Develop effective interview questions.

Ask Open, Closed, Hypothetical, and Mirror Questions

The questions you will ask are determined by the purpose of your research. As a result, be very clear in your own mind about what you hope to discover as a result of conducting the interview. The best way to develop solid questions is to freewrite as many as possible. By refining the purpose of your research and by sharing your questions with other people, you will be able to identify the ones that are most apt to uncover the information you need.

You may also find it useful to categorize the questions that you have freewritten according to the sort of information that the questions are likely to elicit. There are three major types of questions, each of which is suited to a particular part of the interview: open questions, closed questions, and hypothetical questions.

When to Ask Open-Ended Questions

At the beginning of the interview, you may wish to establish rapport by asking open-ended questions. Essentially, open questions allow an interviewee to say just about anything, thereby revealing his or her general attitudes and beliefs. For example, if you asked an accomplished business leader "What skills does a college graduate need to succeed in business?" he or she might talk for a half hour about leadership capabilities, writing skills, and a "can-do" attitude.

When to Ask Closed Questions

When you wish to limit an interviewee's range of responses or pin him or her down to one answer, you should ask closed questions. "Do you believe that the university should require all students to be computer literate?" is an example of a closed question because it forces a "No," "Yes," "I don't know," or perhaps a "Well, yes, under these conditions . . ." sort of answer. Because people don't like to be interrogated, however, limit the frequency of closed questions that you ask during an interview.

When to Ask Hypothetical Questions

Before conducting an interview, you may also wish to consider developing a few hypothetical questions. Although these sorts of questions are more commonly used in employment interviews, they also can be used profitably in a research interview. For example, if you were evaluating the circumstances under which students cheat on a test, you might ask, "If you were sure that you wouldn't get caught and you needed a high score on a final exam to earn a passing grade, would you cheat?"

Strategies for Developing Interview Questions

Here are the strategies for developing useful interviewing questions:

  1. Closed questions: What specific information do you need?
  2. Open questions: What philosophical issues underlie your research? What two or three major questions do you need to ask to open up your interviewee to really communicate?
  3. Hypothetical questions: What creative situations can you devise to determine an interviewee's true feelings and likely responses to various circumstances?

Turn Their Statement Into Your Question

You will find it useful to ask questions that essentially restate the interviewee's last statement in question form. Because you want to keep the interviewee talking, these questions can be essential to illustrating your interest and attentiveness to his or her ideas. Here are a few examples:

Interviewee: So anyway, I think the old boy network is the biggest problem this hospital faces. These administrators are so entrenched that they cover each other's tracks and hire incompetent technicians who won't intimidate or rat on them for cheating on their vacation time.

Interviewer: So you think the biggest problem this hospital faces is the old boy network?

Interviewee: All of my friends cheat on tests, so l don't see why I shouldn't. I've plagiarized at least a half dozen essays this year alone. We've got quite a selection at the fraternity house.

Interviewer: Just a minute, John, I'm not sure I'm following you here. Are you saying that the fraternity house has copies of essays on file that you can use?

Finally, you should try to present your questions in a relaxed, conversational way. You can also show the interviewee that you are carefully listening by responding spontaneously to his or her remarks. Asking spontaneous questions—that is, questions that occur to you on the spot in response to the interviewee's comments—allows you to demonstrate that you are curious about what the interviewee has to say. When you let go a little in your interview and give it the feeling of a discussion, the interviewee will probably be more willing to share.