Survey Design: Item Writing

The guidelines for writing quality survey items can be categorized between closed or open-ended questions. All questions should be as specific as possible and use words virtually all respondents will understand.

Formats Description Use
Closed Require respondents to select an answer from a list of options
  • To force participants to pick a response(s)
  • To quantify answers
  • To capture and compare levels, degree, or frequency across respondents
Open-ended Allow respondents to formulate an answer in their own words
  • To avoid influencing the participant's response with provided responses/choices
  • To avoid limiting the participant's response
  • To collect detailed information
  • When little is known about the topic

Before you begin to collect data, you should always review your questions, addressing content, cognition, and usability.

  • Content. Are the questions relevant to the research topic?
  • Cognition. Do respondents understand the questions being asked?
  • Usability. Can respondents complete the survey easily?

Testing the questions with outside parties is also helpful. Some aids include:

  • Expert Reviewers. See Resources & Services for a list of offices on-campus who can help you plan, review, and edit your survey.
  • Field Tests. Presenting your survey to a focus group or trial population will help you anticipate every answer and point out the strengths and weaknesses of a survey.
  • Behavior Coding. Use a third party to monitor the interaction between the interviewer and respondent in a survey field test and look for problems in the questionnaire or its administration.