Graduate Students Learn About Research by Completing Hands-On Survey Project

Now can you give students the best chance for future success? The approach favored by Dr. John Bonfadini, professor of educational research at George Mason University in Virginia, is to help students learn by doing. By the end of his course, each graduate student will have completed a practical survey research project. "I like to take a hands-on approach to teaching research," explains Bonfadini. "I find that the students appreciate the opportunity to get their hands into it and make the theoretical aspect of educational research mean something." Surveys are valuable research tools for everything from how to improve educational programs and encourage student and staff excellence, to how to address social issues that affect learning. Every district, school and college conducts surveys. Bonfadini wants his students to be able to apply the theoretical concepts they have learned. Whether his students pursue a career in education, research or administration, they likely will be faced with the need to conduct or evaluate surveys. A Practical Approach To implement his practical approach to learning, the professor uses several tools from National Computer Systems (NCS), of Eden Prairie, Minn. NCS Survey software for Windows, together with an NCS OpScan 5 scanner and NCS scannable forms, serve as his instructional vehicles. Bonfadini started using the DOS version of the software, and says he appreciates the benefits of the new Windows release. "Even students who are not very PC literate quickly learn how to use the software. If they already know how to use Windows, it's quite simple." He adds that the software also greatly simplifies lining up forms for different printers by setting up all parameters and eliminating what he calls the "minor irritants" of survey design. For his course, Bonfadini organizes students into groups, each of which designs a survey around a topic of their own choosing. A topic, for example, might be year-round schools. He further explains the assignment: "I have the student select three discrete variables that they want to look at. I use 'special codes' from the software to determine the variables. Then students create a series of questions in a Likert-type scale to determine the respondents' attitudes about year-round schools." To implement the survey, Bonfadini has found that the NCS General Purpose Survey form offers the flexibility students need. Yet it still provides consistency when teaching students how to design their questionnaire and how to use a laser printer to overprint the questions onto the form. After the survey has been distributed -- either by mail or in person -- students scan the forms with the NCS OpScan 5 scanner. Then, Bonfadini teaches students how to interpret the results and create an effective report based on one of the eight report formats available from the software. NCS Survey Software for Windows can provide frequency tabulation reports, inter-item correlation matrices, theme reports, cross tabulation reports, just to name a few. Data may be displayed in pie charts, bar graphs and other visual formats to help students tailor their reports. Trickle-Down Recommendations Bonfadini finds that not only d'es the hands-on approach foster learning, but it also sets his class apart from others. "I like to get feedback from my students on the class itself. I find that they appreciate the approach we take. It seems to be part of what appeals to them about the class." Not surprisingly, one way the professor obtains feedback is by students taking a survey. He scans the forms and, within 15 minutes, has a printout of their responses. "Then, we sit down and talk about their feedback while it's still fresh in their minds." Why did Bonfadini choose NCS products? He mainly cites their quality and reliability. "What I like best is the reliability and the help I get when I need it." And students seem to agree. Many of the 1,500 educators Bonfadini has taught in the past three years have gone back to their schools and recommended his approach to administrators. "The technology that is available has simplified the survey process so they can understand the concepts."

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.