Create a Survey Instrument

Learn to write effective survey questions.

After defining the population, surveyors need to create an instrument if a proven survey instrument does not exist. As discussed in more detail below, survey creation parallels the computer axiom “GIGO”–Garbage In—Garbage Out. A well-designed, accurate survey is an excellent way for researchers to gather information or data about a particular subject of interest. When prepared in an unprofessional manner, surveys can also become an inaccurate, misused, misunderstood conveyer of misinformation. If a researcher has developed an idea or hypothesis and seeks information only to prove that the idea is correct, the process, the ethics, the motivation, and the very essence of the researcher are worthy of rigorous challenge and should, most likely, be rejected.

Writing Survey Questions

A survey is more than a list of questions. Not only should each question relate to a specific part of your objectives, but each question should be written in a concise and precise manner, and the survey population must be able to understand what is being asked.

There are four common question formats, as discussed in detail below.

Demographic Questions

Demographic questions attempt to identify the characteristics of the population or sample completing the survey.

Your English instructors do not expect you to generalize from a small sample to a larger population, so your sample does not need to reflect characteristics in the overall population. However, you will need to talk meaningfully about your sample, so you will want to describe the characteristics of your respondents as specifically as possible. The kinds of characteristics you should identify are determined largely by the purpose of your research. Gender, income, age, and level of education are examples of the sort of demographic characteristics that you may want to account for in your survey.

Demographic Example:

Circle One: Male or Female?

Closed Questions

With the closed question, the survey provides responses and the subject selects the one that is most appropriate. When constructing closed questions, you need to provide choices that will allow you to make meaningful interpretations.

Closed questions allow the researcher to deal with the responses in a more efficient manner than open ended questions. Both forms of questions can produce similar information.

Closed Question Example:

How often do you study?

a. less than 6 hours a week

b. 6-10 hours a week

b. 11-15 hours a week

c. more than 15 hours a week

The closed question allows for greater uniformity of response, and the categories can be easily matched to the areas of interest by the researcher. Whether you select one type or a combination of questions for your survey, each question must be clear, unambiguous, and relate to a specific item in your objectives.

A common error is to create a double-barreled question such as, “Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?” Clearly, this question is attempting to ask two different things and a simple yes or no response won’t really answer the question. The original question should be rewritten as two questions: “Do you walk to school?” “Do you carry your lunch?” Now the respondent can provide you useful data.

Rank-Ordered Questions

When your library research has informed you that your audience is likely to be concerned about several issues, you can determine which concern is most troubling by asking a rank-ordered question. Essentially, as illustrated by the following example, the rank-order question presents respondents with several alternatives and requests that they rank them according to priority:

Rank-Ordered Question:

Please rank your five most important reasons for not contributing to our company’s blood drives. Put a #1 by your most important concern, a #2 by your second most important concern, and so forth.

_____ Lack of time
_____ Lack of awareness of former blood drives
_____ Perception that the blood bank has plenty of blood
_____ Concern about possible pain
_____ Concern about infection
_____ Concern about fainting
_____ Concern about vomiting
_____ Concern about bruising
_____ Concern about being infected with AIDS
_____ Belief company should provide some compensation

Open Questions

An open question requires respondents to answer in their own words, like a short-answer or essay type response. Open questions allow for free-flowing responses and are less restrictive than the closed questions. If you are going to use an open-ended question format for mailed surveys, don’t expect a high response rate. People seem more inclined to circle or mark a response than to write a lengthy response.

Open Question Example:

How often do you study?


Because open-ended commentaries can enrich your interpretation of the statistics, you would be wise to include a few such questions in all surveys that you conduct. One generic question that you might find useful is “What important item(s) has/have been left out of this survey?” However, because they are difficult to tabulate and because they require time on the part of your respondents, be sure to limit the number of open-ended questions you ask.

How Many Questions?

Of course, when you are freewriting possible questions, you should attempt to generate as many questions as possible. You might also ask friends and colleagues what questions they would ask if pursuing your topic. Consider using questions that other researchers have asked, and base additional questions on the sources you have consulted to develop an informed survey. Ultimately, however, you will need to limit the questions so that you have a better chance of getting the surveys back. Before submitting your survey to your targeted sample, ask a few people to take it and time how long it takes them to complete it. Many people are willing to give 15 minutes to a survey, yet find a survey that takes more than 30 minutes intolerable.

Formatting Guidelines

Your questionnaire should be prepared so that someone will read it and respond. Try to make this process as easy as possible for the respondent. Make the questionnaire look like a questionnaire. Have it neatly organized, with questions in a logical sequence, numbering each question and page. If you mix open-and closed-ended questions, put the open-ended questions at the end of the questionnaire. An open-ended response is more threatening than a “select a, b, c, or d” response. Keep your questionnaire focused and as short as possible. Each page added reduces the number of potential respondents who will complete the survey.