The law of diminishing returns

Welcome back from the short holiday weekend.  I hope you got your fill of celebratory dinner and dessert and, most importantly, put the rest of your work life away to send quality time with the family and friends.


A lot of the discussion in my office recently has been about data gathering through surveys.  After all, it’s nearing the end of the academic year and there are many who sincerely want to know if our students experienced Augustana College as we hoped, whether they learned what we intended them to learn, and if any one piece of the myriad of moving parts that make up a college experience has slipped in some way to require a readjustment.


In the process of gathering one such survey – the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education – we’ve seen an almost perfect example of the law of diminishing returns – which basically says for each additional time you try to increase production, all else being equal, the rate of production will decline.  As many seniors are conducting senior inquiry projects that involve surveys, I thought it might be of some interest to share our experience gathering data for the Wabash National Study so far, talk about what it means for gathering survey data on campus, and propose some suggestions for folks planning to collect data in the future from students, faculty, staff, or alumni.


As you have likely seen in some format or another, I’ve been pumping the Wabash National Study to students, faculty, and staff over the last few months because of its potential to provide key guidance on a host of questions regarding our efforts to improve student learning.  We also were able to acquire $25 gift cards as rewards for those who participate in one of our data collection events.  I’ve listed below the participation rates for each of the four data collection dates.


Date of Data Collection

Number of Participants

Mon, March 12


Mon, March 26


Thurs, March 29


Mon, April 2



With only slight variation, the rate of participation drops in half for each subsequent data collection date.  This occurred despite the repeated promotion, coverage in the Observer, soliciting additional promotion from faculty and staff, and a consistently healthy incentive for those who participated.


It’s one thing to hear cautionary tales about this pattern – it’s another to see it so clearly play out right in front of you.  In our case, we are going to continue to host several more data collections during the month of April, but will shift from holding them at night to holding them in the middle of the morning during the convocation time.  I hope you’ll help promote these events to your seniors as you see them announced.


So I could strongly encourage those of you who are gathering data yourself or guiding students in their senior inquiry projects: Come up with multiple ways to gather your data and expect that no matter what you do, your participation will slip as you continue to promote your survey.  This means that you really have one shot to get it right, and everything you can do to incentivize initial participation is worth the effort in the long run.


Make it a good day!



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