Survey Anonymity and Confidentiality

In the next few weeks I will open course evaluations for the summer 2014 academic term. This course evaluation is no different from any I have conducted during my time at USAO, but I thought it would be a good idea to talk about an important feature that their routine nature might obscure.

Plenty of people confuse the ideas of anonymity and confidentiality when they are applied to surveys and other forms of data collection. The differences between these concepts can be subtle, but understanding how your personal identity is tied in with your responses is important, not just during your time as a USAO student, but also when you enter the workforce as a professional.

Anonymous Surveys

At its most basic, an anonymous survey requires no personally identifying information. You will not be asked to provide your name or any other data point that could identify you as an individual (like your social security number, or student ID). Further, an anonymous survey includes no feature or mechanism enabling a researcher to associate your response with your identity. In short, when you respond to an anonymous survey, nobody will have the ability to identify what answers you provided. Very few surveys you complete will be anonymous- this is not limited to USAO surveys, but many employee surveys as well.  During your time at USAO, I will make sure to let you know when a survey is anonymous, though I cannot imagine when I would use one of these instruments.

Confidential Surveys

By contrast, a confidential survey protects the identity of respondents. Individual responses can be tracked, but that information is seldom disclosed to anyone but a select few. A confidential survey is the type that students, staff and faculty at USAO (and at most other organizations) will be asked to complete. In a confidential survey someone has the capacity to track your individual response. At USAO that person is usually me or a member of my staff (pretty much only Daniel Pool). In other organizations, the person or organization asking you to complete the confidential survey has the capacity to identify your individual response, but has pledged in some manner to protect that information from disclosure.

Using confidential surveys allows me to link your responses in one survey to your responses in other surveys to see how they relate to each other. Additionally, I could link your survey responses to your student records to see how your responses relate to academic outcomes, or other important phenomenon. I should point out that I am almost never interested in how any specific individual responds (though I am sure you are a wonderful and interesting human being), rather I am interested in how survey respondents with key values for certain variables (like satisfaction, or participation in key events) link up with other collections of data. In fact, by the time I begin to work with the data you provide, I have already stripped your name off the record. Even with the capability to know how you responded, I usually don’t bother to check how any individual responded- that information simply does not shed any light into the analyses I perform.

Your information is confidential in the sense that I never publish or share your individual response with anyone. My reports and analyses consist of data aggregations, never individual responses. Unless you specifically ask me to reveal your responses, I will be the only person with the capability to figure out how you completed a survey.

Confidentiality Limitations

In the interest of full disclosure, I will mention the few circumstances when I will share individual responses with someone else. I have the obligation to turn over potentially identifying data to designated officials when ordered to do so by a court of law. I have personally never been involved in a situation like this, but it is always a possibility. Second, I may be compelled to release confidential information by on officer of this university or one of its stakeholders. Again, I have never experienced this type of order, nor can I imagine when this would be advantageous to anyone, but it could happen. Additionally, I may be compelled to identify a survey respondent if the information they provide gives me a reasonable expectation of harm to an individual. Finally, many USAO courses are small in size and this can pose a threat to your confidentiality. Keep these in mind when you complete any survey.

I mention all this because the success of any data collection activity depends on trust. You have to trust that I will not mislead you about how your information will be used and that your confidentiality will be protected whenever possible. I know that talking about these issues will dissuade some people from responding and I am fine with that. I would much rather have fewer responses than have to mislead anyone for more. Having said this, I ask that you seriously consider completing our surveys. The information you provide is critical to helping USAO provide the best educational experience possible for our students. I reiterate my pledge to protect the confidentiality of your information to the best of my ability and hope you will keep helping us with your survey responses.

If any of my readers have any questions about this topic, please let me know. I will be more than happy to discuss this further.

What would motivate you?

Students! We need your help!   The Assessment and Institutional Research Offices give out prizes occasionally for participation in surveys. We want to know what would be a good prize to offer for our next survey. Answer the poll below and comment if you have any thoughts.

Continue reading

What Makes These Arts Liberal Anyway?

Few universities carry more stigma in their description as the ‘liberal’ arts institution. The term is misleading at best and polarizing at worst. Made worse by the fact that even many students enrolled in colleges with a liberal arts program may not fully know what it really means.

 

This issue is more than a just marketing however, American culture has warped the idea of what being liberal is to the point that just the sound of the word regardless of context can ignite powerful emotions. Clouding the issue further is the changing nature of the arts in general.

 

The Seven Liberal Arts and their Corresponding Planets

The Seven Liberal Arts and their Corresponding Planets

Continue reading

Contest Winner – NSSE #3

Laney Reason won a Google Chromecast digital streaming device for replying to our NSSE survey! The NSSE helps the university decide what it should focus on to better help students enjoy their experience. To learn more about the survey see this page and to learn about the results from previous years see this page.

photo by Daniel Pool

photo by Daniel Pool

For a chance to win your own fabulous prize, check your student email, look for our posters in the hallways, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Grading U.S. Colleges

Guest post by Brittani Mulkey

As a student of the No Child Left Behind era, I will admit that my first reaction upon hearing about a new ranking system and assessment of colleges was one of annoyance. “We’re going to be doing this again?” I said to myself. This is of course my own personal bias; testing has become a dirty word over the course of my education (which makes working in the Assessment Office pretty funny). My second gut reaction was, “This will not end well.” Again, I will have to admit to a personal bias as I tend to be a bit of a pessimist when it comes to change, particularly on such a large scale.

Photo by Andrew Schmidt

Photo by Andrew Schmidt

Continue reading

Why the Government Should Grade U.S. Colleges

Recently reports began pouring into social media, gossip pages, and general news sites about a new rating system from the federal government for universities. The initiative, which has not been written yet, has created controversy in higher education circles as they fear it will impact funding. In the modern information society, however, ratings like this exist for everything from films and makeup to bottled water and podcasts. In order to stay relevant with the changing focus of how Americans evaluate a product (i.e. peer reviews) it is of paramount importance to provide this information to the general public by a nonpartisan organization at a national scale.

photo by Daniel Pool

photo by Daniel Pool

Continue reading

Contest Winner – Student Satisfaction

Erin Stone took the USAO Student Satisfaction Survey and won a Roku digital streaming device! The survey was created to help identify ways for the university to increase how much students enjoy their time with us. In return for their time we rewarded a few of the participants with prizes.

Another winner with Erin Stone

Another winner with Erin Stone

For a chance to win your own fabulous prize, check your student email, look for our posters in the hallways, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Federal College Ratings: Overview and Concluding Remarks

Over the past few posts I have argued that those of us in higher education research and practice should see President Obama’s initiative to create a Federal rating system for colleges and universities as a potential opportunity as opposed to a threat. At its core, any such system is an attempt to objectively evaluate the impact education spending is having on individuals and populations. The simple question they hope to answer (I suspect) is “what exactly are we purchasing with all this money?” I do not think that many of my colleagues would take issue with this question. What does send shivers down our metaphorical spine is the potential for this system to be too simple for the reality of our industry and result in less than fair judgments about our performance.

Further, I have offered my own list of features that a truly fair and effective rating system should include:

I know change is difficult and I know that this system has the potential to create “winners and losers.” It seems easy to forget that the current, less than transparent systems already do this and they are only problematic if one suddenly finds themselves on the wrong end of that spectrum.  The fact remains that change is coming. It has been for many years. Not only has public perception of the value of higher education shifted dramatically, but increasingly we find ourselves competing for every dollar of funding with a myriad of other important state and national priorities. Couple this with the unprecedented access to information available to the people we serve and we can rest assured that changes like this will continue to surface. We can resist the change and find them implemented without our input, or we can add our expertise to make sure the end result is positive for all of us.

While we can seldom resist the calls for change, we have a voice with which to make the change a positive one.