Survey Method

This module discusses the purpose and use of surveys as a descriptive research method, as well as provides an introduction to the survey process.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the purpose and use of surveys in descriptive research
  • Describe basic survey designs
  • Explain the survey process and methods for survey administration and delivery
  • Discuss other issues to consider

The following YouTube video, Research Methods – Surveys, provides an overview of the use of surveys as a means of data collection in research. The topics in this video will be discussed briefly in this introductory module and will be described more thoroughly in subsequent modules.

A survey is a method of gathering information from a subset (sample) of a particular population of interest. Surveys are commonly used to ask questions about things such as behaviors, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, symptoms, and demographic characteristics. Surveys are useful in that a researcher is able to gather information that is not likely be to be available from another source and the information gathered usually provides an unbiased representation of the target population. Surveys also provide a means of standardizing the data collection because the same data is collected from every respondent.
There are two broad categories of surveys: questionnaires and interviews. A questionnaire is typically a paper-and-pencil or computerized instrument that ask respondents a standard list of questions that are typically short, closed-ended questions. Questionnaires may be given to individuals or may be administered to groups. Interviews are a more personal form surveying that allows the researcher to work directly with each respondent and ask follow up questions if necessary. Conducting interviews is obviously more time-consuming but may be very helpful when trying to gather information regarding opinions or impressions.
There are several basic categories of survey design as follows:
Cross-sectional Surveys – The data is collected at one point in time from a sample that represents a larger target population
  • Longitudinal Surveys– Used to study data that may change over time. The three main types of listed below:
  • Trend – Surveying a sample population at different points in time.
  • Cohort – Surveying the same target population repeatedly, but the samples within the population being studied may be different.
  • Panel – Collection of data at various time points with the same sample respondents.
Once the overall design of the survey has been determined, there are a variety of other factors to consider that impact the overall design of the project. Following is a list of the most important issues that will need to be addressed and links for additional information on each.
Once the survey has been designed and delivered, the data that is collected will need to be analyzed. Survey data is slightly different than data from other descriptive methods in that it may lend itself better to quantitative analysis. For example, the researcher can examine the number of respondents that choose response A over B or C. This is especially true with data collected from written or computer based surveys and questionnaires. Surveys that are done as interviews may provide more open-ended data in a narrative form that must be analyzed using qualitative methods. When choosing a descriptive method for a research study, surveys also offer the advantage of being able to reach a larger number of participants and collect a greater amount of data.

Suggested Readings

Aday, L. A., & Cornelius, L. J. (2011). Designing and conducting health surveys: a comprehensive guide. John Wiley & Sons.
Bernard, H. R., & Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.
Blair, J., Czaja, R. F., & Blair, E. A. (2013). Designing surveys: A guide to decisions and procedures. Sage Publications.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.
Blair, J., Czaja, R. F., & Blair, E. A. (2013). Designing surveys: A guide to decisions and procedures. Sage Publications.
Fowler Jr, F. J. (2013). Survey research methods. Sage publications.
Knupfer, N. N., & McLellan, H. (1996). Descriptive research methodologies. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 1196-1212.
Mertens, D. M. (1998). Research methods in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative & qualitative approaches.
Neuman, W. L., & Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.
Svensson, L. (1984). Three Approaches to Descriptive Research.

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