Primary Research Methods: Conducting Surveys

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Conducting surveys is a primary research method that allows you to learn what a group of individuals feel or think about something you are researching or gives you a way to obtain participant reports of behavior. Before you can start developing survey questions, you must put some thought both into the methodology that drives your surveying and the focus, number and type of questions you intend to ask.

Prior to writing survey questions and administering surveys, you must first tackle the following aspects to construct a well-thought-out approach to conducting surveys.

  • Determine the group of participants on which you intend to focus, including the number of people
  • Think about the length of your survey
  • Consider the type of questions you want to ask
  • Evaluate the most appropriate language for your questions
  • Establish how you intend to administer the survey

Conducting surveys with the right type and number of participants

When conducting surveys as a primary research method, you must consider both the groups to which you have access and on what your research concentrates. By carefully considering what is it you want to accomplish with your research, or hope to accomplish, you can narrow down potential groups that are likely to provide the most valid results. From there, you can determine which groups are most accessible to allow you to conduct your survey with relative ease.

For example, pretend you are writing a research paper about the effects on adults of growing up with at least one alcoholic parent. First, you must determine (and specify) what age group you are looking at—do you just want to survey adults in their 20s? 30s? 40s? 20s, 30s and 40s? Your answer is influenced both by the focus of your research paper and how much access you have to each group.

Once you identify a group that is accessible and relevant to your research, establish a set number of participants you hope to survey. Finding a good balance in the number of participants when conducting surveys is crucial to supporting evidence and analyzing the results data. Too many participants make it difficult to analyze too-large data sets; too few participants does not provide enough data to support your thesis or hypothesis.

Conducting surveys of an appropriate and desirable length

Conducting surveys as a primary research method only adds value when your survey is an appropriate length. The length of your survey largely depends on two factors: what you trying to find out and the amount of information you are seeking. If you decide to go with a longer survey, include the same question asked in different ways as a way to test the reliability of survey responses. Shorter surveys take less time for your participants to complete, but the results may be less reliable. If you are conducting a survey for the first time, however, it is best to stick with a short- to medium-length survey to make the data analysis easier.

Conducting surveys with the right questions

The questions are the backbone of conducting surveys, so it is vital you put much thought into developing your questions when using this primary research method. There are three things you need to consider:

  • The type of questions
  • The length of questions
  • The wording of questions

There are two types of questions used in conducting surveys: open-ended questions and closed questions. The type of questions you ask affects the type and amount of information and data you receive as a result. Which type you elect to use depends on the type and depth of information you are seeking.

Open-ended questions provide more information because participants can give you a short or long answer in any way that they feel adequately answers the question. An example of an open-ended question is this: What were your thoughts at the time? An answer to this could prove quite long, but the nature of the question creates an opportunity to collect more information.

Closed questions have two ways in which they can be answered: with a yes/no response or with a selection from a set of possible, predetermined answers. These answers are faster to administer and analyze, but the data and information obtained is much more limited than that obtained with open-ended questions.

The length of your questions when conducting surveys is important as well. While this primary research method essentially allows you to create questions of any length you choose, it is better to use shorter questions over longer ones. Shorter questions tend to provide more relevant data and are more effective during the survey administration process.

The final aspect of your survey questions to consider when conducting surveys is in how you word your questions. Questions should stay free of bias and be easy to interpret to provide the best results. This makes writing quality questions for surveys one of the most important aspects.

Conducting surveys with the right method of collecting data

Once you have a better grasp of who you want to survey and the questions you want to ask them, your next step is in determining how to administer surveys when using this primary research method. Which collection method you choose is dictated by both the survey length and the types of questions you ask. The following are survey administration methods:

  • Face-to-face and in person using an interview-style method of asking survey questions
  • On paper by handing out surveys and recollecting them after completion
  • On the internet where people complete and submit surveys at their leisure within a specific time period

When making this decision when you are conducting surveys, consider the sensitivity of any issues you address. For example, participants may not feel comfortable answering questions about sexuality face-to-face, but answering the same questions on an internet survey is likely to yield more honest responses that translate into valid data.

Once you have carefully considered all of the above aspects of conducting surveys, you are ready to start writing quality survey questions.