The Survey Research Project: Technology and Research with Introductory Level Undergraduates

Tabitha Grier-Reed
Emily Karp

The Survey Research Project was prompted by a conundrum in which the first author, Dr. Grier-Reed, was challenged to develop pedagogical practices that allowed students in an introductory psychology course to create knowledge. She brought her dilemma to the inaugural College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) Treks program summer 2010 to see what answers technology could provide. Treks is a professional development program that occurs over one week in the summer to assist instructors with exploring and utilizing academic technologies. During Treks, Dr. Grier-Reed was introduced to many tools and academic technology specialists. This combination of people and technology resources formed a space of generativity, creativity, innovation, and discovery.

Project Development
In exploring the processes of knowledge creation, Dr. Grier-Reed and an IT Fellow honed in on the survey--the coin of the realm in social science research. The accompanying technology tool was an electronic survey program developed by CEHD. The CEHD Survey Tool meets the data security requirements at the University of Minnesota, and it is an easily programmable, efficient, online mechanism for developing surveys and collecting and storing data. With the research tool and the technology in place, the pedagogy began to take shape. All of sudden students conducting original research in a class of up to 60 people seemed possible. There was a means for reviewing, editing, activating, deactivating, and deleting students’ electronic surveys. Utilizing the CEHD Survey Tool, Dr. Grier-Reed could securely collect, store, and destroy data across classes. Moreover, using an online survey would eliminate error associated with time-consuming tasks like entering data in Excel from paper instruments. With the CEHD Survey Tool , survey respondents would enter their own data which would be easily retrievable and compatible with Excel.

In Dr. Grier-Reed’s introductory psychology class, students would engage in knowledge production through original research based in survey methods using the CEHD Survey Tool. From the act of generating a research question, to the culmination of generating a scientific report, students would gain intimate familiarity with one of the most common methodologies of social science research. The next question was how to make this project manageable across the 120 students enrolling in the two course offerings in the fall. Reviewing, editing, and keeping track of 120 surveys would be overwhelming, especially given the fact that many students enter the class having no background in psychology or research.

To make the project meaningful and manageable, Dr. Grier-Reed and an IT Fellow worked together to design research teams. Group work offered an efficient pedagogy to make the number of products (e.g., surveys and research reports) manageable. Group work also provided opportunities to develop 21st century skills associated with communication, collaboration, and functioning effectively as part of a team.  To construct the student research teams, Dr. Grier-Reed and the IT Fellow first outlined the following research process: 
  1. Generate a research question and hypothesis
  2. Develop a survey instrument to test the hypothesis
  3. Program the survey into the CEHD Survey Tool
  4. Collect data
  5. Analyze data
  6. Write a report
Then, Dr. Grier-Reed and the IT Fellow further developed the assignment by identifying roles for students on the research team including: Project Manager (originally called Liaison), Programmer, Data Collector, Analyst, Report Writer, and Editor. Grading was scaffolded so that teams earned points as they progressed along the  research process. Grades also included an individual component, where students were evaluated on their ability to effectively perform their role.The roles and responsibilities were clearly defined for each research team member.

For the course website, the IT Fellow designed an electronic Survey Research Folder to contain instruction guides. The Survey Research Folder contained individual folders with instruction guides for editors, report writers, analysts, data collectors, programmers, and project managers.

Figure 1. Survey Research Folder

For the Programmer’s Folder, the IT Fellow created a guide for programming surveys in the CEHD Survey Tool. For the Analyst Folder, Dr. Grier-Reed created a guide explaining how to calculate descriptive statistics, histograms, pie charts, and graphs using Excel. She also developed guides for the Report Writer’s Folder, including guidelines for writing important sections of scientific reports (e.g., introduction, methods, results, and discussion). The Data Collector’s Folder contained the Informed Consent Template. To help team members communicate, the IT Fellow developed the Virtual Workroom which served as a discussion room in the Survey Research Folder where students could brainstorm and share ideas.

Project Implementation and Evolution
During the summer Treks program Dr. Grier-Reed developed the foundation of the Survey Research Project, and experience implementing it in her classes has helped her improve it. For instance, in the first semester of implementation she discovered that there were other basic technology tools like Track Changes in Word that students were not necessarily familiar with but that greatly improved efficiency in the process of revision. Today she provides students in her classes with guides for how to use Track Changes in the Editor’s Folder. She has also added a Guide to Peer Review to help students more effectively edit. As it turns out, this editor’s guide could very well be a general guide for how to read and review any research article. Dr. Grier-Reed has also revised the Analyst’s Guide. A surprising revelation was that Analysts didn’t necessarily have a natural inclination to review their research question and hypothesis before engaging in data analysis. In turn, Dr. Grier-Reed amended the Analyst Guide to include guidelines for how to approach (i.e., think about) data before calculating statistics. This included questions to ask and items to highlight before one begins the process of analysis in Excel.

Further revisions have included changing the role originally labelled as Liaison to Project Manager. Despite having the responsibilities outlined, students didn’t know what a Liaison was. Having a clearly defined leader called a Project Manager helped students better self-select for the role and provide the leadership needed on each research team. The Project Manager’s primary responsibilities are to help the team meet deadlines and ensure that all research approvals are in place before the team proceeds to the next phase of the research process. Today, Dr. Grier-Reed further supports Project Managers with a checklist that contains all the necessary approvals and project deadlines in the research process. This is located in the Project Manager’s Folder.

At this point Dr. Grier-Reed has also eliminated all paper assignments associated with the Survey Research Project, and now uses the Virtual Workroom only. The Virtual Workroom has turned out to be a very efficient way of receiving assignments and providing feedback to research teams. Given that all communications are time stamped and individually identifiable, the Virtual Workroom provides a reliable way to track deadlines and individual students’ engagement in the project.

Honestly, the success of this project has been surprising. Across all classes, students have been able to complete the project, conducting original research, writing scientific reports, and creating knowledge as part of reasonably effective research teams. It is clear now how this project engages students in unique aspects of knowledge production by capitalizing on their innate curiosity and perspective to hone in on a research question, develop a hypothesis, and then test it out using the scientific method.

The Survey Research Project intimately engages students with the possibilities, as well as the limitations and heartbreak, of survey research. Right from the start many students get excited about their research questions. Some of the questions are more appropriate for experimental research than survey research. Students must then go back and revise and resubmit--a process academicians are intimately familiar with. Students can also experience the pain of having to throw out data, if, for instance, they have inadvertently collected data from a number of 17 year-olds who can’t provide consent despite having signed the informed consent form. And, of course, many students learn the importance of wording a survey question or answer choice clearly, especially when frustrated and trying to make sense of their results. In short, the Survey Research Project utilizes the active learning paradigm to teach students about the research process in a way that only reading about it can not.

Moreover, students develop technological and scientific literacy. As this project has continued, more emphasis has been placed on scientific literacy. Common errors in scientific reports include colloquial references to correlations in the absence of any reported correlation statistic or students claiming to sample “random” people without actually employing random sampling techniques. These observations are presenting additional teachable moments, and today there are  self-check questions in the Report Writer’s Guide to reduce these types of errors.

In fact, students are generating such interesting and quality research projects  that the opportunity to present and publish their work is much more of a consideration than when the project was originally conceived. Currently, the institutional review board stipulates that the research is conducted solely for completing course credit and that results will not be published or made available in public reports. In the future this may change, particularly as iPads and other mobile technologies provide students with more freedom to get in the field and survey their subjects. With 2010-2012 CEHD iPad initiatives mobile technologies have greatly improved the Survey Research Project.

Inclusion of iPads
When this project began, students could only post their survey urls to the course website for their classmates. However, in the second semester of the project, CEHD students and faculty were given iPads to enhance the use of instructional technologies. Due to this CEHD iPad Initiative, students have moved out into the field to collect data for the Survey Research Project, where they can now personally provide informed consent and survey their research subjects. This expanded access has also expanded the array of research questions they can pose as they can now survey faculty, staff, and any other adults capable of providing informed consent and interested in participating in their study.

The use of mobile technologies has not only expanded the kinds of research questions students are posing, it has also facilitated increased ownership in the project. We have mentioned a number of surprises, but one major surprise is how much students seem to enjoy and take ownership of the Survey Research Project. They research a variety of fascinating topics ranging from whether scholarships should be based on merit or need to whether college students’ perceptions of romantic relationships seem to vary based on whether their parents are married or not.

All the ways technology has intersected to make the Survey Research Project possible is somewhat surprising--from the CEHD Survey Tool to iPads to more basic technology applications like Word Track Changes, a course website, Excel, and the Virtual Workroom. Creative use of technology has made possible pedagogical practices that allow 1st-year college students to create knowledge in moderately sized 60 person introductory level psychology courses.  What may be most surprising is that neither of the authors are “ techy”! When Dr.Grier-Reed shared this with one of the academic technology staff during the Treks training, the technologist stated that in her experience openness seemed to be the most important factor in whether and how people integrate technology in the classroom. In that vein our advice to others is to be open! Good pedagogy can drive technology, and technology can also drive good pedagogy. In our journey with the Survey Research Project we have experienced both.


Tabitha Grier-Reed <>
Tabitha is an Associate Professor in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning, and the primary originator of the Survey Research Project. She continues to implement the project in her introductory psychology courses.
Emily Karp <>
Emily is an undergraduate teaching assistant (UGTA) in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning. She has had experience with the Survey Research Project as a student and project manager in Dr. Grier-Reed’s class and as part of the instructional team providing support to students as a UGTA.