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Open survey questions: what on earth do you do with them when you get them back? (10 Oct 17)

The simplest research task can be the most vital – yet it is often overlooked, because it seems so simple

I don’t want to teach you to suck eggs but we are forever being asked at our qualitative analysis training days what to do with the answers you get back from open ended questions in a survey.


This is the sort of question I mean:


5.          Please tell me what improvements you would like to be made?                               

             (RECORD VERBATIM: PROBE FOR DETAILS)                           


There are two sorts of survey questions that will need further coding back in the office.


Questions for which the coding categories are known, but are too complex to be applied in the field e.g. occupation. These are coded in the office using standard procedures.


Open questions. These are questions for which the categories or coding frame cannot be known in advance.


Open questions are usually of two types;


·            “ other” categories at the end of pre-coded questions

·            stand alone open questions where there are no codes set up in advance and the respondent just answers in his/her own words


The procedure for coding is the same in both cases.


1.          A sample of the returned questionnaires is taken. The number will depend on the size of your sample. Around 100 is usually appropriate, but for small samples of 200-300 you may find that 50 is sufficient. You can use the first batch of questionnaires returned to the office providing you are satisfied that they are fairly well spread across the types of people and area in the study.


2.          All the answers to the open question are listed verbatim (this can be a clerical task). The researcher then sorts the answers into groups of closely related responses, and assigns a code number to each category of answer, working out a heading for each group which gives it as full a definition as possible. This constitutes the coding frame.


3.          Coding staff are then briefed on how to use the frame to code the answers in the remaining questionnaires. The coded data is then entered into the computer and analysed in the same way as the pre-coded questions.


Constructing and applying coding frames is a time consuming and expensive business, and the number of open questions should therefore be kept to a minimum in quantitative research.


Research agencies can do it for you, but because you will understand the subject of the question better than they do, it is always advisable to ask to see the listings and coding frames before allowing them to be used.


Hope that helps.




PS If the topic of analysing qualitative data interests you why not run an in house course? The price is fixed no matter how many attend. Email us at enquiries@rodlaird.co.uk 




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