Questionnaire Tip 1: know your research question

Nov 1, 2022 | General

Close up photo of peach and pink feathers

One topic I get a lot of questions about is questionnaires.  It is a commonly used method in conservation social science (although let’s not forget that other methods are available!).  Questionnaires are an important tool for people conducting conservation social science research.  Perhaps you’ve used them, read about them or completed one as a respondent. 

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking about questionnaires.  Specifically, I’ll be giving you some tips about what you need in place before you start writing one.  I’ll be sharing hints and tips for the preparation phase which will make any questionnaire based data gathering much smoother. 

These tips will also help you if you’re reading research papers, or watching conference presentations which present data from questionnaires, as they’ll help you understand the process researchers go through when designing and delivering social science research.

This week’s questionnaire tip is to know your research question.

Last week I had a mentoring call with someone who was struggling with an element of her project.  She explained what had been happening, and where she was stuck.  Then I asked her “What’s your research question?”.  This is often the first question I ask people when they come to me for help with their social science projects. 

Your research question is the big question you’re trying to answer through your data collection.  In some projects this will be a research aim rather than a question.  Whichever it is, this is the overarching question which is driving the research project.  It defines everything that you do.  (It may evolve during a project – that happens.)

Aside from this being an essential part of most research processes, why am I sharing this as the first tip of questionnaire writing? 

It’s because people are interesting.  Really interesting.  If you take the topic you’re researching – and I’m going to assume it’s a topic you have some interest in – and the opportunity to find out what other people know, think or feel about that topic, that’s a recipe for a lot of questions.  A lot of questions.  More questions than you will be able to include in a questionnaire.

This is a real trap of questionnaires. That you want to include all the interesting questions, and then end up with a questionnaire which is so long that respondents don’t complete it.  Or that you have so many potential questions you stare at a blank page not sure where to start. 

Knowing your research question means you can clearly identify the data you need.  And identifying what data you need means you can develop your data collection process with clear parameters around what to ask in the questionnaire.  And be clear on what not to ask! 

A warning for the next paragraph – there’s a risk I’m going to excessively use the word “question” in this next bit, so to be clear:

► The research question is the overarching question you’re trying to answer through your research.

►  Questionnaire questions are the text your respondents will read and answer when they receive your questionnaire.

A questionnaire needs to ask questions which gather the data needed to answer your research question.  If your research question is “How does a person’s engagement with the coast affect their connection to nature?” you will need data on the respondent’s engagement with the coast, and data on their connection to nature.  Identifying these needs then helps you break down the data need into potential questionnaire questions – e.g. engagement could be measured by frequency of visits to the coast, duration of visits to the coast, types of activities done when at the coast, wildlife they encounter at the coast.  Connection to nature can be measured through many published metrics such as the Nature Relatedness Scale1.  You can then consider how you will explore the relationship between the engagement with the coast and connection to nature.  For example this might be through conducting a large sample size to gather data from respondents with a range of experiences.  Or it could be through multiple questionnaire repeated over time with respondents who are engaging in a coastal experience. 

The key is to take it step by step. 

  1. Start with defining your research question. 
  2. Identify the data needed to answer the research question.
  3. Explore the types of questions you could ask to gather that data. 

As you define these data needs in greater detail, the questions you’ll need in your questionnaire start to emerge. 

And, as anyone who has shared an office with me will attest, if you come to talk to me about your project, chances are I’ll ask you “what’s your research question?” within the first 60 seconds of our conversation!

If you want to hear more tips about questionnaires and an extra tip about this blog subscribe to our fortnightly newsletter.  We won’t send you spam, just interesting conservation social science updates. 

1 Nisbet, E.K., Zelinski, J.M., Murphy, S.A. 2008.  The Nature Relatedness Scale: Linking Individuals’ Connection With Nature to Environmental Concern and Behavior.  Environment and Behaviour 41(5)


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