So, you want to create a survey! Where do you start? There are some online survey tools out there that make surveying much easier to do than it once was. But where do you even begin with creating a survey that will help you answer your questions?
Here are just a few tips to get you started.
Know what information you want from your survey
This may seem obvious, but too often people jump into creating a survey without having a clear idea of what data they need to get out of it. The result is that they end up with only some of the data they need and lots of data they don’t need.
How can you avoid this?
Take time before even creating your survey to get super clear about what you want to know and why. This should be grounded in the issue or problem you are trying to address. For example, your “what” might be early childhood teacher turnover rates and your “why” might be to propose public policies to retain more early educators. By planning ahead of time, you can make sure that your survey asks all the relevant questions that are related to your topic and only those questions.
Categorize the things you are going to want to ask about. If you want to understand the turnover rate for early educators in your community, you might want to know the characteristics, work setting, and education levels of those educators (demographics), what their perceptions are about different parts of their jobs, whether they have been looking for a new job, and their intent to leave. These are all categories of questions, or constructs. I like to use a table to help me organize my question categories. Something like this:
Ask a friend.
Well, maybe not a friend, but at least some colleagues or experts on the topic you want to survey about. Check your categories with them (and later your survey items too, when you get to that). They will be able to tell you whether you are missing anything or whether you are asking things that don’t really matter (or that you can get somewhere else).
Ask clear questions
The key culprit behind bad survey data is poorly worded questions (or survey items). If your survey items are unclear or too complicated to follow, your data will reflect that. This is where the saying “garbage in, garbage out” comes from. Respondents won’t be able to respond well, so your data won’t be reliable.
Consider these strategies to write clear questions:
Use plain language.
Use the simplest words possible to get your meaning across. This is no time to pull out your SAT vocabulary. You will also want to avoid jargon. If you want to ask about the Child Care Assistance Program in your state, spell it out. Don’t ask about CCAP.
Avoid double-barreled questions.
Survey items should only ask one thing at a time. If you have an “and” or an “or” in your question, you probably need to reword it. These are called “double-barreled” questions. An example might be if you ask “Please rate your satisfaction with the culture and environment of your workplace.” Do you want to know about the culture or the environment? These are two different things and people won’t know which one to respond to. And when you get the data back, you won’t be able to interpret it.
As much as you may want people to answer a certain way, do not write your questions to lead them to the answer you want. Write an objective question and let the answers fall where they may.
Choose an appropriate response format
Online survey tools give you lots of options for how to ask a question. You can use rating or Likert scales, multiple choice, matrix, ranking, text responses, forms, and more. The option you pick will determine what kind of data you get back and how easy (or hard) it might be to make sense of that data. Choose the response format that best fits the question, will be easiest for people to answer, and is least complicated to analyze. If you are new to surveying, stick with more straight forward options.
Creating surveys is fun, so have a good time with it. But take your time to plan and create solid questions.
Meg is an established researcher in early childhood policy, program implementation and systems building. She has years of experience producing and communicating knowledge that has advanced innovative programs, practices, and policies for young children and their families.