Behind the scenes: Inside the SU Survey

November 1, 2017  |   Found in Editorial // SU Survey

Before I started working for the Students’ Union, I never really gave the annual SU Survey much thought. I assumed that the answers I left to open-ended questions on any university survey were just sent off to an untouched database of student grievances. I saw statistics in survey reports posted each year, but never quite understood how my thoughts were translated into a pie chart. What I didn’t know was that the people behind these surveys would spend hours reading my responses. Let me explain:

I started working for the SU as one of two Research Assistants (RAs) in September 2016. Among other duties, part of my job description, and I quote, is “coding and analyzing data sets in a university statistics course or equivalent.” I was terrified of this caveat to my new position. As an Arts/Education major, the word “coding” triggered memories of horror stories I had heard from friends taking Computer Science. If coding was difficult for students in math-based degrees, I could not even begin to comprehend the difficulty that I would experience.

I worked as an RA for a full academic year before I was confronted with coding the 2017 SU Survey. To my complete surprise, it was the exact opposite of what I was expecting. Each year the SU administers this survey to the University of Calgary student population to gather feedback on services and gauge student concerns. The results often inform improvements to areas such as SU clubs, services, and advocacy efforts. As an undergraduate, I knew this. I had taken the survey before, and prided myself on the answers I would leave in the portions of the survey allowing for open-ended responses. But what I didn’t know was that the SU RA was responsible for reading all of these open-ended responses (all 9,158 of them to be exact). What I learned was that “coding” the SU Survey wasn’t the coding that traumatized Computer Science students told me about. It meant coming up with a data dictionary for these responses that students provided. Tables like the one below were created for these dictionaries, and each category was assigned with random numbers to be tallied up at the end to convert response frequencies into workable statistics.


Coding, the task I was most worried about, turned out to be one of my favourite parts of this job. The process is systematic, and the math is simple, which was something I thoroughly appreciated. Even though the process was very time-consuming, I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to read student concerns regarding a wide range of issues, completely uncensored. I learned about issues on campus that I never knew existed, and got to participate in the SU processes that turn these concerns into advocacy efforts. I saw how passionate so many undergraduates are about mental health funding, sustainability, and the quality of teaching. Some of the responses even gave me a good laugh, too! For instance, one student left this exact response on every question that had an open-ended response opportunity, and it made me laugh out loud every single time:

“steam shower in mans gym locker have being broken for a year!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Jokes aside, steam-shower-!!!!! guy is right. He, along with so many other undergraduate students, provided many pertinent examples of the infrastructure on campus that needs repair, and the services that are inadequate. Trust me, the effort you put into these surveys explaining these concerns does not go unheard. Whether it’s a Research Assistant, our Policy Analyst, our Communications Department, or an elected official, the SU hears you. Our governance and advocacy efforts are directly defined by your engagement in our annual survey. Even though your responses can become a statistic, your words and thoughts are still read and considered. So, do me and future RAs a favour: continue leaving comments worth reading and passing on to SU staff. We want to know what matters to you!


Jessica is a part-time Research Assistant at the Students’ Union and a full-time Secondary Education/History student. She is a professional to-do list maker, and spends her spare time perfecting her multiple colour-coded calendars. She also used to enjoy a good book until university made her feel guilty for not reading something course related.