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What is PULSE?

PULSE is an ongoing survey initiative that began in 1995. PULSE surveys cover a variety of topics and are administered by Student Affairs Research and Assessment (SARA) approximately two to four times each academic year.

If you would like to be notified of PULSE and other survey reports via email as they are published, sign up through the SARA listserv page.

Frequently Asked Questions about Penn State PULSE

What is the purpose of PULSE?

Data from PULSE surveys help us to better understand the needs and experiences of Penn State students, which drive data-driven decision-making about Student Affairs and University programs and services. Through PULSE surveys, we can measure:

  • Student characteristics
  • Students’ needs and perceptions
  • Students’ awareness and understanding
  • Use of and satisfaction with facilities, programs, and services
  • Effectiveness of programs and services
  • Changes over time
  • Potential learning outcomes
How are PULSE survey topics chosen?

Some PULSE topics are recurring. We ask the same set of questions each time the survey is administered so that the results may be compared from year to year. Recurring PULSE survey topics include Student Drinking, New Student Survey, Transfer Student Experience, and University Health Services Usage.

Other PULSE topics are unique or are drastically different from similar versions previously administered.  When one of these surveys is administered, it is often at the request of another unit within Student Affairs or the University that is interested in assessing a particular program or service. 

All topics are reviewed by Student Affairs staff based on the following factors: the ability to better understand the experiences of students, the level of fit with the priorities of Student Affairs and the University, the usefulness of the findings to improve programs and services, and resource/scheduling realities.

How are data from PULSE surveys used?

Findings are used to:

  • Educate students
  • Inform marketing campaigns
  • Communicate to students and others the effects of out-of-class experiences
  • Inform policy decisions and funding initiatives
  • Create and refine programs and services

Occasionally, Penn State staff present PULSE survey findings at regional and national conferences. Also, other institutions of higher education sometimes utilize our PULSE data and survey instruments to craft their own assessments or program initiatives.

How are PULSE surveys administered?

The majority of our surveys, including PULSE, are conducted over the web. Students who have been invited to participate receive an e-mail notification that includes a link to a website where the survey can be accessed.

How are students selected to participate in PULSE surveys?

PULSE surveys are administered to a random sample of Penn State students. Sometimes a defined population is targeted depending on the topic (i.e., adult learners, students who live on campus, transfer students, graduate students, etc.). Students who meet the criteria for the defined population are then “pulled” from the University’s student information system and the students who are invited to participate are randomly selected from that group. The size of the sample varies based on survey topic and anticipated response rate.

What is the typical response rate for PULSE surveys?

PULSE response rates range from the teens to the low twenties depending on the topic and incentives offered. In all cases, student characteristics of the respondents are compared to that of the population to ensure that responses are reasonably representative of the population. This is typically the case, with the consistent exception that woman respond at a higher rate than men.

Are research protections put into place for PULSE surveys?

Research-related projects that involve human participants require the approval of the Office of Research Protections. The Office of Research Protection’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) ensures compliance with federal, state, local, and University regulations regarding the use of human subjects. Such compliance ensures that participants are fully informed about the project and that they have given their consent to participate. The approval process includes providing information regarding the purpose of the study, the amount of time it will take, the potential risks to participation, the manner in which confidentiality will be maintained, and the name and phone number of the primary contact for the project. Although the IRB typically does not consider the projects conducted by SARA as meeting the federal definition for research, we always submit projects to ensure that we abide by the protections put in place for participants.

Participation is voluntary. Students can choose whether or not to participate in our surveys. If they chose to participate, they may refuse to answer any question or stop taking the survey at any time.

Students’ responses are only reported as summarized group data. (This type of data is referred to as “in aggregate” and is utilized in statements such as “25% of students who live on-campus use public transportation.”) Personally identifying information is never publicly linked to a student’s survey responses. Based on the approval process and the mission of the PULSE program, students are able to respond to survey questions with the understanding that confidentiality is strictly maintained.

Penn State Student Affairs
Research & Assessment

105 White Building 
University Park, PA 16802