [student services] at [this institution] when needed?
- Awareness: I am aware of resources to support my academic and social success.
- Campus connectedness: I feel more connected to the [campus] community as a result of my participation in [program/event].
- Current confidence: How confident are you that you will be able to manage completing coursework online for the remainder of the term?
- Enrollment intentions: Do you plan to continue your education at our campus next term?
- Quality: How satisfied are you with the quality of programs and activities you have attended at [this institution]?
- Sense of belonging: I share things in common with at least some of the students at [this institution].
Campus Climate Surveys
Campus climate surveys, whether focused on inclusivity, sexual violence, or mental health, contain a wealth of information about students’ experiences, but the sensitive nature of the topics may discourage direct outreach. However, it may be possible to add a question at the end of the survey that asks students if they would like additional information or outreach, and then link to external resources and/or a separate survey to collect contact information. Campus climate surveys are commonly administered at regular intervals, and often include large samples, so it might be beneficial to consider how these surveys can be leveraged as a communication mechanism to promote student success.
Non-Cognitive Skills/Intake Surveys
Campuses are becoming increasingly interested in assessing students’ non-cognitive skills, especially prior to or early on in their first semester, as a way to identify students’ strengths and areas of concern. Non-cognitive skills are mindsets, behaviors, and perspectives that can have an impact on students’ academic performance and persistence (Nagaoka et al., 2013).
One example of a non-cognitive survey is the Student Strengths Inventory, one of several instruments built into Anthology’s Beacon product. It measures the following five factors: academic engagement, academic self-efficacy, educational commitment, resiliency, and sense of belonging. Students receive scores and a low, moderate, or high categorization for each factor, and advisors or coaches can use these scores to triage outreach and/or recommend particular types of interventions to students. To learn more about how this instrument has been proactively utilized by other campuses, see the case studies featured in Anthology’s white paper.
These surveys serve as a great starting point for conversations between faculty/staff and students. Yet some institutions still only use the data to generate aggregate insights and potentially for programmatic improvements. If your institution is utilizing non-cognitive surveys or similar types of intake surveys, try to understand how that data is used to support current students. These surveys could be a fantastic starting point!
As you can see, there are many types of surveys that can be leveraged to support student success. If this topic has piqued your interest, keep reading for strategies to consider when implementing this approach.
1. Determine Priorities and Resources
As much as we would like to tackle everything all at once, we know it’s not possible to do so (successfully). As with any student success effort, it’s important to be intentional, implement manageable plans, and iterate as you discover what can be improved. Start by identifying your institution, division, or department priorities and examining any data that you already have available. Answers to the following questions may help you determine who to focus on if resources are limited and which survey items might be most useful:
- Has your institution, division, or department identified any particular student cohorts who are at greater risk for attrition than others?
- What do you already know about the reasons students leave your institution?
Next, be sure to understand what student success and retention efforts already exist at your institution.
- Who is responsible for tracking student success and providing outreach to students? If multiple people/offices are responsible, how do they currently collaborate?
- How do those individuals currently get information about students who might be at risk?
- Do they have the capacity to consider new inputs (survey responses) as part of their workflow?
2. Identify Surveys or Survey Items
After identifying your priorities and available resources, then you should identify which survey or survey items are relevant to your student success efforts. You’ll also need to decide if you plan to use a single item(s) or an aggregate of multiple items, and which responses warrant outreach—certain answer choices, scores lower than a particular average, sentiment derived from open-ended questions, etc. The scope of what you choose to include likely depends on the resources you have available to facilitate outreach.
If the types of survey items you are most interested in do not already exist (or the data is not accessible to you), consider adding those items to other existing surveys or administering a very short survey at a key point in time. You may also consider targeting surveys to specific cohorts of students based on certain characteristics or previous survey responses to avoid over-surveying a larger population.
Keep in mind that any survey used for this approach will need to include a student identifier (ID or email address). You will also want to make sure that the survey is administered early enough in the term so outreach and intervention is feasible.
3. Modify Practices
Utilizing surveys for individual outreach may require adjustments to current practices. One of the biggest differences is the need to act fast once survey data is collected. The associated actions should take days, not weeks or months. In order to accomplish that turnaround, it is important to utilize any available technology that will increase efficiency. Perhaps your institution has an early alert system that can consume survey data to produce an alert. For example, in the Anthology ecosystem, a survey question from Baseline can be used to trigger an alert in Beacon without needing to configure any special data integrations.
Don’t forget to also document your efforts in order to assess the effectiveness of your outreach and interventions and iterate over time. You may be able to accomplish this within existing technology as well.
Further, it is important to be transparent with students about your intentions. Within a survey invitation or at the beginning of a survey, be sure to explain how the participants’ survey responses will be used. You should also check with your campus institutional review board (IRB) to understand if there are any constraints on what you can do with data from a particular survey. If a survey has an informed consent page at the beginning, the IRB may need to approve the specific language about confidentiality, the purpose of the survey, and how the data will be used.
4. Encourage Collaboration
This type of approach will likely require collaboration. Student affairs assessment or functional units may be responsible for administering the surveys, but other units may be responsible for outreach or providing interventions. You may also want to work with your technology colleagues for help setting up infrastructure to support this process, as mentioned above. The individuals and departments who need to be involved will depend on what you are trying to accomplish, but it is important to identify the value that others may be able to provide and bring them into the conversation.
As you can see, surveys can do more than simply collect data; they can be used as a starting point for targeted student support. Surveys can ensure that students are not just heard, but also cared for in a timely manner. Depending on your institution, division, or department’s goals for student success, existing surveys might be a great source of real-time insights to further leverage.
Dr. Kristyn Muller
Dr. Kristyn Muller currently works at Anthology as a product manager, overseeing Anthology Beacon, Anthology Baseline, and Anthology Succeed. Prior to joining the EdTech world, Kristyn served as the impact analyst for SUNY Online within the State University of New York (SUNY) System administration office. In this role, she evaluated the effectiveness of SUNY Online’s services, analyzed how online learning impacted SUNY’s strategic goals, and developed ways to share data to inform the continuous improvement of online learning practices across the system. She also served as the co-facilitator for the SUNY Early Alerts Community of Practice and was one of the lead developers for the SUNY Online Student Success Inventory (SOSSI).
Prior to that, Kristyn was the assistant director of Residential Life for University Apartments at the University at Albany, where she was very involved in assessment initiatives on campus. She assisted the Division of Student Affairs as their assessment & data analyst, was the co-chair of the Residential Life Assessment Committee, and was a member of the Council on Academic Assessment and the General Education Assessment Committee. Kristyn recently completed four years on the Assessment Network of New York (ANNY) Board of Directors, where she served as the president. Kristyn holds a Ph.D. in educational policy & leadership from the University at Albany.