Questionnaire tips

Posted on June 20, 2011


I’m currently working on my dissertation in which I am investigating student use of and opinions towards the ebooks which are provided by my University Library. I have just gone through the process of writing my questionnaire. Now that my questionnaire has been opened up to participants I thought I would write a blog post about how I approached writing it, mainly to reflect on what seems to have worked and also what I wish I’d done a little differently. It might(!) also prove useful to anyone else writing their own questionnaire. So in no particular order here goes………

Research the different eSurvey tools

Pick an eSurvey tool that is flexible enough to meet your needs. Most eSurvey providers will offer a free account, but these free accounts can be limited in features. For example SurveyMonkey offers a free account but you only get 10 questions and 100 answers.

I considered paying for an account but at £25 it’s quite expensive. I did a bit more searching and managed to find SurveyGizmo which offers free accounts for students. It’s easy to use and the results can be downloaded in a number of different formats which will hopefully make analysis the data I’ve collected easy e.g. Excel and SPSS.

Take the time to get to know your chosen eSurvey tool

I didn’t do this and jumped straight in to building my questionnaire. However, when I came to preview my questionnaire I realised I’d chosen the wrong question type. I’d used the ‘checkbox’ style which lets multiple answers to a question be selected when I should have chosen ‘radio’ style questions which limit answers to one per question. I then had to go back and redo my questions which is time consuming and frustrating. This could have been avoided had I bothered to read the provided help pages.

Have a reason for asking each question

Think about exactly what you want to find out and also consider what analysis you want to perform on your data once it is collected. Write questions which will allow you to do this. Don’t ask questions ‘just in case’ as your questionnaire will become to long and participants will be put off from answering it.

For example, if you don’t intend to see whether responses to your questionnaire are influenced by whether a student is a home or international student then don’t ask the question you do not need the data.

Pilot your questionnaire

I so very nearly didn’t do this as I just wanted to get my questionnaire opened to participants. However, I am very glad I did as some errors were picked up on that would have confused my participants and impacted negatively on my results.

It doesn’t have to be a large time consuming pilot (I used 6 friends) but it definitely helps to have a fresh pair of eyes look it over. Also, it is also a good idea to see if you can get someone to pilot it from your target audience as people from your course may be familiar with the concept you are investigating and things that make sense to them may not make sense to a lay person.

The importance of time

I know myself that I don’t like starting questionnaires which don’t give me full information about what is expected from me. The time it will take to complete a questionnaire is important information for participants e.g. do they have time to complete it.

I also think that if your questionnaire is short then it is worth telling people as they are more likely to be inclined to take part in something that doesn’t need much of a time investment from them. Letting people know how long a questionnaire will take can also help reduce the number of half completed questionnaire responses you get where the participant has run out of time or simply got bored of answering questions.

Provide participants with a definition/clear introduction about what you are researching.

What you are researching may have different meanings to different participants. Offering a definition/introduction helps participants decide whether they know enough about your topic to participate. Everyone can then start the questionnaire with the same understanding. This can help make sure you get useful results.

The topic for my questionnaire is academic ebooks. It is well documented in the literature that ebooks are not always well understood e.g. they can be confused with ejournals. I provided a definition at the start of my questionnaire, however it is clear from some of the responses I received that some participants were still not clear about what an ebook is. If I was to do research again I would try to make any definition I use clearer and easier to understand. However, there is likely to always be some participants that are confused.

Let participants create their own unique identifier code

Most questionnaires need you to collect responses from your participants anonymously. However, for ethical reasons you must usually offer the participants the ability to withdraw their responses at a later date if they so wish (although this hasn’t happened to me). This causes a problem of ’how do you identify and remove anonymous data?’

If I had been doing a paper based questionnaire I would have placed a number on each form and asked the participant to quote the number should they wish for their data to be removed. However, this is not possible on an online questionnaire (although each questionnaire response is numbered only the researcher sees the number). To overcome this problem I created a box on the first page of the questionnaire in which participants were asked to write their initials and date of birth. This is easily memorable information for the participant to quote if they wish to withdraw from the research but I have no way of identifying them from it.

Think carefully about when to open your questionnaire to participants.

Picking a good time to open your questionnaire can help maximise the number of responses that you receive. For example, if your questionnaire is aimed at students try to avoid the busy exam period as this may reduce the number of participants that you can recruit as (understandably) they have other things on their minds.

My questionnaire was sent out by mass email late on a Friday afternoon soon after the summer exam period had ended. At first I didn’t think this was an ideal time, but, on reflection the number of emails sent by the University to students is low over the weekend. This would have meant that my questionnaire email stayed closer to the top of student inboxes for longer and may have actually led to more responses. However, in an ideal world (if I had been more organised!), I would have sent out my questionnaire while it was still term time as it can be assumed that students will check their email accounts more during this time than during the summer holiday period.

The last question

Consider making your last question a free text question which asks if the participants have anything else they would like to add. Allowing participants to provide free text answers can lead to interesting responses which increase the richness of your data.

My last question was a free text question and I have had several responses so far which are excellent quotes to put in my dissertation.

Finally – Thank your participants

Make sure to thank your participants – you never know they might encourage their friends to take part in your research……….or maybe that’s a little optimistic!!


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