The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4 Other issues

4.1 Electronic questionnaires and computer-aided evaluation

Questionnaires may be posted online and submitted electronically. This can significantly reduce the time involved in administering and analysing questionnaires. Answers submitted on a spreadsheet can be entered on to a summary sheet and summary scores computed much more quickly when the spreadsheet is submitted electronically.

The major problem with postal or electronic mailing of questionnaires is that response rates tend to be low. Some things you can do to lessen the extent of this problem are as follows:

  • Students should be introduced to computerised questionnaires in supervised computer sessions typically in their first year.

  • Students should be reassured that their responses are anonymous.

    • When questionnaires are posted electronically, students’ e-mail addresses and identities should be encrypted by the software program.

  • Follow-up contacts are very effective: studies have shown that one follow-up contact generates 20 per cent more responses. Second and third follow-ups increase the response total by a further 10–12 per cent (Calvert, 1963; Sewell and Shah, 1968).

    • It may be difficult to convince students of the confidentiality of their responses where individual responses are monitored.

    • Telephone calls are particularly effective for follow-up, although this is time consuming and may not be feasible with a student population.

  • The form of the follow-up call/mail can affect response rates. Do not make the respondent feel threatened, but make it clear that his/her non-response is noted.

    • Some possible follow-up mails are ‘Would you believe you’re the only one who hasn’t returned the questionnaire?’, ‘Support the programme. Return your questionnaire now!’ and ‘We’re waiting to hear from you!’ (Henerson et al., 1987, p. 82).

  • Timing of mailing. Do not send questionnaires at a time when students feel under pressure, e.g. around examination time.

    • It has been shown that responses are more likely if the mailing is towards the end of the week.

4.2 Frequency

It may not be necessary to evaluate a module every time it is delivered. Departments may consider a biennial system – this reduces the burden of analysis and may encourage a better-quality response on the part of the students.

4.3 Confidentiality

Almost all questionnaire responses are confidential. It is widely accepted that this raises the rate of response and may encourage honesty in responses.

There are disadvantages to confidentiality, however, and it might be worth considering questionnaires that invite students to put their name to the form – I know of one questionnaire used in evaluation of economics that does this, whilst making clear that this is optional and views will be taken into account whether the form is named or not. As most lecturers have experienced, anonymity can encourage disingenuous responses and prevents the department from responding to and possibly resolving criticism, whether warranted or not. It is apparent that anonymity allows some students to make irresponsible comments and, more generally, to offload frustrations with their own learning and experience of studying economics – comments that they might not make if they had to respond personally to the department or lecturer.