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What are we asking?

test takingAt a recent presentation, I did a survey of the audience asking how many of them had ever taken a survey in which there was at least one question they felt they couldn’t answer because they weren’t sure what was being asked.  As you probably have guessed every single person in the audience raised their hand.  So I asked them the same question I’m asking you:  if the individuals we are surveying have to guess what we are asking in order to answer, then is the data we gather reliable?  And if it doesn’t matter, then why are we even asking the question?

One of the ways that this commonly occurs is when a question is worded in such a way that it actually contains more than one question, asks more than one thing, and therefore requires more than one answer.  For example:  “Course material was up-to-date, well-organized, and presented in sufficient depth”  What if the course material was up-to-date, but not well-organized?  How can an individual, then, respond accurately to this question?  If they choose “neutral” or “agree” or “disagree” what does it tell us?  Of what benefit are the ratings to the instructor?  If this item was rated poorly would the instructor have any idea what change needs to be made?

Another type of question that can lead to misinterpretation, is the question that is ambiguous: How well did the course meet your expectations? Unless this question is accompanied by a previous question that asks “What were your expectations?”, we do not know what the answer tells us, and yet this appears on many course evaluation surveys.  However, just as in the first example, even if we did ask what the expectations were,  the answer would only provide us with an average of how well they were met, rather than information regarding how well each of those expectations was met.

All assessment, even when it comes down to individual questions on a survey tool, need to begin with a clear outline of objectives.  The questions need to be asked in such a way that they will accurately provide the information desired.


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