The problem with reading surveys

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Surveys seem to be the order of the day for school librarians at the moment as they try to assess what they’ve done over the year and set some priorities for the next.

I’ve never really been one to put much into surveys on provision for a number of reason but mainly down to a long time ago when I was at university studying self-selection.

Self-selection explains naturally formed groups and groups that put themselves forward for certain things. Polls and surveys are one example of these self-selecting groups with people choosing to take part in them. What the theory tells us though is that the people who take part in it will be influenced by a number of factors.

I was reminded of this when reading a post with someone complaining about the results they had received from a survey they had undertaken.

In fact too many times have I seen school librarians bemoan the fact that the only students that fill in their surveys comment that they don’t use its facilities because it doesn’t have what they want yet what they want is in the library but because they don’t use it they don’t know. As mentioned above self-selection will tell us that it is only a certain type of student that will fill out the survey in the first place and it will most likely be those people that have a strong feeling either way. Therefore you will get a completely polarised view.

It also worth thinking about the behaviour here too. Does the behaviour come before or after the action? For instance because you are a professional do you feel compelled to wear a suit or do you act in a professional manner because you’re wearing a suit? Strangely enough studies will show that it is the latter that is the case as you associated the behaviour with the action. It’s worth bearing that in mind when you’re thinking about how groups act with each other.

Biasing context and demand characteristics will also show that young people will be influenced when doing a survey or taking a poll, depending on where it is they are undertaking it, the reason why they are doing and who they are taking it for. Therefore if they already have a negative view of the library, the librarian or reading they are more likely to answer negatively in the survey. The opposite of this is also true with those students already positive toward the library answering favourably towards it.

However if you undertook the survey by selecting a number of people to complete it, a varied cross section across the school, then you would most likely achieve the goal of getting the best response from all students. If you then also made sure that the students were undertaking the survey outside of the library and did not know that it specifically generated by the library then you are more likely to receive a truer reflection of your resources/work etc as there will less bias based on pre formed ideas and beliefs. This could be achieved by creating a survey that has a number of elements to it and just one of these being the library. For instance you might do a survey on resources across the school, in the classrooms, lunchtime resources etc and also include a section on the library.

This type of survey would give you a much better set of results, free from the bias you might otherwise have got and ultimately more useful to then be able to use as guidance and evidence on success and future priorities.

So next time you think of doing a survey my advice would be either don’t, or produce one that eliminates any potential to produce a self-selecting group.

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