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Blog: Using Think-Alouds to Test the Validity of Survey Questions

Posted on February 7, 2019 by  in Blog

Research Associate, Western Michigan University

Those who have spent time creating and analyzing surveys know that surveys are complex instruments that can yield misleading results when not well designed. A great way to test your survey questions is to conduct a think-aloud (sometimes referred to as a cognitive interview). A type of validity testing, a think-aloud asks potential respondents to read through a survey and discuss out loud how they interpret the questions and how they would arrive at their responses. This approach can help identify questions that are confusing or misleading to respondents, questions that take too much time and effort to answer, and questions that don’t seem to be collecting the information you originally intended to capture.

Distorted survey results generally stem from four problem areas associated with the cognitive tasks of responding to a survey question: failure to comprehend, failure to recall, problems summarizing, and problems reporting answers. First, respondents must be able to understand the question. Confusing sentence structure or unfamiliar terminology can doom a survey question from the start.

Second, respondents must be able to have access to or recall the answer. Problems in this area can happen when questions ask for specific details from far in the past or questions to which the respondent just does not know the answer.

Third, sometimes respondents remember things in different ways from how the survey is asking for them. For example, respondents might remember what they learned in a program but are unable to assign these different learnings to a specific course. This might lead respondents to answer incorrectly or not at all.

Finally, respondents must translate the answer constructed in their heads to fit the survey response options. Confusing or vague answer formats can lead to unclear interpretation of responses. It is helpful to think of these four problem areas when conducting think-alouds.

Here are some tips when conducting a think-aloud to test surveys:

    • Make sure the participant knows the purpose of the activity is to have them evaluate the survey and not just respond to the survey. I have found that it works best when participants read the questions aloud.
    • If a participant seems to get stuck on a particular question, it might be helpful to probe them with one of these questions:
      • What do you think this question is asking you?
      • How do you think you would answer this question?
      • Is this question confusing?
      • What does this word/concept mean to you?
      • Is there a different way you would prefer to respond?
    • Remember to give the participant space to think and respond. It can be difficult to hold space for silence, but it is particularly important when asking for thoughtful answers.
    • Ask the participant reflective questions at the end of the survey. For example:
      • Looking back, does anything seem confusing?
      • Is there something in particular you hoped  was going to be asked but wasn’t?
      • Is there anything else you feel I should know to truly understand this topic?
    • Perform think-alouds and revisions in an iterative process. This will allow you to test out changes you make to ensure they addressed the initial question.

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