Developing Surveys

There are two basic kinds of survey questions. An open question is one in which the person can give any answer. An example of an open question is: "What do you think would make your neighborhood a better place to live?" and the person may give you a one word answer or they may talk for 5 or 10 minutes. The advantage of an open question is that you can potentially get a fuller understanding of what the respondent thinks and why he/she thinks so. It would be difficult, however, to quantify (count) these results because each response may be different.

A closed question is one in which the person may only answer with a word, a number, or by choosing one answer from a list. An example of a closed question is: "Which problem are you most concerned about? A) Rent control B) Health care costs C) Crime."

Here are some types of closed questions:
  1. Short answer: These are questions in which people answer the question with a word or number.

    • What is your native language? (one word)
    • How many children do you have? (number)
    • Do you own your house? (yes/no)

  2. Scale: In these questions, people select their answer from a scale. You may use a number scale or a word scale.

    How easy is it for you to attend community meetings?

  3. Multiple choice: In these questions, people choose their answer from a list you give them. You can ask them to choose just one answer, or all that apply. They can also add a new answer to the list.
  4. Example: Where do you get your information about the news?

    • The newspaper
    • The television
    • Friends
    • Other ________________________________________________

  5. Ranking items: This is a task of ordering items, usually from best to worst. Directions for these must be very clear so that respondents don't just check off one item or in other ways get confused.

    Example: Rank the candidates in order of preference from best (1) to worst (4).

    _____ Ben Green
    _____ Marta Gonzalez
    _____ Israel Nwidor
    _____ Jean Martin

Suggestions for designing effective surveys:

  • Keep the survey brief and concise. Decide on precisely the information you want to find out and write as few questions as possible to get it.
  • Ask for only one piece of information in each question.
  • When possible, include an option that indicates an inability to respond, such as "not applicable," "prefer not to answer," or "don't know."

Adapted from activities in The Civic Participation and Community Action Sourcebook at