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COMS 301: Mass Communication Theory and Research

This guide provides helpful research tips and information for students in COMS 301, including information about creating good survey questions.

Reading and Survey Question Banks

Tips and Tricks

There are three key things to keep in mind when writing survey questions: Simplicity, Intelligibility, and Clarity.

Use simple language. Avoid complex words when simpler works will do. Use standard spoken English and commonly used words. Avoid being too familiar and using slang. 

Be concrete and specific. Ask people about specific, concrete things, and be aware of terms that have ambiguous meanings. For example, instead of asking people about their use of social media, ask about specific sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. A lot of terms, like "family," "crime," "neighborhood," or "cell phone" may mean different things to different people. Be as specific as possible. 

Avoid statistical abstractions. People have a hard time thinking through things like proportions, percentages, and rates of change when answering survey questions. Rather than asking someone what proportion of their time is spent in an activity, ask them about specific numbers of hours engaged in multiple activities and do the calculations yourself. 

Be careful about memory questions. It is very difficult for people to remember events in the past, especially if what you're asking about is considered by them to be trivial or insignificant. People may not remember why they chose to do one thing instead of another if that decision was made mindlessly or was not considered important. Some things can help with memory questions: 

  • Keep the reference period narrow. Rather than asking about activities over the last year, ask about the last month. One way to ask these questions is to ask "How much time did you spend doing X yesterday and is that typical?" rather than "How much time on average do you spend doing X?" 
  • Use landmarking to help people remember periods of time. Landmarking involves using a common event or occurrence like a holiday or widely known occasion to remind people about periods of time. For example, "How often have you done X since Memorial Day" may be easier than "How often have you done X in the last three months?" 
  • Use cueing to help people remember events. This involves being very specific about what you're asking to help people remember activities. For example, instead of asking which websites someone has visited, provide a list of specific websites and ask people to check off which they've visited from the list. This helps people to remember what they would otherwise forget. 

Be aware of hypothetical questions. Hypothetical questions ask someone to imagine something that is not. This can be difficult because you don't know the frame of reference in which someone is operating. Most hypothetical questions are answered based on a respondent's past experience, which we can't always know or understand. 

Keeping ranked lists short. When asking participants to rank a list of items, keep the list to only 4 or 5 items, especially in oral interviews. Another way to manage this is to ask participants to select the three most important things from a longer list, or the three least important things. 

Avoid double-barreled questions. Always make sure your questions are asking about only one thing. For example, don't ask "Do you use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?" but instead ask each question separately. 

Avoid double negatives. When asking whether participants agree or disagree with a statement, make sure the statement is phrased positively. Read through the questions and possible answers out loud to catch anything that might present confusion.