Survey writing woes

By on

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about survey writing. In 2008, I took a short three day course with Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, which made me think about survey writing in a new way. In particular, I started realizing that the surveys that I wrote were poorly written.

Since then, it seems like I keep finding poorly written surveys everywhere I turn. Here are some examples I’ve found recently in ¬†my everyday life:

The US Postal Service sent me a Postal Customer Questionnaire lately because they were thinking about closing my branch. “If you now receive Post Office box service, you will be able to transfer your remaining box rent credit to another post office, or you may be eligible to receive a partial refund. How would you feel about consolidating the Dinkytown station with other postal stations? Better, Just as Good, No Opinion, or Worse” I answered No Opinion. Then I crossed it out and marked Worse. Then I crossed it out and marked No Opinion and wrote a three sentence explanation in the “Please explain” section. Why was this such a hard question to answer? Well, primarily because they’d never asked me about how I’d feel about the consolidation WITHOUT the refund. So now they were merging my opinions about the consolidation in with my feelings about the refund. Personally, I was mad that they were consolidating and I’d feel cheated if they didn’t refund my money, but really the refund wouldn’t change my opinion at all. No where on the survey did they ask me anything to this effect.

This second example isn’t exactly a survey, but is still getting at some of the problems with survey writing. I’m having problems with allergies and need to go see an allergy specialist. So the clinic sent me my paperwork so I could fill it out before my appointment. Leaving aside many of my other complaints (and there are many!), the first main page has a section entitled “Chief complaints of patient.” For each option you are supposed to check “Yes” or “No.” The options are Asthma, Rhinitis (Hay fever), Urticaria (Hives), Eczema, Sinusitis, Chronic recurrent bronchitis, Nasal polyps, Recurrent otitis media, ¬†Recurrent pneumonia, G.I. disturbances (colic, diarrhea, etc), Insect sting reaction, drug reactions, or blank lines. Now I’m a pretty smart person. I’ve been in school for a grand total of twenty-one years now, but I can’t tell you what many of those things are, and I can’t tell you which ones I should select. I have a runny nose and a cough. I’ve been diagnosed with something, but I forget what it is, and it didn’t include the second two symptoms, just the runny nose. Why on earth is this questionnaire that is obviously for the patient or patient advocate full of doctor jargon instead of patient jargon?

Now that I know better, I want to do my best to avoid writing bad survey questions, but at the same time, it’s incredibly difficult to write good survey questions. So what I’ve been doing is writing my same old, same old questions and then revising…and revising…and revising. Trying to revise them to turn them into good questions isn’t easy, but I try. I also ask for a lot of feedback and am very self-critical. One proof-reading pass doesn’t cut it for a survey, even if it’s only going out to 10 people. That would reflect poorly on me, my advisor, my lab, and my university…so I do more work. Hopefully if you take one of my surveys, you’ll see the result of this work, and if not, I hope you’ll take a moment to let me know.

Facebook and Academia

By on

Today The Wired Campus had an article entitled Facebook: Not Just for Students Anymore. It discussed (briefly) the idea of professors setting up facebook profiles and issues this raises. This article linked to a longer piece, For Professors, ‘Friending’ Can be Fraught. This article is a slightly more melodramatic representation of facebook.

Granted, there are issues with faculty (and TAs) being on facebook. As a TA, I make it a point never to accept the friend requests of my students until the end of the semester once grades are submitted. But I have no problem with facebook friending my advisor, my undergrad profs, or other profs or staff within my research group. The trick seems to be in how people use facebook. I try to ensure that my page passes the mom test. I don’t have anything on my page that I wouldn’t mind my mother seeing. (For others this could be the Grandma test or the little brother test or, perhaps, the professor test.)

I enjoy having professors on facebook. It’s fun to see that you are beating your advisor at Scrabble (or vice versa) and that your minister has thrown a turkey at a professor (thanks SuperPoke). Sure I probably watch my content a little more closely than I did two years ago, but to be honest, it’s something that I should be doing anyways.

OLPC laptops

By on

I just got a reminder email about the OLPC laptops going on sale on Monday at 6am EST. I’ve recently been thinking about getting one. My
primary concern is that it might be too small for me to type on. On the
other hand, it’s not meant to be a primary machine. What do you think?
Is it worth $400 to get a laptop and donate a laptop?
If you aren’t familiar with OLPC, it’s a really exciting project. Check it out at