Considering conducting a survey? Remember that what people say they do or say is important to them does not usually match their behavior

According to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (2012 Cohort), 73% of students say tutoring is somewhat or very important. But, only 29% of students participate in tutoring at their college.  So, students say tutoring is important, but that isn’t reflective in their behavior.

What people say they do or say is important to them does not usually match their behavior

This isn’t a new phenomenon and not shocking, but it does serve as a good reminder that what people say they do or say is important to them does not usually match their behavior. Why is this? There are a wide variety of reasons:

  • They understand it’s important, but it’s just not important ENOUGH. We have a limited amount of time and so many choices of what to do with our time. It’s not a factor of what is important to us, but what is MOST important to us. I may know that exercising six times per week is important, but, after a sleepless night, I might deem skipping my morning workout and getting some sleep as more important.
  • They may feel that a behavior is important for someone else, just not them. For the tutoring example, a student with a 4.0 GPA may truly believe that tutoring is important, just not for them. They may feel it’s very important for students who aren’t making a 4.0.
  • Sometimes, it’s not socially acceptable to say something isn’t important. As an extreme example, if you conducted a survey asking if saving the lives of starving children was important, I can’t see anyone saying no. But, in reality, there might be some people who honestly don’t feel that it is important. It’s just that they don’t feel comfortable expressing that view because it’s not socially acceptable to do so.
  • They don’t really know what their behavior is. We’ve seen this in study after study. People don’t know how many calories they consume or how much time they spend on Facebook. And, the infamous advertising question, “How did you hear about us?” they don’t know (for more on this, read Addressing the Question: Measuring Advertising ROI).

How this relates to conducting surveys

So, having people self-report what’s important to them isn’t usually the best way to conduct a survey because it doesn’t really reflect behavior.  Having people self-report their behavior is slightly better, but as I said above, it has limitations as well. The best way, and unfortunately usually the most costly way, to really understand behavior is to actually track behavior.

What this says to us in higher education

Well, the good news is, we’ve done a great job of telling students that tutoring is important. The bad news is, it hasn’t resulted in students actually taking advantage of  tutoring services. It’s time to rethink our marketing strategy.

What it says to us about our own lives

What’s really important to you? Do a time and money study and you will know. Track how you spend your time and how you spend your money for a month. I’ve done this before and trust me, it’s eye-opening.

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