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How to reach your highest-ever survey response rates

11 Feb 2020 | Laura Didymus In advance of our Surveys and Insights Conference 2020 in April, Laura Didymus of Solent University shares her advice for achieving high response rates in student surveys.

Engaging with the student voice is a key part of improving the student experience. One way we do this at Solent University is through the Advance HE Postgraduate Experience surveys. We run PTES and PRES every year and have had consistent year-on-year response rate increases for both surveys, which are some of the leading response rates in the sector. 

Close the feedback loop 

It’s vital that students know that it is worth their time and effort to complete a survey. Clearly communicating the actions taken due to previous feedback stimulates more open dialogue going forward, which in turn, generates increased levels of engagement and higher response rates in future surveys. 

At Solent we formally close the feedback loop through a university-wide ‘You Said, We Listened’ campaign. The campaign runs throughout the year with posters and digital signs highlighting positive actions taken by schools and professional services based on student feedback.

Work as a team

A cross-departmental team works on all surveys, bringing together specialist knowledge from a range of areas including data, policy, marketing and course intelligence. Teamwork is key to our response rate success. We work together knowing colleagues will be respectful and receptive to our ideas.

With our combined knowledge we are able to work around other key dates in the university calendar and ensure the timings best fit our students’ schedules. We work together to agree a timeline of events and a communications plan for each survey, which help us to stay on track and monitor our progress.

The surveys are ongoing projects, and our working group meets regularly throughout the year. We analyse results, reflect and plan continuously, always with the aim to improve both our response rates and overall survey results.

Across the university colleagues take ownership of their response rates and results. These are reported at school and course level and included in KPI reporting to the Vice Chancellor and Board of Governors. 

Appoint a survey champion

The starting point for engaging as many students as possible is knowing the demographic characteristics of our survey population. We consider how and why our students would want to fill in each survey, asking ourselves “What is their motivation for taking time out of their already busy day?” 

One way we achieve this is with what we call the ‘Bill Effect’. Bill works in our research office, he is our PRES champion and he knows the majority of our research students. During the survey period for PRES, Bill will speak to all of these students by email, phone, or sometimes even popping into offices. 

This works well as the students know Bill and they trust him, so they’re more likely to complete the survey if he tells them about it, rather than if they see a poster promoting it. In your institution, the person who knows your students best might be a course leader, a school administrator or a dean: the important factor is that the students need to have an existing relationship with a survey champion who will encourage them to share their views.

Keep your integrity

We are honest with our students about the length of time that it takes to fill in each survey. We recommend they make a cup of tea before sitting down to complete the survey. This sets the expectation that the survey will take some time to complete and also encourages them to consider their responses. While we could claim PRES and PTES are ‘quick surveys’, the students will only believe us once and this would damage the trust our students have in us.

What works for you?

We’d love to hear your tips for raising response rates. Do you work in a similar way? What has resulted in increased response rates? Also, have you had any initiatives that weren’t as successful as you hoped? It would be great to hear about your experience – as well as whether you’ll be putting any of the above advice into practice this year!


Laura Didymus works within the Policy and Institutional Performance team at Solent University.


The Advance HE Surveys and Insights Conference 2020 takes place on 29 April at Sheffield Hallam University and is a great opportunity to discuss and debate strategies to increase student response rates and engagement. Find out more and book your place here.

The deadline for the call for papers is midnight on 24 February. If you have ideas you would love to share with colleagues from around the sector, submit your abstract here.

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