A questionnaire is a research instrument consisting of a series of questions and other prompts for the purpose of gathering information from respondents. Although they are often designed for statistical analysis of the responses, this is not always the case. The questionnaire was invented by the Statistical Society of London in 1838. A copy of the instrument is published in the Journal of the Statistical Society, Volume 1, Issue 1, 1838, pages 5–13.
Questionnaires have advantages over some other types of surveys in that they are cheap, do not require as much effort from the questioner as verbal or telephone surveys, and often have standardized answers that make it simple to compile data. However, such standardized answers may frustrate users. Questionnaires are also sharply limited by the fact that respondents must be able to read the questions and respond to them. Thus, for some demographic groups conducting a survey by questionnaire may not be concrete.
A distinction can be made between questionnaires with questions that measure separate variables, and questionnaires with questions that are aggregated into either a scale or index. Questionnaires with questions that measure separate variables, could for instance include questions on:
- preferences (e.g. political party)
- behaviors (e.g. food consumption)
- facts (e.g. gender)
Questionnaires with questions that are aggregated into either a scale or index, include for instance questions that measure:
- latent traits
- attitudes (e.g. towards immigration)
- an index (e.g. Social Economic Status)
- A food frequency questionnaire (FFQ) is a questionnaire the type of diet consumed in people, and may be used as a research instrument. Examples of usages include assessment of intake of vitamins or toxins such as acrylamide.
Usually, a questionnaire consists of a number of questions that the respondent has to answer in a set format. A distinction is made between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question asks the respondent to formulate his own answer, whereas a closed-ended question has the respondent pick an answer from a given number of options. The response options for a closed-ended question should be exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Four types of response scales for closed-ended questions are distinguished:
- Dichotomous, where the respondent has two options
- Nominal-polytomous, where the respondent has more than two unordered options
- Ordinal-polytomous, where the respondent has more than two ordered options
- (Bounded)Continuous, where the respondent is presented with a continuous scale
A respondent's answer to an open-ended question is coded into a response scale afterwards. An example of an open-ended question is a question where the testie has to complete a sentence (sentence completion item).
In general, questions should flow logically from one to the next. To achieve the best response rates, questions should flow from the least sensitive to the most sensitive, from the factual and behavioural to the attitudinal, and from the more general to the more specific.
There typically is a flow that should be followed when constructing a questionnaire in regards to the order that the questions are asked. The order is as follows:
Screens are used as a screening method to find out early whether or not someone should complete the questionnaire. Warm-ups are simple to answer, help capture interest in the survey, and may not even pertain to research objectives. Transition questions are used to make different areas flow well together. Skips include questions similar to "If yes, then answer question 3. If no, then continue to question 5." Difficult questions are towards the end because the respondent is in "response mode." Also, when completing an online questionnaire, the progress bars lets the respondent know that they are almost done so they are more willing to answer more difficult questions. Classification, or demographic question should be at the end because typically they can feel like personal questions which will make respondents uncomfortable and not willing to finish survey.
Basic rules for questionnaire item construction
- Use statements which are interpreted in the same way by members of different subpopulations of the population of interest.
- Use statements where persons that have different opinions or traits will give different answers.
- Think of having an "open" answer category after a list of possible answers.
- Use only one aspect of the construct you are interested in per item.
- Use positive statements and avoid negatives or double negatives.
- Do not make assumptions about the respondent.
- Use clear and comprehensible wording, easily understandable for all educational levels
- Use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.
- Avoid items that contain more than one question per item (e.g. Do you like strawberries and potatoes?).
- Question should not be biased or even leading the participant towards an answer.
Questionnaire administration modes
Main modes of questionnaire administration include:
- Face-to-face questionnaire administration, where an interviewer presents the items orally.
- Paper-and-pencil questionnaire administration, where the items are presented on paper.
- Computerized questionnaire administration, where the items are presented on the computer.
- Adaptive computerized questionnaire administration, where a selection of items is presented on the computer, and based on the answers on those items, the computer selects following items optimized for the testee's estimated ability or trait.
Concerns with questionnaires
While questionnaires are inexpensive, quick, and easy to analyze, often the questionnaire can have more problems than benefits. For example, unlike interviews, the people conducting the research may never know if the respondent understood the question that was being asked. Also, because the questions are so specific to what the researchers are asking, the information gained can be minimal. Often, questionnaires such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, give too few options to answer; respondents can answer either option but must choose only one response. Questionnaires also produce very low return rates, whether they are mail or online questionnaires. The other problem associated with return rates is that often the people who do return the questionnaire are those who have a really positive or a really negative viewpoint and want their opinion heard. The people who are most likely unbiased either way typically don't respond because it is not worth their time.
Some questionnaires have questions addressing the participants gender. Seeing someone as male or female is something we all do unconsciously, we don’t give much important to one’s sex or gender as most people use the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ interchangeably, unaware that they are not synonyms. Gender is a term to exemplify the attributes that a society or culture constitutes as masculine or feminine. Although your sex as male or female stands at a biological fact that is identical in any culture, what that specific sex means in reference to your gender role as a ‘woman’ or ‘man’ in society varies cross culturally according to what things are considered to be masculine or feminine. The survey question should really be what is your sex. Sex is traditionally split into two categories, which we typically don’t have control over, you were either born a girl or born a boy and that’s decided by nature. There's also the intersex population which is disregarded in the North American society as a sex. Not many questionnaires have a box for people who fall under Intersex. These are some small things that can be misinterpreted or ignored in questionnaires.
More generally, one key concern with questionnaires is that there may contain quite large measurement errors (). These errors can be random or systematic. Random errors are caused by unintended mistakes by respondents, interviewers and/or coders. Systematic error can occur if there is a systematic reaction of the respondents to the scale used to formulate the survey question. Thus, the exact formulation of a survey question and its scale are crucial, since they affect the level of measurement error (). Different tools are available for the researchers to help them decide about this exact formulation of their questions, for instance estimating the quality of a question using MTMM experiments or predicting this quality using the Survey Quality Predictor software (SQP). This information about the quality can also be used in order to correct for measurement errors ()
Further, if the questionnaires are not collected using sound sampling techniques, often the results can be non-representative of the population—as such a good sample is critical to getting representative results based on questionnaires.
- Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System
- Computer-assisted personal interviewing
- Enterprise Feedback Management
- Quantitative marketing research
- Questionnaire construction
- Statistical survey
- Structured interviewing
- Web-based experiments
- Position analysis questionnaire
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