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Open Ended and Closed Questions

A guide to question types used in Research

Question types used in a survey

In research, one of the most widely used methods of data collection is using a questionnaire or survey. While it is common practice to use existing questionnaires or surveys that other researchers have used, it may so happen that you need to design your own or potentially adapt an existing one to suit your specific research questions. In this situation, you as a researcher will need to decide what type of questions need to be asked. The type of question you use is dependent on your research objectives, the nature of the information you need and the level of detail you are after.
The two different types of questions used in research are open-ended and closed questions.

What are Open-Ended Questions?

An open-ended question is an open response-style of question, where participants can answer in as much or as little text as they choose. Open-ended questions allow participants to respond to your question based on their own experience, opinions, or level of understanding, which often allows for answers to be longer andmore detailed. Open-ended questions are more common in qualitative research designs. Common formats for structuring open-ended questions include asking ‘how’, ‘why’ or ‘what’.

By having no ‘limit’, open-ended questions are advantageous because they allow for your participants to share their thoughts and experiences in as much detail as they wish, which in turn often gives researchers greater insight into the motivations and reasons underlying participant responses and a much richer dataset than if you only provide limited opportunity for participants to respond. Since every participant can respond at length, open-ended questions are also a good way to highlight any variability and diversity in your sample since each participant will have their own perspective.

However, because they are in open-ended format, open-ended questions can be harder to code and analyse in larger samples because responses are often longer, and saturation would occur relatively quickly. Further, answering qualitatively means that statistical analyses are limited. Therefore, open-ended questions are more prevalent in qualitative research studies that typically use smaller sample sizes because it is more feasible to administer and analyse.

What are Closed Questions?

A closed question is one where the possible answers are restricted to a select number of choices that were pre-determined by the researchers. Closed questions allow for more focused responses, because the range of options to select from are limited to specific factors that the researcher is interested in. Closed questions are more common in quantitative research designs, and can occur in dichotomous or multiple-choiceformats, such as ‘Yes/No’ or ‘Please select…’ questions.

Closed questions are often advantageous because participants only need to consider and select one of the options provided to them, rather than articulating longer and more justified answers. By providing the same options to choose from, closed questions are helpful in creating a degree of consistency in your sample. As a result, closed questions are easier to administer and analyse for large-scale research, particularly studies that are primarily based on number-based questionnaires.

However, closed questions are associated with several notable limitations. A closed question reduces the range of possible answers to a select handful, which may be difficult to do when the range of answers or options is large. Closed questions also don’t allow for participants to express themselves if their response isn’t amongst those included. Another limitation is that closed questions may promote bias in participant responses, because the options provided are what the researchers expect a participant’s answer to be.

Examples of Open-ended and closed questions

Closed Open
What is your preferred type of pizza?
- Meatlovers
- Ham and pineapple
- Supreme
- Pepperoni
Do you believe that pineapple belongs on pizza?:
High school students should wear uniforms:
- True
- False
Why should high school students wear uniforms?
Do you like chocolate ice-cream?
- Yes
- No
Why do you like your favourite ice-cream flavour?
Do you like to exercise indoors or outdoors?
- Yes
- No
How do you feel about exercising outdoors?
On a scale of 1 to 5, how tired are you currently feeling?
1 – Extremely tired
2 – Somewhat tired
3 – Neither tired nor refreshed
4 – Somewhat refreshed
5 – Totally refreshed
How would you describe how tired you are currently feeling?
Are you going on holidays at Christmas?
What do you expect to do during the Christmas holiday period?

Should you use Open Ended or Close Questions?

Whether you use open-ended or closed questions is at your discretion. If you have a clear objective, you may choose or prefer one question format over the other. However, it is becoming increasingly common in research to ask a closed question to gauge what the participant’s categorical answer is, before following up with an open-ended question so that the participant can elaborate on their choice. Using this approach is advantageous because this provides researchers with two levels of detail about a factor they are interested in that they are then able to analyse as part of their research.

Irrespective of which question type you use in your research, it is important that your questions are phrased unambiguously and clearly address one point. This will increase the likelihood that the responses you obtain will accurately capture the information that you as a researcher are interested in. Having a double-barrelled question may cause confusion or lead to participants addressing one part of the question over the other. For both open-ended and closed questions, it may take a few revisions or even piloting your questions on a small group of people before you get the phrasing just right – and this is completely normal!

How social desirability and acquiescence can impact your results

It is important when analysing responses from both open-ended and closed questions to be mindful of both social desirability and acquiescence. The social desirability effect occurs when participants provide answers that they think are more socially acceptable than what their actual response is, or when they provide answers they think the researchers want to receive. Similarly, acquiescence is when a participant will have an overt tendency to agree or say yes to questions because it is simpler than justifying or explaining a different position. Social desirability and acquiescence often result in bias, which will affect the accuracy of results. To address these, when asking open-ended and closed questions it is helpful to:

  1. Keep responses anonymous – this will encourage participants to be more open with their answers because they cannot be identified.
  2. Ensure that the phrasing of the question is clear – if your questions are direct and targeted in their phrasing, this will help participants respond in a similar manner.