Step 2: Write high quality questions based on the objectives

The questions that you include on your survey should always be guided by your objectives. This will help to ensure that you gather quality data and are able to address both your needs and the needs of your audience. Gathering quality data is also dependent upon the quality of the questions that you have constructed. Good questions have the following characteristics: 

Clear and unambiguous.
 Here are some ways to achieve this:

  • Use simple language. Not all respondents will be familiar with complex terminology. To reduce confusion or misunderstanding, use the simplest language available to you. If your objectives for the survey require you to use a more complex term, define it for the respondent. Consider the following example:
    Poor Example:   What is the frequency of your use of the computers in the William H. Hannon Library in the past 7 days?      
    “Frequency” is not a term that is commonly used by the average respondent. The term is better understood as:
    Better Example:   How many times did you use the computers in the William H. Hannon Library in the past 7 days?
  • Be specific. Your questions should be precise enough that the respondent is able to identify what the question is referring to without being overly wordy. Consider the following example:
    Poor Example:   Did you vote in the last election?           
    This question doesn’t specify the type or date of the election. A more specific question can be phrased as:
    Better Example:   Did you vote in the November 2008 presidential election?
  • Avoid double-barreled questions. Double-barreled questions include multiple parts, but ask for a single answer. Survey questions should focus on one question at a time. Consider the following opinion questions:
    Poor Example:   To what extent did your instructor address your concerns and questions in class?     
    Using the term “and” can be an indication of a double-barreled question. In this case, addressing a student’s concerns and questions are two separate things, and should be developed into two separate questions:
    Better Example:   To what extent did your instructor address your concerns in class? 
    To what extent did your instructor answer your questions in class?
  • Avoid double negatives. Respondents can become confused when reading questions and responses that both contain the use of negative words, such as “not,” “no,” or “didn’t.” Reduce confusion by minimizing the use of negative words in the body of the question, as in the following examples:
    Poor Example:   I did not participate in the community service program last semester.  
    A negative response to this question would indicate that the respondent did participate, while a positive response would indicate that the respondent did not participate. It is less confusing to remove the negative phrasing in the question:
    Better Example:   Did you participate in the community service program last semester?

Concise and to the point. A respondent’s time is precious. Excessively long questions with unnecessary details take up too much time and can cause respondents to lose interest. On the other hand, your questions should also be specific enough to be clear and unambiguous. To achieve this:

  • Write questions that get to the point as quickly as possible in as few words as possible. Consider the following example:
    Poor Example:   During an average week of the semester, what amount of time, in hours, do you devote to preparation for the next class, whether in reviewing notes, reading course material, or discussion with other students?
    This question is unnecessarily long and detailed, so that a respondent may miss the point of the question entirely or become frustrated. It can be shortened while still capturing the objective of the overall question:
    Better Example: In a typical week this semester, how many hours did you spend preparing for class?

Free of bias or leading statements. If questions are biased or leading in any way, they will steer a respondent toward the response that is considered socially desirable. This can occur either in the question itself or by limiting the types of response options that you provide for the respondent. To avoid bias in your question wording:

  • Develop questions that are neutral or present the case for both sides of the argument equally. Consider the following example: 
    Poor Example: Tutoring services have been shown to improve college GPA. Do you plan on participating in LMU’s new tutoring program this semester?
    This question pushes the respondent toward a positive response by implying that participating in the program would be the responsible choice. Simply remove the first sentence of the question:
    Better Example:  Do you plan on participating in LMU’s new tutoring program this semester?

Avoid or minimize sensitive topics. Asking respondents about sensitive topics can make them uncomfortable or embarrassed and should be avoided. Certain types of questions, however, are sensitive to some respondents but are necessary for the objectives of your survey. Here are some things to consider when using the following types of sensitive questions:

  • Demographic Questions. Many demographic questions, such as race, income, education level, are of a private nature and not all respondents will wish to divulge this information. In these cases, place the questions at the end of the survey and provide a response option that allows refusal, such as “Decline to state.”
  • Sensitive Research Questions. In some instances, the very nature of your research question may be a sensitive topic, for example, substance abuse. In these cases, to minimize the impact your questions may have on a respondent provide information on resources and seek the approval of the IRB.

Suskie, L. A. (1996.) Questionnaire survey research: What works. (2nd ed.). Tallahassee, FL: The Association for Institutional Research. 


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