Since 2000, Ithaka S+R has run the US Faculty Survey, which tracks the evolution of faculty members’ research and teaching practices against the backdrop of increasing digital resources and other systemic changes in higher education.  Starting in 2012, Ithaka S+R has offered colleges and universities the opportunity to field the faculty survey, and a newly added student survey, at their individual institutions to gain better insight into the perceptions of their faculty members and students.  More than 70 local faculty and student surveys have been fielded thus far and have enhanced Ithaka S+R’s expertise in higher education survey administration.

This post is the fourth in a series on survey administration best practices.  Ithaka S+R is often queried about our survey administration processes, and this series of blog posts explores both our experience in fielding surveys and current research from email marketers.  Before reading this blog post, you may want to start from the beginning of the series with learning how to ensure your survey invitation is received and opened.

The following recommendations will help you determine what incentives work to increase survey completion rates.  These recommendations should be interpreted in the context of your organization, the recipients of the survey invitation, and the type of survey you are conducting, as your experiences may vary depending on these factors.


The number of participants who start and complete the survey are dependent on these preliminary steps.  Maximizing the number of recipients who open the email invitation and/or reminder and click on the survey link will, in turn, help to increase the response rates.

Do incentives work?

Yes, Ithaka S+R has seen first-hand the impact of incentives, which regularly drive response rates 5-10% higher for institutions that offer them compared to those that do not.

Incentives are especially effective in encouraging participation for student surveys, as students are a notoriously difficult population to recruit for surveys and the additional motivation of an incentive can substantially increase levels of response.  We have also found that incentives are important for surveys fielded at large institutions where students and faculty members may be less engaged with the university community at large.

Why do incentives work?

According to incentive theory of motivation, individuals can be influenced by intrinsic motivation and/or extrinsic motivation.  When an individual is intrinsically motivated, (s)he is driven by interest that exists within him/herself, rather than relying on external pressure or a desire for a reward.  On the other hand, someone who is extrinsically motivated would derive his/her motivation from a desire to attain some kind of a desired outcome, which is often obtaining a reward.

Therefore, survey incentives work especially well for individuals who are not intrinsically motivated to complete the survey.  For example, faculty members who are already intrinsically motivated might be driven to complete a survey because it affords them the opportunity to provide feedback to improve university resources and services.  Conversely, for those individuals who do not have this kind of motivation or are not strongly motivated in this way, an external reward or prize drawing may provide enough motivation to encourage the respondent to complete the survey.

With this in mind, it becomes clear why incentives are especially important for motivating faculty and students at larger institutions and students in general; both of these groups of individuals may be less likely to feel that his/her contributions to a survey will lead to change or improvements at the university- or college-wide level.

However, it is important that the reward you choose to offer is not so large that it is the only element motivating the respondent, as this may affect the quality of the responses to the survey questions.  In other words, you do not want a respondent skipping through the survey questions or filling out answers haphazardly just to get to the prize drawing at the end of the survey.

What should I offer for surveys of students and faculty members?

The incentives you choose need to be appropriate for your audience – incentives that work well for faculty members may not work as well for students, and vice versa – and should be thought of in the context of your college or university.

Incentives for faculty members should especially be framed as a token of thanks for the time it takes to complete the survey, rather than as a prize or raffle, as this approach tends to be most appropriate for this audience.

Some of our local survey participants have used the following incentives with faculty:

  • A coupon for a free coffee at any campus dining location for each respondent
  • A donation to a local food bank for each completed response
  • A drawing for framed photographs from the university library’s special collections
  • A drawing for a departmental research or travel stipend

And, these incentives have been offered by institutions conducting our local student surveys:

  • A drawing for a tablet or smartwatch
  • A drawing for university apparel or a designated on-campus parking space
  • A coupon for a free coffee or cookie at any campus dining location for each respondent
  • A $5 credit to a student’s university account to be used at the university bookstore for each respondent

How do I collect contact information for delivering the prize without compromising anonymity?

If you are offering an incentive, you’ll need to collect contact information for the recipients in order to disburse the incentives or conduct a prize drawing – but you need to make sure that if you are promising anonymity to your respondents, that you maintain this anonymity.

One way to enable this is by setting up an entry form separate from the survey you are conducting.  Once a respondent completes the survey, (s)he should be automatically redirected to a separate form in which (s)he can enter his/her contact information.  This contact information should be disconnected from the survey response submission and thus, there would be no way to reidentify the respondent.  It is important that you include language to this effect in the entry form to inform respondents that their anonymity will not be compromised by entering their contact information.


Now you know how to craft effective invitation and reminder messages, determine when you will send your messages and what incentives, if any, you will offer, and ensure that your survey invitation is received and opened.  In my next blog post, I’ll focus on steps you can take in designing your survey to make it easy for respondents to complete your survey – to ultimately increase the rate of response.