Surveys and Statistics: How Research is Conducted in Today’s World


Jordie Simpson

Participant filling out a question on a paper survey.

Opinion polls and surveys are ubiquitous in the modern information landscape, often employed by political operatives to win the hearts and minds of voters, and by news media to grab the attention of readers and viewers. With a deluge of information surrounding us, understanding the role of surveys and statistics in the world of persuasive social and news media can help readers dissect their news. 

As an institution, Seattle University conducts its own share of research, and teaches students about the use of research data and the importance of critical analysis at all levels and disciplines. 

Felipe Murtinho, an associate professor and the director of international studies at Seattle U, is both an educator and researcher who is focused on environmental studies in South America. Murtinho teaches a course titled “Research Design and Statistics,” in which students not only conduct their own research projects, but also learn how to analyze and interpret data.

Murtinho believes that the course is unique as it prepares students for future research based courses like their capstone. He finds “Research Design and Statistics” to fulfill the students’ need for a course that integrates research methods with diverse areas of study. He believes the class offers important life skills, too. 

“The important thing in the future is that when you read a newspaper article or hear the news, you can tease out if what they are telling you makes sense or not, and not be tricked by the numbers,” Murtinho said. “Part of it comes in producing your own data so you can put yourself in the shoes of the researcher. Through conducting surveys and analyzing data, you can get a feel for what putting those numbers together is like as well as what the potential problems are.“

Claire Weiner and Lily Muehlhausen, both third-year international studies majors, are currently enrolled in Murtinho’s research class and are in the early stages of analyzing the data they collected for their projects. Muelhausen took her survey to social media to seek out respondents to answer her survey about what factors contribute to someone believing in aliens, but worries about getting enough responses.

“I primarily reached out to Seattle U students through Instagram, as well as a few family members,” Muelhausen said. “When other people post surveys on their own Instagrams I almost never respond unless I know them really well.”

This sentiment was seconded by Weiner, who is often able to tell when a large number of students are taking a research class because of all the survey links flooding people’s social media pages.

Inextricably tied to small research projects like this as well as larger projects led by faculty or graduate students is the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Their mission is to ensure that all research studies involving human subject participants treat the participants properly.

Andrea McDowell, the administrator of Seattle U’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) has held her position for the past 11 years and deals with the 200 or so exemption requests which come in from students every year when planning their research studies (these exemptions are in the form of short paragraphs outlining the study to quickly be able to tell if it needs further review. Typically, only 2-4 studies typically go to review in front of the whole board each year. The board is made up of 13 members, many of them are faculty and two are external to the university. 

While being responsible for adherence to federal regulations concerning human participant studies, McDowell says the IRB also follows the ethical compass of the Belmont Report. Over the past 10 years, McDowell has seen a changing attitude toward the IRB. Previously applying the same protections used for medical studies to nearly every case, the landscape of human participant research has changed to allow for a more adaptable application of limitations. 

Written in the ‘70s, it really grounds the ideas of best practices when collecting data from human participants,” McDowell said. “Rather than limiting research, we are aiming to create a culture of research integrity…changing people from subjects to participants, basically seeing people as people.”

McDowell and Murtinho both believe in the necessary integrity of research as well as its importance. Aside from dedicating his career to it, Murtinho wishes some of his family members could take a class like his research course to better understand misleading social media posts or news headlines.

“I wish my mom could take a class like this,” Murtinho said. “It is important to not be naive and just believe that every poll number you see must be true, but also to not be in total denial of any truth in a data set.”

In considering ways data and statistics are gathered about Seattle U, important questions can be asked about incentives, as well as the way that those findings will be used. 

Second-year Public Affairs and International Studies Double Major Sophia Cofinas currently serves as the Health and Wellness Senator for SGSU, and is the Senate Chair-elect for the ‘23/‘24 school year. She played a prominent role in this year’s State of the Undergraduate Student Survey (SUSS).

“One of the parts of my job is to serve on the presidential advisory board, and our main job is fielding the SUSS,” Cofinas said.

The SUSS was sent out in February this year and was open for a month. As the responses have come in, Cofinas and her team are beginning the process of carefully reviewing the open ended questions while institutional research, not to be confused with the IRB, is helping with the numbers side. 

“Having to work on projects for the student body without any idea of what they actually want has been very difficult,” Cofinas said.

Receiving over 1,600 responses, the 2023 SUSS marks one of the most successful campus wide surveys SGSU has conducted. 

“Now that we have a new set of data, the value of having it is priceless. The exec board for next year—who have all been elected—will be able to look at this data and say ‘ok this is what the students are saying they want to see,’” Cofinas said. “We are the representational body of the students, and now we have the data to back that up.”

She is one of the few students who sit on the committee to help come up with the survey questions, collaborate with institutional researchers and analyze the data to draw conclusions. 

“Usually we would have a working survey from the year before, but last year the board decided not to do the survey as it’s normally held and only received 300 or so responses. It was not something we could work off of,” Cofinas said. 

The most up-to-date survey SGSU had was from 2020. Cofinas and others saw this as an opportunity to reboot the annual survey, retooling past questions and introducing new ones. SGSU took this year’s SUSS as an opportunity to increase participation by raffling prizes, like SZA tickets.

“It was the first SUSS year where we have reignited the strategic direction. The work that we did this year to optimize the SUSS is setting us up for the future,” Cofinas said.

Neither Weiner or Muehlhausen remembered taking the SUSS this year, until it was brought up that it was the survey for which the SZA tickets were offered up. Both recall being very incentivized to participate because of the chance to win, but couldnt particularly remember what the survey was even about.

“Thinking about Seattle U surveys, I don’t trust in the fact that they will present the data in an unbiased way, so I don’t feel like I should take them,” Muehlhausen said. “I don’t know what you would be using it for, or trust that you would do anything with the results, other than to promote or advertise the university.”

Within Seattle U, the source of the survey can factor into some students’ decision to participate. Muehlhausen and Weiner both stated they would probably respond to an email survey from student government but not from Seattle U administration. Cofinas is determined to ensure that student participation remains high, and that SGSU pays attention to the results of their surveys. 

“It’s our mission to listen and respond to students’ needs and opinions, and the SUSS is a major part of that,” Cofinas said. 

Important institutionally and politically, surveys, data and statistics will continue to grow in their importance as the media landscape continues to splinter. Both students and faculty continue to strategize ways to compile accurate data in a complicated campus climate.