Revising a Survey Question

by Clare Creighton

For the fourth fall in a row, Maureen Cochran, Erin Bird, and I collaborated with campus partners on the questions that make up the Fall Student Experience survey, which goes out to all Corvallis-based undergraduate students to understand their experience and perspective in a few key areas of interest. The survey ran from October 23 – November 6 and I anticipate sharing some findings in a Winter issue of The Success Kitchen. In this post, however, I’m interested in a conversation I had with Nicole Hindes, director of the Basic Needs Center (BNC) as we worked on the wording of some questions in October.

We have a stock question we have asked on all the surveys that asks students to what degree are the listed items are a “Significant Concern,” “Somewhat of a Concern” “Not a Concern” or “Not applicable.” One of the listed items is “Meeting my current financial obligations” and this year, we wanted to understand more about the “Significant Concern” or “Somewhat of a Concern” responses to that question. 

In brainstorming what to ask as a follow-up question, we were considering asking about the financial concerns students were having. Was it concerns with things like paying rent or tuition or groceries? Not being about to save for unexpected expenses or keep up with existing debts? What kinds of things were they having trouble paying for?

That question felt off, but in reaching out to Nicole, she helped us understand why. At best that’s a misleading way to understand degrees of poverty and need, at worst, it’s laden with the assumption that we can make meaning of what they can and can’t afford and what that means for them. Here’s where we landed with the wording instead (it’s not a perfect fit either, but it’s better!)

You indicated a level of concern with meeting your current financial obligations.  Please indicate which of the following are relevant for you:

  • I have utilized resources previously and they helped me improve my financial strategies
  • I am currently using resources where I can go to ask for help to address some of my financial stressors (CAFE, BNC, Career Development Center, Financial Aid, Scholarship Office)
  • I intend to utilize resources to address my financial concerns in the next month.
  • I do not know what to do to address my financial concerns
  • I do not believe I can improve my financial stressors.
  • I am confident I will utilize resources to address my financial concerns if the situation becomes more challenging or serious than my current reality.
  • Other (please specify): ___________________

Nicole offers this as an explanation for the rewrite:

What I like about this reframe we did, was that it brings out more of the student’s agency and capacity into what we’re all understanding about the student’s current situation (including how we’re asking the student to understand their resources). A drill-down into the concerns really only gives us more information about a problem and functionally little information about a student’s experience with help-seeking behaviors. It’s regretfully far too common for students who are low-income to be seen by what they don’t have or what they lack, a deficit-orientation. Not ignoring the impact of systemic limitations/conditions, I generally operate from the mindset that if students use their resources, they can improve their situation/conditions and that it’s possible to thrive and graduate inside of varying levels of income/financial need.

The rework of this question does a few things. We’ll learn much more useful information from this question like how they are engaging in support resources and to what degree they see an ability to change. Those answers will help us understand where students are confident they can get help to improve their conditions and where they need invitation (from us as administrators) to engage in resources. The places we put our attention or focus create the understanding we have about who someone is or what their lives are like. The reframing of this question also brings in more of a student’s capacity to affect their situation, their ability to ask for help to address their stressors, which is a more empowering framework than drilling down into their concerns.

This conversation was a helpful one as we worked on the wording of the survey, but more broadly, I carry a few lessons forward. This question offered a great example of an instance when the wording of a question and how it’s framed have a ripple effect, on the student as they’re taking the survey and how they see themselves in relationship to their finances, on the folks who read the results and the meaning they’re making from responses. Most importantly for me, I appreciate that I’m already in relationship with Nicole as it was easy to “pick up the phone” and connect both to improve the question itself, but also to learn more about what I didn’t recognize in the original version.

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