Collecting Student Demographic Information

Collecting Student Demographic Information

by Janelle Joseph, PhD


The word demographic comes from demo (meaning people) and graphics (meaning describing). Students can be described based on their gender, ethnicity, grad/undergrad status, program of study, or living on or off campus. Let’s face it, we could also describe students based on their height, shoe size, or hair colour. However, there is certain information we deem relevant to the services and programs we provide.

When considering which demographic questions we will ask (if any), consider first the pertinence of the information, in other words, consider what we will do with the data collected. On one hand, if we are only truly concerned about student satisfaction and learning outcomes, and not which students used the services or programmes, demographic questions may not be necessary. If, on the other hand, we will use the information to transform service or program delivery (e.g., offer childcare to cater to student-parents), then asking specific questions about family status will be helpful.

People from many widely recognized marginalized groups (e.g., visible minorities, Aboriginals) are leery of demographic information being collected about them because scientific communities have used that information to pathologize and criminalize them for centuries. This fact, in concert with a desire to be politically correct (avoid causing offence), has led to a swing of the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Now, many Student Life units avoid collecting demographic information about so-called “sensitive” topics. Yet this can also serve to disempower, exclude, and ignore the needs of already marginalized groups. For example, if demographic questions about race and ethnicity are never asked, then Student Life units will have no idea how many racialized students do or do not use their facilities/programs/services. We will not be aware that many racialized students at the University of Toronto feel stereotyped, excluded, and unable to access helpful resources or generate a sense of belonging.

Marketing companies have long been aware that different sub-populations have different needs and interests and base their print and television advertising on those differences. The Superbowl features beer commercials. Fitness magazines advertise protein powders. Collecting data on which categories of students we are serving and possibly missing is important to expand our reach and advance the mission of the Student Life Division to provide the supports, opportunities, and resources students need to reach their full potential.


Here are some tips from the Learning Outcomes and Assessment Committee Demographic Questions Reference  (Download here: 15-06-04 DemographicQuestionsReferenceGuide)

1. Limit the number of demographic questions used and make sure they are all necessary.

2. Provide a note indicating why the questions are being asked, how the data will be used, and that the personal information that is collected will be kept confidential.

3. If demographic questions are required, a “prefer not to answer” or “does not apply” should be added as a response code.

4. Consider questions that can be combined. An example may be asking for someone’s primary major or the primary faculty, not both. If the major is known, then you can determine the primary faculty later if necessary.

6. Always get a second set of eyes before releasing questions (e.g., consult with your supervisor).

7. Some information you seek might already be available in a previous survey (e.g. NSSE). If you’re not sure, double check with your supervisor

8. If possible, place demographic questions at the end of the survey.


Janelle Joseph is a Learning Strategist in the Academic Success Centre and a member of the Learning Outcomes and Assessment Committee

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