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Research Methods Topic

The learning units in this topic are concerned with how you will be doing your research. There is a very wide range of research methods available to you, and you will have to spend some time deciding which method or methods are the most appropriate, both with regard to your topic and to the approach you have decided to take. If you are a student in the physical sciences then you will probably find you tend toward quantitative or positivist methods. If you are studying the social sciences then qualitative or interpretive methods may be more appropriate. But this is a generalization, and much of the really interesting and innovative research uses a blend of both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Research methods > Interviewing > Designing interview questions

Designing interview questions

image of a question markHow you go about designing your questions depends largely upon the type of interview you have decided to conduct: structured interview, semi-structured interview or unstructured interview. And linked to this, what you actually want to find out.

Often, questions are distinguished as either open or closed questions. An open question allows the respondent to give a full answer to a question with as much explanation as they choose. Generally, open questions can only be answered with some supporting explanation. Whereas a closed question requires a simple, usually one worded response such as yes or no, or offers a list from which the respondent can choose a response. It does not allow the respondent to expand upon their answer or to explain why they made that choice.

Kvale (1996 p.133-135) describes 9 different types of question that may be used in an interview situation. They are defined by the effect that will hopefully be achieved by using them.

1. Introducing questions

How will you get the interview started? If the interview is opened well and the interviewee speaks freely, then the remainder of the interview can be spent clarifying and following up on any interesting points raised.

  • 'Can you tell me about....'
  • 'Could you describe in as much detail as possible.....'

2. Follow-up questions

These questions are used to extend the interviewee's answers to previous questions. The trick is to listen to what is important to the interviewee but to keep in mind your research questions at all times.

  • 'could you expand on that point.'
  • 'You mentioned that....how did you feel about it.'
  • To follow on from a point the interviewee has made you do not necessarily have to ask a question. A nod, 'mm' or even a pause may indicate to the interviewee to carry on.

3. Probing questions

The interviewer probes the content of the interviewee's answers but without giving away which parts of the answers are to be taken into account.

  • 'Do you have further examples of this?'
  • 'Could you say something more about that.'

4. Specifying questions

The interviewer asks questions that will allow them to gain further information about a particular aspect of the interviewee's answer.

  • 'What did you think then?'
  • 'How did your body react?'

If the interviewee has given fairly generalised answers, a specifying question could be used to personalise the answer.

  • 'Have you experienced this yourself?'

5. Direct questions

The interviewer asks very direct questions, often used in the later parts of the interview.

  • 'Have you ever received money for achieving good grades?'
  • 'When you mention competition, do you then think of a sportsman like or a destructive competition?'

6. Indirect questions

The interviewer asks projective questions. Care should be taken to ensure that the answer is interpreted correctly in this situation. Further questions may be required to determine exactly what the interviewee means.

  • 'How do you believe other pupils regard the competition for grades?'

In this instance you would need to determine whether the pupil's answer refers directly to the attitudes of the other students or indirectly to their own attitude.

7. Structuring questions

The interviewer needs to ensure that those areas relevant to the research question are covered during the course of the interview and can use questions to structure the interview accordingly.

  • 'I would now like to introduce a new topic: ...'

The interviewer should also consider politely breaking off long answers if they become irrelevant to the research questions.

8. Silence

Silence can be a useful tool in furthering the interview. It allows interviewee's a chance to reflect on what has been discussed. They may then be able to offer more information.

9. Interpreting questions

How or to what degree you interpret a question may involve rephrasing the answer and putting it to the interviewee or attempting to clarify their answer.

  • 'You mean that ... ?'
  • 'Is it correct that you feel that ... ?'

Another type of question that you may have heard of is a 'leading question'. A leading question can be defined as 'a question that you ask in a particular way in order to get the answer you want' (Oxford English Dictionary 2006). These should be avoided as they can obviously have an adverse effect on your results.

Consider your own research questions and the type of interview that you have chosen to conduct; an un-, semi- or structured interview. Prepare some questions using the above question types as a guide. Begin with your opening questions and consider how you will start your interview. It may be that your interviewees answer all of your research questions based upon the opening questions. A more likely scenario is that you will need to use a range of questioning techniques from those above in order to gain the information that you want. It is a good idea to plan some of these questions in advance as far as you can. Whether you use them all and whether you ask more 'on the spot questions' is dependent upon your skills as an interviewer.

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