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The Training Page of Volunteer Today has practical trainer techniques and activities to make orientation sessions more productive and valuable. There are also ideas to help enhance the professional volunteer manager's training level.

~ July 2006 ~ Topics

Writing Valid Survey Questions

Writing Valid Survey Questions

There comes a time when volunteers needed to be surveyed—on the effectiveness of training, their experience with recruiting, or satisfaction with a volunteer assignment. Here is a sample of the type of question most often asked.

"Did you feel the training experience was a good one?" __________________

What do you know from the answer "Yes?" What specifically did the person think was good? The snacks? Trainer? His or her own skill level? The parking lot? By any measure this is a vague question and making decisions about training based on questions like these is dangerous. Here is an alternative to the sample above.

The training in our organization covers a variety of topics. We need to know if the topics covered helped you to do your tasks as a volunteer. In the list below rate your assessment of your own skill level when you left the training session. Please check the box that most closely applies to your assessment.

Training Topic Very Skilled Skilled Adequate A Little Skilled Not Skilled NA
1. The policies on volunteer behavior.            
2. The policies on relationships with clients.            
3. The rules about the use of organizational equipment and supplies.            
4. Confidentiality.            

The survey would likely go on to include specific details of the types of things volunteers actually do. Each topic covered is now measurable, can be quantified, can be measured over several years of training, could easily be put into a database, and provides "hard" evidence of the need for change or where things are just fine.

Drafting questions for valuable surveys is a skill that can be improved with some practice (and field testing). Here are some tips to help you improve your survey question writing skills.

Is the question necessary?—It is tempting to throw in questions on other topics when you are really assessing training, but resist that urge. You confuse the respondent, and that impacts the validity of your survey. Stick to the questions that you absolutely have to have answered. Those "nice to ask" questions can be used later in another study. Stay on topic.

Does the respondent have the information to answer the question? If you are asking questions about whether a training session prepared a volunteer for their position, they need to have done the tasks for a period of time before being able to reflect on that question.

Are you asking questions that supply concrete and specific answers, based on the person's personal experience? Questions need to be written so the person answering is not guessing at what to answer. Suppose the question is:

"Do you think the volunteer position of X is important to the functioning of our overall program?"
______ Yes
______ No
______ No opinion

A person might answer yes, even if he/she rarely has contact with people who do the job, or use the services of that volunteer. If used, there would need to be follow-up questions as to why the person answered as he/she did.

Check the wording used. Jargon can be misunderstood. Vocabulary or language can confuse people who do not use it daily. Some words have multiple definitions.

Sensitive wording can offend. Take the word "retarded." For many years it was used to refer to a broad spectrum of individuals with an array of developmental disabilities. Respondents can and do avoid such questions, to the point where the survey is tossed in a wastebasket.

Demographic information can be a touchy issue. The best surveys elicit information on such things as age, educational level, race, and other personal information. If this is needed for the validity of the survey, include an optional sheet with the survey. Explain why this personal information is collected and how it is used. Most people will respond if he/she understands why.

Personal wording has been shown in studies to bring different results. Note the difference in these two examples.

1. To what extent are the resources in the volunteer library satisfactory?

( ) Very Satisfactory
( ) Satisfactory
( ) No opinion
( ) Unsatisfactory
( ) Very unsatisfactory

2. To what extent do you think the resources in the volunteer library are satisfactory?

( ) Very Satisfactory
( ) Satisfactory
( ) No opinion
( ) Unsatisfactory
( ) Very unsatisfactory

In responding to the first question the person might think about the value to other staff, or other volunteers, where as the second question specifically asks for a personal response.

Question placement can impact the validity of answers.

  • Organize the way you would an outline for a report.
  • When asking for chronological information, begin with the present and work backwards.
  • When issues are sensitive, begin with non-threatening questions before reaching the more sensitive areas.
  • Begin any survey with easy and non-threatening questions, usually short, inoffensive ones.

A word about forced choice or open response questions.

A forced choice question is one where the answers are predetermined by the person writing the survey or where one of 3 – 6 categories are listed for choice. An open-ended question is one where there is no response categorization by the writer of the survey.

Forced Choice: "Do you feel every volunteer should take training on confidentiality?"

( ) Strongly Agree
( ) Agree
( ) No opinion
( ) Disagree
( ) Strongly Disagree

Open Choice: "Do you feel every volunteer should take training on confidentiality?"

( ) Yes, please elaborate _______________________________________
( ) No, please elaborate ________________________________________

Open-ended questions require a more complex coding system, and are more time consuming for the respondent as well as the tabulator of the data. Each response must be analyzed individually and then categorized for coding.

Using a combination of Forced Choice and Open Choice can aid in response reliability and a richness in the information gathered.

Want more ideas for training? Check out our online bookstore for Handling Problem Volunteers by Steve McCurley and Sue Vineyard. Details for Handling Problem Volunteers Book

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Close to 200 colleges and universities offer academic programs on nonprofit and volunteer sector management. They are usually master's degree programs, but not always. American Humanics sponsors undergraduate programs, as well. If you are looking to push out the professional development window, consider taking a course at one of these colleges. A full list resides at http://tltc.shu.edu/npo/. Thank Roseanne Mirabella, of Seton Hall University for keeping up with this list.

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