With the presidential election in Virginia too close to call, sociology students recently participated in a unique class project under the auspices of the University of Virginia Center for Survey Research.
Between Oct. 2 and 12, 81 U.Va. students, mostly third- and fourth-years, surveyed a random sample of Virginia residents in a statewide pre-election poll for their sociology research methods course. The students conducted the interviews using the center’s computer-assisted telephone interview facilities.
Sociology students at George Mason University also conducted interviews, using the facilities of GMU’s Center for Social Science Research.
The survey was under the direction of Thomas Guterbock, the founding director of U.Va.’s Center for Survey Research. As part of the University’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the center is a full-service academic survey research facility specializing in studies for local government and state agencies.
Taught by sociology professor Deborah Rexrode, the course includes two hours of lecture each week and two hours in a lab setting. Its purpose is to teach students some of the basics of conducting social science research.
Rexrode, also the senior project manager at the center, supervised the development of the questionnaire as well as the telephone calling that took place for the poll.
“The students were very successful in completing interviews with registered voters in Virginia about their plans to vote, their choice in the election and their views on particular issues such as the economy, taxes, immigration and voter ID laws,” she said.
The culmination of Rexrode’s course has usually been the development of a research proposal, but this semester the students will write papers that analyze the data they helped collect.
“In a presidential election as exciting as this year’s, this project is a great opportunity for students to be engaged in research that gives them a glimpse at how polling is done, how the results are disseminated and the impact their findings can have on the election,” Rexrode said.
The U.Va. and GMU students each conducted half of the more than 600 total interviews for the project.
“It was a very interesting experience to be on the other side of survey research,” said Kathleen Kane, a student in the College of Arts & Sciences. “It’s a lot harder to get people to give their opinions or to give informed opinions than one would think.”
The script for the questionnaire included sample questions such as “As of right now, how certain are you to vote in the upcoming presidential election?” and “If you were voting today for the president of the United States, would you vote for Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or someone else?”
“Conducting the survey about the upcoming election helped me apply what we are learning in class to real life,” student Lindsay Fowler said. “It also opened my eyes to issues in our country that I hadn’t even considered before.”
Matthew Braswell, a teaching assistant for the course and a student in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, compared the students’ experience of conducting the survey to being sent out into a great unknown world of unexpected scenarios.
Ultimately, the reward for the students was their direct role in actually building sociological data.
“I think we created an opportunity for the students to feel a real sense of ownership and connection to sociology,” Braswell said. “It shows that sociology isn’t just something that Europeans wrote about in the 19th century – it’s all around us in our everyday lives.”
The students signed up for two-hour shifts each week during the calling process. The goal was that each student would complete one interview per hour. In fact, many completed more than five interviews per hour.
David Morris, a graduate student and the other teaching assistant for the course, knows that surveying respondents and codifying their responses to a numerical system to create usable data is typically an abstract process for many students and researchers.
“These students will be able to use this data to answer research questions knowing exactly how the data collection process was designed and carried out,” Morris said. “Many experienced researchers never actually collect their own data and are unaware of the many details of the process. Our students saw the process upfront and personally, which gives them a unique perspective and a richer understanding of social science research.”
Through their in-depth learning experience of phone surveying, the students may have learned something else as well.
“Never again will I hang up on anyone who calls me for a survey,” said Alexis Thurmond, a phone surveyor and student in the course. “I now know how annoying and rude it is to get hung up on.”