Question Types

There are two primary forms of questions. When respondents are given a number of predetermined responses, we are dealing with a closed or close-ended question (also known as fixed-alternative questions). If they are required to respond in their own words, we are dealing with an open or open-ended question.

Closed questions are much easier to interpret since they are standardized and therefore can be analyzed statistically. They are also quicker to complete for the respondent, but they are more difficult to write since the answers must be anticipated in advance. Ultimately, the respondent is being asked to choose the answer that is closest to their own viewpoints, but not necessarily their point of view. All too often the choices presented in closed questions could be answered with "it depends…"! For instance,

The answer could clearly depend on how long a flight it is. For instance, you might be willing to put up with a lot of discomfort if the price is right and the flight is only short, but would prefer to pay a bit more for a long-haul or transcontinental flight in order to have more leg and arm room.

There are basically four different types of closed-ended questions:

1) Simple dichotomy: requires respondent to choose one of two alternatives, e.g. "yes"/"no"

Open questions, which are also known as free-answer questions, allow the respondent to answer in their own words. While they can provide an extremely useful set of responses, and do not require that the answer be anticipated, they can also present some significant problems when trying to code and analyze the information resulting from them. But how you catalogue answers can introduce serious bias. For instance, when asked:

"How often during the past month did you search for information about specific destinations?"

possible responses could be:

"Not often" "A few times" "A bit less than the month before" "A couple of times a week"

Do all of these answers mean the same thing? Much is left to the researcher’s interpretation. Correct interpretation of most open-ended questions requires expertise and experience.

A combination of open and closed question is often used to identify and compare what respondents will state spontaneously and what they will choose when given categories of responses. For instance, the open question:

"What do you think are the major issues facing your organization?"


could be followed up with a checklist question:

Use the following checklist developed by Arlene Fink (1995). How to Ask Survey Questions. Sage Publications, to help you determine whether to use open or closed questions:


If yes, use OPEN

If yes, use CLOSED


Respondents’ own words are essential (to please respondent, to obtain quotes, to obtain testimony) You want data that are rated or ranked (on a scale of very poor to very good, for example) and you have a good idea of how to order the ratings in advance
Respondents’ characteristics Respondents are capable of providing answers in their own words

Respondents are willing to provide answers in their own words

You want respondents to answer using a pre-specified set of response choices
Asking the question You prefer to ask only the open question because the choices are unknown You prefer that respondents answer based on a pre-determined set of choices
Analyzing the results You have the skills to analyze respondents’ comments even though answers may vary considerably

You can handle responses that appear infrequently

You prefer to count the number of choices
Reporting the results You will provide individual or grouped verbal responses You will report statistical data