Principles of Questionnaire Construction
Target the vocabulary and grammar to the population be surveyed.
- For studies within a specific organization, use the jargon used in that organization.
- Be careful to avoid language that is familiar to you, but might not be to your
respondents. Avoid unnecessary abbreviations.
Avoid ambiguity, confusion, and vagueness.
- Make sure it is absolutely clear what you are asking and how you want it answered. For
example, if you just ask "What is your income?" The respondent doesn't know
whether you mean weekly or monthly or annual, pretax or aftertax, household or individual,
this year or last year, from salary only or including dividends, interest, etc.
- Avoid indefinite words or response categories. For example, "Do you jog
regularly?" What does "regularly" mean?
Avoid emotional language, prestige bias and leading questions
- Watch out for loaded words that have a history of being attached to extreme situations.
For example, avoid questions like "What should be done about murderous terrorists
who threaten the freedom of good citizens and the safety of our children?"
- Watch for prestige markers that cue the respondent to give the "right" answer.
For example, the question "Most doctors say that cigarette smoke causes lung disease
for those near a smoker. Do you agree", tends to provoke "yes" answers
because people trust doctors. Similarly, "Do you support the president's policy on
Zimbobutu?" provokes "yes" answers from people who have never even heard of
Zimbobutu (and, in fact, I made the name up -- yet lot's of people will say
"yes" to this question).
- Avoid leading questions like "You don't smoke, do you?" or "I assume you
would agree that the teachers do a heroic job for our children".
- Avoid loading questions with extra adjectives and adverbs, like "Should the mayor
spend even more tax money trying to keep the streets in top shape?"
Avoid double-barrelled questions
- Make each question about one and only one topic. For example, don't ask "Does your
company have pension and health insurance benefits?" because if their company has
only one of those benefits, it is unclear whether the respondent will say "yes"
Don't assume the respondent is an expert on themselves (unless you have no choice)
- Suppose you want to test the idea that students give better evaluations to teachers who
tell a lot of jokes in class. The wrong way to investigate this is to ask "Do you
rate a teacher higher if the teacher tells many jokes?" because this assumes that the
student is completely conscious of everything they do and why. The right way is to ask the
student two separate questions: "How would you rate the following teacher?" and
"How many jokes does the teacher tell in class?" (even better is to count the
jokes yourself rather than rely on the student's estimate). Then statistically correlate
the answers, to see if students that have teachers that tell many jokes also tend to rate
Avoid asking questions beyond a respondent's capabilities
- People have cognitive limitations, especially when it comes to memory of past events.
Asking "how did you feel about your brother when you were six years old" is
- It is pointless to ask people about things that are not natural ways for them to think.
For example, don't bother asking "How many gallons of gasoline did you buy for your
car last year?".
Avoid false premises
- Asking "What is the most important thing we should do stop the economy from
deteriorating any further?" assumes that the economy is deteriorating, which the
respondent may not agree with. This puts the respondent in a tough spot. It would be
better to rephrase as "What is the most important thing a government can do to
strengthen its economy".
Avoid asking about future intentions (if you can)
- Hypothetical questions like "If a new grocery store were to open down the street,
would you shop there?" are notoriously unrelated to actual future behavior.
Avoid negatives and especially double negatives
- Negatives like "Students should not be required to take a comprehensive exam to
graduate" are often difficult for many respondents to process, especially if they
agree with the predicate, because then they are disagreeing with not doing
something, which is confusing!
- Double negatives like "It is not a good idea to not turn in homework on time"
yield very unreliable data because people are unsure about whether to put a
"yes" or "no" even if it is clear in their minds whether turning
homework in on time is a good idea.
- It's a good idea to put difficult, embarassing or threatening questions towards the end
of the interview when the interviewee has gotten more comfortable. This has two benefits.
First, it makes them more likely to answer, and, second, if they get mad and leave, at
least you've gotten most of your questions asked!
- Put related questions together to avoid giving the impression of lack of meticulousness
- Watch out for questions that influence the answers to other questions. For example:
- Do you think the US should let Communist newspaper reporters come in and send back to
their papers the news as they see it?
- Do you think a Communist country should let American newspaper reporters come in and
send back to their papers the news as they see it?
|% agreeing to questions:
|Yes to #1
|Yes to #2
|Heard #1 first
|Heard #2 first
Filtering "Don't Know"
There are three ways of dealing with "don't know".
Standard format. No "don't know" option is presented to the
respondent, but is recorded if the respondent volunteers it.
Quasi filter. A "don't know" option is included among the
Full filter. First the respondent is asked if they have an opinion.
Then, if yes, they ask the question.
Standard format. Here are some questions about other countries. Do you
agree or disagree with each statement?
- The Russian leaders are basically trying to get along with America.
Quasi filter. Here is a statement about another country. "The
Russian leaders are basically trying to get along with America." Do you agree,
disagree or have no opinion on that?
Full filter. Here is a statement about another country. Not everyone
has an opinion on this. If you do not have an opinion, just say so. Here's the statement:
- The Russian leaders are basically trying to get along with America.
Do you have an opinion on that? [If "YES"] Do you agree or disagree?
|% giving each response
Open-ended versus Closed-ended Questions
An openended question is one in which you do not provide any standard answers to choose
from. For example, these are all open-ended questions:
- How old are you? ______ years.
- What do you like best about your job?
A closed-ended question is one in which you provide the response categories, and the
respondent just chooses one:
- How old are you?
(a) 12 - 15 years old
(b) 16 - 25 years old
(c) 26 - 35 years old
(d) 36 - 45 years old
(e) practically dead
- What do you like best about your job?
(a) The people
(b) The diversity of skills you need to do it
(c) The pay and/or benefits
(d) Other: ______________________________ (write in)
There are lot of reasons for choosing one form over the other. Here are some of the
- Easy and quick to answer
- Answers across resps easy to compare
- Answers easier to analyze on computer
- Response choices make question clearer
- Easy to replicate study
- Can put ideas in resp's head
- Resps w/ no opinion answer anyway
- Resps can feel constrained/frustrated
- Many choices can be confusing
- Can't tell if resp. misinterpreted the question
- Fine distinctions may be lost
- Clerical mistakes easy to make
- Force respondents into simple responses
- Permit unlimited number of answers
- Resps can qualify and clarify responses
- Can find the unanticipated
- Reveal resps thinking processes
- Resps give answers w/ diff. level of detail
- Answers can be irrelevant
- Inarticulate or forgetful resps are at disadvantage
- Coding responses is subjective and tedious
- Requires more resp. time and effort
- Intimidates respondents
- When resp omits a response, can't tell if its because
of belief or just forgetfulness
Watch out for overlapping response categories
What is your annual household income?
a. Less than $10,000
b. $10,000 to $25,000
c. $25,000 to $35,000
d. $35,000 to $50,000
e. $50,000 to $75,000
f. More than $75,000
If a person's income is exactly $25,000, which category do they use?
The Ratings Format
In this format, we ask people to answer questions like this:
- In your opinion, how liberal is your mother?
1. Not at all liberal
2. Somewhat liberal
3. Very liberal
4. She's a stinking communist!
- Children must be allowed to make their own mistakes.
1. Disagree strongly
2. Disagree somewhat
3. Neither agree nor disagree
4. Agree somewhat
5. Strongly agree
The result of a rating question is an ordinal-level variable (which is often treated as
interval in data analysis).
Odd or even number of steps in the response scale?
In general, it is suggested that you use an odd number of steps in order to allow the
respondent to express a middling or neutral strength of opinion. This can be problem with
some respondents who refuse to express an opinion and give the middle category for all
questions. However, the alternative can be even worse: respondents who have no or neutral
opinion being forced to choose negative or positive and doing it randomly.
How many steps in the response scale?
Statistical reliability of the data increases sharply with the number of scale steps up
to about 7 steps, then it increases more slowly, leveling off around 11. After 20 steps it
decreases sharply. However, the more steps you have, the more difficult it is for the
respondent, and possibly the less valid the responses because of that.
If variables are going to be combined additively, like when you create a scale or
index, then the number of steps is not an issue for reliability. You can use two steps
(true/false) if you like. I like to use 3-point response scales because they are quick and
easy for respondents.
Direct Magnitude Scaling
Magnitude scaling is a method of obtaining ratio-scaled data from informants. The basic
idea is to give respondents an anchor point, and then ask them to answer questions
relative to that anchor point. For example, suppose you are interested in the severity of
crimes. Start by assigning a number to one crime. For example, take "felony" and
tell the respondent that the severity of a felony is 100 units. Now say: "ok, if
felony is 100 points, how much is "murder"? If you think murder is 10 times as
bad as a felony, then write down 1000. If its twice as bad as a felony, write down 200.
Then you ask about every other crime.
Rank ordering is a method that works well with a small number of objects, such as 10.
For example, instead of rating how serious each of a set of organizational problems are,
you could ask the respondent to simply sort them in order of most to least serious.
In this method, you present items two at a time, and ask respondent to pick which one
has more of some attribute. For example, you can present organizational problems and ask
which one is more serious.
|Copyright ©1996 Stephen P. Borgatti
|Revised: September 30, 1998