The Importance of Anonymous Surveys

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In 2013, an Illinois teacher named John Dryden made headlines by informing his students that they did not have to fill out a school survey if they did not wish to, after noticing that the surveys had the students’ names printed on them. Dryden was reprimanded for doing this, even though there are a multitude of problems with surveys such as the one his students were given. For example, without anonymous surveys, schools can face any of the following issues:

  • •   Students will misrepresent themselves. By including names on a survey, students will fear consequences to their answers and fill out the questionnaire without disclosing true information about their behaviors inside and outside of school.
  • •   Data from the surveys will be skewed and therefore less effective. As a teacher or administrator, you may be very well aware of a drug or alcohol problem at your school, and you may have decided to conduct surveys to gather information and develop a plan of action. However, without an anonymous questionnaire, you students may be less than honest in their answers, and you could find it difficult to react to the problem to your best ability.
  • •   The school could attract negative publicity. As the Illinois school in the story above did, you might set off a small media firestorm, after which you’ll have to answer to reporters, faculty, school system administrators, and parents.
  • •   A multitude of legal issues could surface. As Dryden pointed out to his students that day, you are essentially taking away your students’ Fifth Amendment rights if you insinuate that they must complete a survey with their names printed on them.

Dryden’s story, which can be found in full here, illustrates the importance of anonymous surveys, for the benefit of the students and the school – especially when dealing with sensitive information. As Rainesford Alexandra at the Huffington Post explains, “Any student whose answers raised ‘red flags’ was sent to the school’s social workers and counselors.”

Had the school issued an anonymous questionnaire, they would have avoided negative media attention, and students would have been more likely to provide truthful answers without feeling betrayed by their school.

How to Ensure Anonymous Questionnaire Results

Using anonymous surveys is the best method to protect student identity at all times. To help ensure that your results are valid, we’ve included the following tips that will come in handy the next time you conduct a student survey:

  1. 1.   Include instructions notifying the students that they can choose not to complete the questionnaire without consequences.
  2. 2.   Provide schools with notification letters to distribute to parents allowing them to “opt-out” their child if they do not want them to participate in a survey.
  3. 3.   Instruct teachers not to move around the classroom and not to answer questions, except to say, “If there is something you do not understand or you feel uncomfortable answering, skip the question.”
  4. 4.   Make sure that no data can be used to identify individual students or teachers by always using at least 10 valid respondents. This guarantees that one cannot look at a data set and deduce who certain people are by race, gender, etc.
  5. 5.   When storing survey results and data online, keep it password-protected and maintain strict policies about authorized users of data.

The myriad of benefits to conducting a student questionnaire far outweigh any potential problems – but to avoid any mishaps, like skewed data or the ability to detect student identity, schools should utilize anonymous surveys whenever possible.

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