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Strategies for Successful K-12 Survey Design and Analysis

K–12 survey research remains a powerful tool for district decision-making. Use these tips to design concise and effective surveys for your schools.

Strong K–12 leaders know that community member feedback is critical to informing decisions and ensuring the success of programs and practices. Leaders often turn to surveys as an effective and efficient means to gather broad feedback from staff, families, students, and the larger community. However, surveys must be carefully designed and administered according to best practices to capture accurate and useful sentiments.

Whether conducting school climate surveys, employee satisfaction surveys, family needs assessments, or strategic planning surveys, school and district leaders must understand how to reach their intended audiences, ask actionable questions, and employ accessible timelines and platforms. Consider these tips to make the most out of your K–12 surveys.

Best Practices in Targeting and Engaging Survey Audiences

Each group within a school community provides valuable insight from different vantage points. For example, when measuring school climate, leaders may want to survey both younger secondary school students, such as middle school or first-year high school students, and newly graduated, older, students separately to compare perspectives. Without strategies to keep responses organized, some may find it challenging to obtain the most helpful information from the right audiences. Moreover, once a target audience has been identified, leaders should consider how best to keep their respondents comfortable and engaged, strengthening their odds of receiving accurate results.

We recommend the following tips and considerations for obtaining the most accurate perspectives from any school community group:

  • Always include screening questions.
    • These questions may prompt students to provide their grade level or educators to answer with their school and department.
  • Only show relevant questions to specific stakeholder groups.
    • To keep surveys brief and meaningful, ensure that participants respond to relevant questions but not all questions.
  • Carefully place questions of sensitive subject matters.
    • Particularly relevant to climate surveys, questions involving bullying or harassment should follow screening questions and less serious subject matters to ease respondents into reflecting on potentially emotional topics.
  • Place demographic questions at the end of the survey.
    • K–12 surveys should encourage respondents to reflect on their individual experiences but prompting them to disclose their gender, race, ethnic background, or other identity too early in the survey may illicit an unconscious review of their community experiences, instead of their individual experiences.
Learn more about effective ways to draw in more families and communities with our infographic, Engaging Families and Communities in K-12 Education.

Make the Most out of Each K–12 Survey Question

Current best practices and other research suggests that most respondents are only willing to spare about 10 minutes to complete a survey. For younger, secondary students, we recommend an even shorter time limit of about seven minutes. Some questions are more taxing than others. Furthermore, this preference will not only limit how many questions but what kind of questions you can include in your survey. So, how should district leaders and survey teams maximize responses while providing a brief and accessible survey?

The truth is that question design is a balancing act. Consider these points to maximize the value and accessibility of your survey questions:

  • Include explicit references to times and locations.
    • Make sure respondents are answering questions about the same time frame and place.
  • Avoid double-barreled questions
    • Double-barreled questions try to measure two inquiries at once but are often confusing for the respondent.
  • Use mutually exclusive answer options.
    • This protects the validity of your data by ensuring respondents can only qualify for one answer category.
  • To reduce response fatigue, consider not only the number of questions or the length of the survey, but also its overall readability, word count, and thematic grouping of questions.
  • Limit the use of open-ended questions
    • We typically recommend no more than one or two open-ended questions per survey. Open-ended questions should take approximately one or two minutes to complete. While valuable, answers may vary widely making it hard to find patterns among a respondent group.
Part of creating and administering successful surveys is fostering a staff culture that values research and data. Learn more with our K-12 Data Literacy Checklist.

K–12 Survey Administration: Choosing Appropriate Timelines and Platforms

Once survey administrators have determined who and what to survey, they will need to consider how to administer their surveys. The how of survey administration plays an important role in accessibility. The school year is busy and full of events, assessments, and meetings. Successful surveys are carefully timed so that they don’t get lost in the rush of activity that accompanies each school year. In addition to timing considerations, district leaders and survey teams must consider which platforms or modes of delivery best fit their target audiences.

All school community groups that you plan to survey — whether students, families, staff, or the wider community — need to have an equal opportunity to respond to the survey on an accessible platform. The last thing a K–12 leader wants to do is carefully design a survey but administer it in a way that makes it difficult and time-consuming for participants to respond. Consider the following takeaways to make sure your surveys meet their full potential:

  • Keep surveys open for 2–4 weeks
    • Minimize the influence of external factors by avoiding state assessment windows, extended school breaks, and the first and last two weeks of the school year.
  • Make sure surveys are available online and are mobile friendly to accommodate different levels of technology access
    • Provide survey materials in multiple languages, that are also accessible to assistive features like screen readers.
    • Provide QR codes to directly access surveys within emails and other distributed materials.
  • Using open links versus trackable links
    • Consider open links when you want to prioritize large numbers of respondents. These links can be posted via mass communication and require screening questions to filter out less relevant responses.
    • Trackable links work best for surveying smaller, targeted audiences. They may be sent directly to potential respondents via email but should not be posted on public websites and forums.
      • Survey administrators may also send out targeted reminders, strengthening the chances of survey completion.
      • Note that inquiring about particularly sensitive subject matters over trackable links may hurt response rates, as these links limit true anonymity.
    • To increase response rates from students and employees, provide dedicated times during the school day (or during professional learning trainings) for them to complete the survey.
Teacher feedback is vital to the K–12 decision-making process. Learn more about connecting with teachers in an accessible way with our blog, Five Teacher Engagement Strategies to Foster A Collaborative Culture.

Next Steps: Survey Analysis

Once your team has created a survey that targets the right audiences, asks the right questions, and remains accessible to as many intended participants as possible, the next steps will include an analysis of the results. Each survey design principle supports the analysis phase, but it’s also important to consider how you plan to use the findings and how you may want to segment and compare responses across respondent groups. While some districts may find this challenging, partnering with third-party survey experts can ensure you’re set up with a comprehensive survey design and analysis plan. Survey analysis paves the way for a deeper understanding of your specific K–12 perspectives and concerns, leading to more decision-making power and better outcomes for all school community groups.

See what insights well-designed diagnostic and climate surveys can generate with our K–12 benchmark report on the State of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging.

Learn more about successful K–12 survey design on our blog.

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