Online Student Surveys vs. Paper Surveys

Online Student Surveys vs. Paper Surveys: Advantages and Disadvantages

If your school has decided to conduct a student survey, you’re likely facing a number of critical decisions regarding the surveying process. One of these questions may be whether to use web-based, online surveys or paper and pencil surveys. Paper questionnaires are more traditional and have been successfully utilized for many years, while online surveys are relatively new.
Both paper and online survey measures have advantages and disadvantages to them, and the type you choose will largely be dependent on your school’s individual goals and needs.

The Differences Between Online and Paper Surveys

Paper surveys are questionnaires in which students are given a paper form to fill out, usually with bubbles and a #2 pencil, which are machine-scored. Other paper surveys have SCANTRON® forms that are separate from the questionnaires, which are slightly more prone to errors and mistakes.
Online or web-based surveys are questionnaires in which students complete and submit the entire surveying process on a computer or other online device, such as a tablet. Alternately, a computer-based survey is one where students take the survey on the computer, but they may not require internet access to do so (i.e. software-based surveys).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Paper Surveys for Students

Because they have been successfully utilized for so long and by so many different schools and organizations, paper questionnaires are often a preferred method of surveying students. One of the primary advantages of these types of surveys is that they typically garner much higher response rates than their digital counterparts.[1]
Additionally, students and teachers often believe that paper surveys are much more anonymous than online surveys, which lends itself to the belief that respondents may be more honest on paper questionnaires.[2] Furthermore, printed surveys have formatting that looks the same for all participants, and the environment in which the survey is taken is relatively uniform. This helps ensure that all students receive the same questionnaire in the same format and the same setting.
The primary disadvantage cited in regards to paper surveys is that they can be resource-intensive in terms of both labor and financial investment. This can certainly be true if your organization is fully managing the survey process in-house. However, partnering with a reputable survey company can help you avoid this downside in several ways. For example, at Pride, there is no pricing difference between our online and our paper surveys. Plus, we handle the majority of the labor involved, from printing the materials (if you choose the paper option) to scanning the results and creating easy-to-understand and easy-to-disseminate reports. As a result, the major objections raised against paper surveys can be easily managed and avoided.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Surveys

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the popularity of online surveys has skyrocketed in recent years due to increased access to the internet and the advantages afforded by this type of questionnaire. Researchers have noted that “using web-based evaluation questionnaires can bypass many of the bottlenecks in the evaluation system (e.g. data entry and administration) and move to a more ‘just in time’ evaluation model.”[3]
Just as with paper surveys, online surveys have a number of disadvantages. For example, research has shown that many students have concerns regarding the confidentiality and ease of use of online measures,[4] while staff members have concerns about the adequacy of response rates.[5] These faculty fears are not unfounded, as studies have found that, in general, online surveys are much less likely to achieve response rates as high as surveys administered on paper.[6]
In fact, “the data clearly show that face-to-face administration results in higher response rates. What is unknown is whether response rates to online surveys would rise to the same level if they were also conducted in a face-to-face way.”[7] Therefore, one relatively easy way to avoid this pitfall is by having students take online surveys in-classroom, just as you would with paper-and-pencil surveys.
Another challenge to online surveys is inherent to the technology itself. “Differences in how the survey is displayed across devices, screen-sizes and operating-systems, can, in more or less subtle ways, influence how participants interpret questions. But technology can have other negative effects on survey participation and outcomes. A slow internet-connection can discourage people from taking a survey, or missing plugins (such as a Flash® plugin) may even make a survey inaccessible to large portions of the sample.”[8][9] Similarly, availability of devices can be an issue that schools encounter as well. If there are not enough computers for students to take the survey all at once, there must be a plan for how students will be rotated through to give them all an opportunity to participate.

Online Surveys vs. Paper Surveys: Which is Right for Your School?

It’s important to remember that, although there are pros and cons to different questionnaire options, surveys are a critical measure that community coalitions and educational institutions use to evaluate their schools. They are often mandatory for securing and retaining much-needed funding and they are helpful for accurately assessing environments.
When trying to decide which type of student survey to use, decision-makers should evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of both types and, ultimately, use their school’s individual goals to choose. However, even with a wealth of helpful information, knowing how to survey your students —and how to conduct the process scientifically and successfully—can be labor-intensive and overwhelming.
That’s why partnering with a reliable, proven surveying company like Pride Surveys can make the process so much easier. We work directly with you to identify your organization’s needs and to help you choose the right survey, and we provide assistance and resources every step of the way, from administration to data processing, reporting, and more. Additionally, we can provide guidance and resources to help your organization avoid some of the potential difficulties associated with different types of surveys.
Find out why Pride is the right survey partner for your school or browse our range of products. Ready to get started? Give us a call at 800-279-6361 or fill out our quick online contact form!


[1]Nulty, Duncan D. “The adequacy of response rates to online and paper surveys: what can be done?” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education: Vol. 33, No. 3, June 2008, 301-314. Retrieved from https://www.uaf.edu/files/uafgov/fsadmin-nulty5-19-10.pdf on November 28, 2016.

[2]Dommeyer, C.J., P., Baum, K. Chapman, and R.W. Hanna, 2002. Attitudes of business faculty towards two methods of collecting teaching evaluations: paper vs. online. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 27, no. 5: 455–462

[3]Watt, S., C. Simpson, C. McKillop, and V. Nunn. 2002. Electronic course surveys: does automating feedback and reporting give better results? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 27, no. 4: 325–337.

[4]Dommeyer, C.J., P. Baum, and R.W. Hanna. 2002. College students’ attitudes toward methods of collecting teaching evaluation: in-class versus online. Journal of Education for Business 78, no. 2: 11–15.

[5]Dommeyer, C.J., P., Baum, K. Chapman, and R.W. Hanna, 2002. Attitudes of business faculty towards two methods of collecting teaching evaluations: paper vs. online. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 27, no. 5: 455–462.

[6]Nulty, Duncan D. “The adequacy of response rates to online and paper surveys: what can be done?” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education: Vol. 33, No. 3, June 2008, 301-314. Retrieved from https://www.uaf.edu/files/uafgov/fsadmin-nulty5-19-10.pdf on November 28, 2016.

[7]Ibid.

[8]10. Dillman, D. A, Mail and Internet Surveys: The Tailored Design Method. (2007).

[9]4. Best, S. J., ‘Internet Survey Design.’, The SAGE handbook of online research methods 217 (2008).



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