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Survey questions


Surveys are a widely used research method that helps you collect information from a large number of people. They are carried out using questionnaires either by post, online, over the telephone or face-to-face. An output of the vinspired project, this guide is for universities or departments who are looking to find out more about the extent of student volunteering, using survey methods.

  • Introduction
    • How you ask about 'volunteering' can have a significant effect on the response you receive. For example, analysis of the Futuretrack Survey revealed that 15 per cent of first year undergraduates in the UK volunteered with a charity in the academic year 2006/7 while a study commissioned by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement using the 'Student Activities Survey' indicated that 49 per cent of students surveyed had engaged in formal volunteering in the academic year 2009/10. The differences in these rates of volunteering are attributable to who was asked about volunteering, how they were asked, and what type of survey it was. 

    • Questions on volunteering included on general surveys (such as Futuretrack) are likely to reveal lower rates of volunteering than surveys with a strong focus on volunteering or citizenship (such as the Student Activities Survey). The Student Activities Survey also included a very broad definition of volunteering or unpaid help that was intended to capture a wider range of voluntary activities that simply volunteering for ‘a charity’.
    • This guide aims to start you thinking about surveying students about their volunteering. It is not intended as comprehensive guide to survey methods, but as a tool to help practitioners and researchers plan how to ask about volunteering in surveys.
  • Guidelines and approach
    • Deciding whether or not a survey is the right method to use to find out about volunteering

    • It is important to consider the types of questions that surveys can help you answer. Typically they can help answer questions such as: How many students are volunteering? Who are those students? What activities are they engaged with? How often?

    • Before embarking on a survey you might like to consider the size of the population you want to ask questions of, the expected response rate, and how you plan to use the data. Surveys are often undertaken because they can collect data from a large number of people and a larger sample means that key decision makers may be more likely to listen to and implement recommendations from your findings. However in practice it takes a great deal of resource and institutional support to get a response rate that is higher than 2 or 3 percent of the student population. Therefore you should consider if there are other ways in which you can answer the questions you have or if you can work collaboratively with other departments to combine resources. If you do want a specialist survey on volunteering, perhaps you might think about working with other local higher education institutions.

    • Depending on your research question it may be that a survey is not the best research method for finding out what you want to know. For example if you want to explore students’ experiences of volunteering or understand their 'journey' through volunteering, a qualitative method such as a focus group or mapping exercise may be a better way to get such rich data.

    • Finally you should consider the skills, resources and expertise needed to analyse the data once collected. It may be that you have this level of expertise within your team, but it will certainly exist within the wider university and therefore it is important to secure this support from the start, ideally during the design phase of a survey.
  • Distributing your survey
    • Typically questionnaires are distributed by post or telephone, however because students have a higher response rate to online surveys compared to other groups of people within universities they are often distributed electronically. It is also worth remembering that surveys can also be completed face-to-face.

    • There is a range of free or inexpensive survey tools available online, meaning that conducting a survey can be very cost effective and relatively simple to administer. Most of the questions you ask will be ‘closed’, meaning they have predetermined answers. This makes surveys easy to analyse and provides clear statistics that can make good headline figures for reports.

    • There is a growing problem of ‘survey fatigue’ in which people are inundated by online surveys and are reluctant to complete them. One way around this problem is to provide small incentives to encourage completion, such as a discount at a campus shop for every completed survey or entry into a prize draw.

    • Another option is to insert a question onto another survey. For instance, if you are looking to find out about the nature and extent of volunteering by students or graduates from your institution or the reasons that students do not take part in volunteering it might be possible to insert questions into another survey that is being run by, say, the Employability/Careers service or Alumni Office. You may not be able to ask all the questions you would like to, but you may get a higher response rate, and it may move your thinking forward.

    • If you decide to do a survey and plan to email a questionnaire to all students remember to be careful about what you call the survey, particularly if you are looking to investigate reasons why students do not volunteer. A ‘volunteering survey’ is likely to attract respondents who already have some interest in or experience of volunteering. You could consider the following options: ‘activities at university’ or ‘student experiences’ or ‘student citizenship’ survey.
  • How do I ask about ‘volunteering’?
    • There are a number of different ways to ask about volunteering in surveys. A question such as ‘Do you volunteer?’ is likely to generate low responses because many people do not instantly recognise the help they give to either individuals or groups to be ‘volunteering’. The questions which give the highest and most accurate positive response give participants a list of activities (which are defined as volunteering by researchers) and simply ask if they have carried them out or not e.g. raising or handling money, befriending or mentoring people and campaigning. 

    • However, taking such a broad definition of volunteering can be tricky if there isn’t space for this type of question in the survey. Therefore it is better to use a broad conception of volunteering either by defining it broadly in the question or using terms such as ‘unpaid help’ or ‘unpaid voluntary work’ for help for ‘groups, clubs or organisations’. In self-completion surveys, such as an online or postal questionnaire, it can be a good idea to provide more information to the respondent in the question. For example you could include a definition of volunteering, or call it ‘unpaid help’ or ‘unpaid voluntary work’, or be more specific, such as ‘volunteer for a charity’.

    • In relation to volunteering by students there are a number of factors that might influence the nature of the questions you ask. For example:
    • - Do you want to find out about both formal volunteering (giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations to benefit other people or the environment) and informal volunteering (giving unpaid help as an individual to people who are not relatives);
    • - Are you interested in volunteering that only benefits the wider community, or are you interested in volunteering which benefits the student community such as students’ clubs and societies;
    • - Do you want to look at the differences between regular and irregular volunteering;
    • - Do you only want to look at the volunteering that is supported or initiated by a department within the university or students’ union.
    • - An example of a formal volunteering question: In the past twelve months, have you given any unpaid help to any groups, clubs or organisations?
    • - An example of an informal volunteering question: In the past twelve months, have you given any unpaid help as an individual (i.e. not through a group, club or organisation)? 

    • The external links and other resources will help you access different ways of asking about volunteering. The Student Activities Survey which took into account many of the above considerations is also available to download.
  • Top tips
    • - Keep in mind the research question you want to ask, and whether a survey is the best way to answer it;
    • - Make sure you are clear about what sorts of volunteering you are interested in asking about, keep in mind if you define volunteering too narrowly you may exclude some interesting findings, if it is too broad you may not find out the answer to your question;
    • - Consider response rates, incentives, and how to piggy-back on existing surveys;
    • - Consider collaborating with other universities in order to compare findings, create a bigger data set etc.
  • External Links
    • 'Individual voluntary participation in the United Kingdom' produced by Laura Staetsky at the University of Southampton for the Third Sector Research Centre.
    • Volunteering England (2010) Volunteering Impact Assessment Toolkit: A practical guide for assessing the difference that volunteering makes. Second Edition, London: Volunteering England. This toolkit contains a step by step guide to conducting research on volunteering, including topic guides, questionnaires and a full case study.
    • The UK Data Service has hundreds of questions from previous surveys to browse. You can search for questions on volunteering.
    • Bryman, A. Social Research Methods, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Various editions of this useful textbook are widely available.
    • Low, N. and Butt, S. (2007) Helping Out: A national survey of volunteering and charitable giving - Technical Report. London: NatCen