Cover Story

Web surveys can be a major time-saver for graduate students conducting research, according to students who shared their online data-collecting experiences at a session at APA's 2006 Annual Convention. Internet-based surveys eliminate data entry, and participants often find them easier to use than pen-and-paper questionnaires, noted Jessica Koehler and Samantha Sedlik, both school psychology graduate students at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The two graduate students recently used the Web to survey 1,922 elementary school teachers as part of a larger study testing a new teaching method known as Instructional Consultation and developed by University of Maryland psychology professor Sylvia Rosenfield, PhD. Sedlik and Koehler contributed to a randomized controlled trial of the method in Virginia public schools by surveying participants about their instructional practices and job satisfaction--and got an 88 percent response rate.

"We were afraid that teachers would be afraid of technology," said Sedlik. "They turned out to be very technologically savvy....They enjoyed taking [the survey] online."

Koehler and Sedlik shared what they had learned about running effective online surveys, including some principles they adapted from the work of Donald Dillman, PhD, a survey research expert at Washington State University. Some of their tips included:

  • Plying participants with gifts. Before e-mailing the survey, the researchers sent teachers a letter explaining the purpose of the study. Also enclosed was a small gift-a sticky-note pad. Gifts boost survey response rates by tapping into the social norm of reciprocity, Sedlik noted.

  • Showing the percent complete. In pilot studies, participants said they want to know how much of the survey they have finished, and how much more they have to go. So the grad students added in a bar at the bottom of the Web page that illustrated just that.

  • Putting demographic questions last. Wait to ask questions about the race, gender and age of the participant until the end of the survey, warned Koehler. They can turn off participants who haven't yet invested in the survey, she noted.

  • Using reminder e-mails. The researchers sent out three reminder e-mails during the course of the study, and they found a spike in responses after each one. Another benefit of online surveys, noted Koehler, is that you can watch results as they come in.

"I was a little addicted," said Koehler, who looked at survey responses several times a day.

-S. Dingfelder