Tips for formulating survey questions

HomeTips for formulating survey questions

A questionnaire is used as a measuring tool to answer your research questions. It is essential that you can use the results of the questionnaire. The quality of the questionnaire determines the quality of the data collected. It is therefore important to carefully formulate the survey questions. Here are a few tips and rules of thumb to help you formulate well-structured questions:

  1. Keep the questions simple. Don't use complex language, and consider your audience in your choice of words. For example, "What do you prefer to do in your free time?" is better than "How do you prefer to relax?
  2. Provide an unambiguous interpretation. 'I am satisfied with the quality of the exhibition' is an example of how not to do it. What is quality? The type of artwork, interactive elements, crowds, venue, the light?
  3. Formulate the question as precisely as possible. Refer to place and time and mention numbers. Try to delineate questions such as "Have you recently..." to a specific period, for example, "Have you in the past six months...".
  4. Avoid vague wording and avoid terms like ‘often’ and ‘sometimes’, also in the answer categories. Everyone interprets often and sometimes differently, so it is better to ask for a specific number of times.
  5. Avoid duplicate questions. No 'and' or 'or' in the questions. A question like "What did you think of the performance and the actors?" cannot be answered with one answer if the audience thought the performance was a little off, but the actors were excellent.
  6. Do not formulate (double) denials in the question. A negation in the question is confusing. For example, 'I am not dissatisfied with what I have seen' or 'I don't like to visit a museum.'
  7. Ask short questions.
  8. Be careful with examples in the question and suggestive questions. Chances are that the respondent may only think of these examples. This can happen with a question like 'How often do you undertake a cultural activity such as a visit to a museum or a play.' The respondent will be inclined to think that a visit to a festival or a dance performance is not part of the equation.
  9. Make sure the question measures up: The question should answer the research question. If you want to know if an exhibition inspired someone, do not ask how long they stayed. It is possible that the length of stay was longer or shorter because the respondent had to wait or had to leave earlier and had no choice.
  10. The answer categories to the questions should be mutually exclusive, and it should be clear to the respondents which answer to tick/indicate.
  11. Provide the same direction in the response order for scale questions. If at one point you are asked to rate something on a scale from totally disagree to totally agree (increasingly positive) and a few questions later on a scale from very satisfied to very dissatisfied (increasingly negative), there is a chance that people will fill this out incorrectly.
  12. For scale questions, try to keep the scale the same for each question. So do not use a scale of 1 to 5 for one question and a scale of 1 to 7 for another. This also makes it easier to analyze.
  13. See which scale fits best. A rating scale of 1 to 10 offers a lot of variation but is also more challenging to interpret (for some, a 10 is good, others think a 10 is perfect and therefore don't give it easily). A 2 (good/bad) or 3-point scale (good, average, bad) offers minimal variation and makes it harder to answer a question if it is an opinion (opinions are typically nuanced). An even scale causes a respondent to have to choose; with an odd scale, you offer the opportunity to sit safely in the middle.
  14. Also, provide the option of a reasoned non-answer, for instance, by creating an answer option like not applicable or don't know/no opinion.

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Claudia's heart is in research. With her passion, she enjoys enthusing others about research. She enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience. Claudia works and lives in the Netherlands, where she has been helping students and beginning researchers with research for years. Through blogs, but also with e-books, e-courses, and coaching. The first blogs are now translated into English to help more students and beginning researchers.
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