ClassAction: Survey design requires more than statistics 

By Russ Cooper

Vince Hopkins (right) explains his POLI 392 survey volunteer participant Stephen Booth (left). Magnifying glass

Vince Hopkins (right) explains his POLI 392 survey volunteer participant Stephen Booth (left).

"I know… a class about surveys doesn't sound very exciting. But it is!"

It may be a bit unusual to see a student light up with enthusiasm when discussing the potentially bland subject of polls, but Vince Hopkins and part-time political science professor Rick Bisaillon aren't bland.

"Bisaillon takes really complicated concepts and breaks them down so we really understand what they mean," says Hopkins, who's taking the course to prepare for his master's in political science. "Looking at a survey now, I know what to look for. It's logical thinking."

The one-semester undergraduate class POLI 392: Survey Research and Design is a way for students to understand the intricacies that go into designing surveys and how that distilled information is delivered to the public. But more than merely understanding, the class is, "more like an experience."

When Bisaillon originally got word he'd be teaching the class 10 years ago, he noticed the methodology was laden with math, making it difficult for non-mathematically inclined social science students to understand.

"I decided to reinvent the class from the ground up with the goal of making it more accessible, to work in the research method style, and have the skills for statistical analysis. But more important, for them to be able to get their research really well rooted," says Bisaillon.

The class, 60 students in size, has served predominately political science students in the past, but Bisaillon has seen more crossover from students within other departments, such as the School of Community and Public Affairs.

He's also adopted a unique classroom style; one that has him running up and down the aisles to stand beside his students to answer their questions rather than stand stolidly in front of the class. "I'm kind of like Jerry Springer, but without the brawling," he laughs.

For Hopkins, this gusto has not gone to waste. He's gone beyond just simply understanding surveys and is designing one of his own. He hopes to prove that anglophones from the rest of Canada – specifically ones studying at Concordia and McGill who choose to stay in-and-around downtown following graduation – are replacing Montreal-born Anglos who left in wake of the 1995 referendum. He's hypothesizing neighbourhoods such as the Plateau and Ville Marie are becoming more English.

"Language in Quebec has always been a loaded subject, we know this," says Hopkins, a B.C.-native who lives in the Ville Marie borough. "With the recent kerfuffle over bill 104 and from personal experience of living and studying here, I thought the timing was right. But more than that, I'm interested to know."

While designing a survey is not a formal requirement of the course, "Vince found a perfect application and he's got the enthusiasm to pull it off," says Bisaillon.

The one-semester class will become a core first-year political science class next September. "It will be more of the nuts and bolts of understanding causality in social science," says Bisaillon.


Concordia University