Asking the right questions: Opportunities and challenges of survey methods in widening participation research

Bethan Collins, Clive Hunt, Alex Wardrop, Lizzie Gauntlett, Vanessa Heaslip, Maggie Hutchings, Colin Pritchard


The development of an institution-wide survey at one English university raised questions for the researchers in relation to how to ask students about their background. The survey was to focus future widening participation (WP) practice. A detailed iterative process was undertaken to design the institution-wide survey, which included pilot testing and qualitative focus groups with students, from which the results of this paper are drawn. We highlight two areas for consideration: the first, consists of issues of survey design and deployment in an education context generally, and the second, of specific issues relating to survey methods in widening participation research and practice. Students willingly participate in a survey when its aims are clear, when it is easy to complete and when it is perceived to be of ultimate benefit to them. Students in this study did not mind responding to questions about their widening participation status but needed the reason for these questions to be overt and the question to be phrased in a manner that is straightforward and easy to understand. A key learning point from developing the survey was that, in our attempts to use what we thought was more positive, politically correct language, we used euphemistic terms which had the unwanted effect of causing confusion amongst the students. We question whether the use of euphemism clouds the potential reality of inequality and that to uncover and act upon this inequality – surely the aim of WP practice – we need to directly ask students about their experience of disadvantage. Our reluctance to ask direct questions was to avoid offending students and based, problematically, on our underlying assumptions about the shame and stigma attached to disadvantage. These unconscious beliefs about shame and stigma need to be brought into conscious awareness and challenged if we are to address inequality in higher education.


survey design; questionnaire development; pilot testing; widening participation; higher education; student equity

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