Conducting Survey Research

Written Surveys

Mail Surveys

Imagine that you are interested in exploring the attitudes college students have about writing. Since it would be impossible to interview every student on campus, choosing the mail-out survey as your method would enable you to choose a large sample of college students. You might choose to limit your research to your own college or university, or you might extend your survey to several different institutions. If your research question demands it, the mail survey allows you to sample a very broad group of subjects at small cost.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Mail Surveys


Cost: Mail surveys are low in cost compared to other methods of surveying. This type of survey can cost up to 50% less than the self-administered survey, and almost 75% less than a face-to-face survey (Bourque and Fielder 9). Mail surveys are also substantially less expensive than drop-off and group-administered surveys.

Convenience: Since many of these types of surveys are conducted through a mail-in process, the participants are able to work on the surveys at their leisure.

Bias: Because the mail survey does not allow for personal contact between the researcher and the respondent, there is little chance for personal bias based on first impressions to alter the responses to the survey. This is an advantage because if the interviewer is not likeable, the survey results will be unfavorably affected. However, this could be a disadvantage as well.

Sampling--internal link: It is possible to reach a greater population and have a larger universe (sample of respondents) with this type of survey because it does not require personal contact between the researcher and the respondents.


Low Response Rate: One of the biggest drawbacks to written survey, especially as it relates to the mail-in, self-administered method, is the low response rate. Compared to a telephone survey or a face-to-face survey, the mail-in written survey has a response rate of just over 20%.

Ability of Respondent to Answer Survey: Another problem with self-administered surveys is three-fold: assumptions about the physical ability, literacy level and language ability of the respondents. Because most surveys pull the participants from a random sampling, it is impossible to control for such variables. Many of those who belong to a survey group have a different primary language than that of the survey. They may also be illiterate or have a low reading level and therefore might not be able to accurately answer the questions. Along those same lines, persons with conditions that cause them to have trouble reading, such as dyslexia, visual impairment or old age, may not have the capabilities necessary to complete the survey.

Group Administered Questionnaires

Imagine that you are interested in finding out how instructors who teach composition in computer classrooms at your university feel about the advantages of teaching in a computer classroom over a traditional classroom. You have a very specific population in mind, and so a mail-out survey would probably not be your best option. You might try an oral survey, but if you are doing this research alone this might be too time consuming. The group administered questionnaire would allow you to get your survey results in one space of time and would ensure a very high response rate (higher than if you stuck a survey into each instructor's mailbox). Your challenge would be to get everyone together. Perhaps your department holds monthly technology support meetings that most of your chosen sample would attend. Your challenge at this point would be to get permission to use part of the weekly meeting time to administer the survey, or to convince the instructors to stay to fill it out after the meeting. Despite the challenges, this type of survey might be the most efficient for your specific purposes.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Group Administered Questionnaires

Rate of Response: This second type of written survey is generally administered to a sample of respondents in a group setting, guaranteeing a high response rate.

Specificity: This type of written survey can be very versatile, allowing for a spectrum of open and closed ended types of questions and can serve a variety of specific purposes, particularly if you are trying to survey a very specific group of people.

Weaknesses of Group Administered Questionnaires

Sampling: This method requires a small sample, and as a result is not the best method for surveys that would benefit from a large sample. This method is only useful in cases that call for very specific information from specific groups.

Scheduling: Since this method requires a group of respondents to answer the survey together, this method requires a slot of time that is convenient for all respondents.

Drop-off Surveys

Imagine that you would like to find out about how the dorm dwellers at your university feel about the lack of availability of vegetarian cuisine in their dorm dining halls. You have prepared a questionnaire that requires quite a few long answers, and since you suspect that the students in the dorms may not have the motivation to take the time to respond, you might want a chance to tell them about your research, the benefits that might come from their responses, and to answer their questions about your survey. To ensure the highest response rate, you would probably pick a time of the day when you are sure that the majority of the dorm residents are home, and then work your way from door to door. If you don't have time to interview the number of students you need in your sample, but you don't trust the response rate of mail surveys, the drop-off survey might be the best option for you.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Drop-off Surveys


Convenience: Like the mail survey, the drop-off survey allows the respondents to answer the survey at their own convenience.

Response Rates: The response rates for the drop-off survey are better than the mail survey because it allows the interviewer to make personal contact with the respondent, to explain the importance of the survey, and to answer any questions or concerns the respondent might have.


Time: Because of the personal contact this method requires, this method takes considerably more time than the mail survey.

Sampling: Because of the time it takes to make personal contact with the respondents, the universe of this kind of survey will be considerably smaller than the mail survey pool of respondents.

Response: The response rate for this type of survey, although considerably better than the mail survey, is still not as high as the response rate you will achieve with an oral survey.

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