Designing Structured Interviews for Educational
Research. ERIC Digest.
[Adapted from General Accounting Office (1991). "Using Structured Interviewing
Techniques." Washington, DC: Program Evaluation and Methodology Division
One key element in conducting useful research is gathering reliable
information. And the basis for doing that is designing questions and questionnaires
that get the kind of information from which the researcher can draw valid
When one looks at a completed questionnaire or the results of a valid
study, he or she is often tempted to say, "That's not difficult to do,"
but that temptation quickly passes after a few minutes of closer analysis.
That's about all it takes to realize that designing a good question and
good questionnaire requires more thought and time than one might originally
think. There are an almost infinite variety of things to think about and
to do correctly to avoid the kinds of errors that can make scores of hours
of work worthless.
This digest looks at some of the basic building blocks of a structured
interview, points out potential pitfalls, and suggests ways for the researcher
to avoid them, in order to produce a set of questions that have the best
possibility of generating reliable, accurate data on the topics of interest.
SOME BASIC TERMS
The first thing that a new researcher needs to know is some standard
terminology. This knowledge helps that person understand other concepts
to be introduced and puts him or her in a position to communicate with
more experienced people in the discipline.
Data-collection instrument (DCI)--A document containing questions presented
in a systematic, highly precise fashion. The DCI's purpose is to enable
the evaluator to obtain uniform data that can be compared, summed, and,
if it is quantitative, subjected to additional statistical analysis.
Structured interview--One that uses a DCI to gather data, either by
telephone or face to face. In a structured interview, the evaluator asks
the same questions of numerous individuals in a precise manner, offering
each individual the same set of possible responses. (In contrast, an unstructured
interview contains many open-ended questions that are not asked in a precise,
Computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI)--A form of telephone interview
where the DCI is stored in a computer and the interviewer records responses
directly into the computer.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES TO VARIOUS DATA-GATHERING METHODS
This section discusses the relative benefits and disadvantages of the
two primary types of structured interviews and compares them to the mail
- Enables the interviewer to establish rapport with the respondent
- Allows the interviewer to observe as well as listen
- Permits more complex questions to be asked than in other types of
- An effective method of gathering data when the DCI is lengthy
- Some uses: to get before-and-after data about a lesson module or a
change in administrative procedure; to gather opinions on a specific learning
or teaching technique
- Less costly than personal interview
- Takes less time than a personal interview
- Simplifies recording of data if CATI is used
- Most effective when the number of questions is relatively small and
time available to gather data is short
- Some uses: gathering information on parent satisfaction with the educational
program; determining awareness of programs and tools available in the school
Mail Questionnaire (not a structured interview method)
- Least costly but slowest method of collecting data
- Requires precise question design to match reading comprehension of
- Some uses: to get demographic information on district residents; to
get opinions on potential new programs, if they can be clearly described
in the questionnaire
DESIGNING A STRUCTURED INTERVIEW
The first step in designing the interview is to formulate the broad
overall questions that the survey is intended to answer, i.e.,
- Why is the study being undertaken?
- What does the study aim to learn or determine?
- - To describe something that has occurred; e.g., How do parents view
the value of computer use as an aid to teaching math in elementary grades?
- - To compare results to some standard (a normative study); e.g., Has
the use of computers as a teaching aid matched the goals of the teachers
using these tools?
- - To determine if a procedural change has made a difference (a cause-and-effect
study); e.g., Has the use of computer-assisted instruction changed student
attitudes about learning math?
The second task is to translate the broad overall questions into measurable
elements as hypotheses or more precise questions. The descriptive question
above, for example, would require developing measures such as parents'
relative knowledge about computer use in math instruction, the importance
parents place on math learning, whether parents believe their children
learned more with or without the use of computer technology, to name a
Then, the target population needs to be identified. If computer-assisted
math instruction is new only to a certain grade or school, care needs to
be taken to interview only the parents whose children have been affected
by the program change. It may sound basic, but innumerable studies have
proceeded to unsatisfactory completion because of insufficient consideration
of this aspect.
Now, the study can proceed to the development of a pool of specific
questions designed to elicit the desired information. The number of questions
developed should be more than the number to be asked; then, the most appropriate
and useful can be selected from those available.
COMPOSING APPROPRIATE QUESTIONS
Three main criteria exist for writing appropriate questions: relevance,
selection of the proper respondents, ease of answering.
- Relevance--Questions should be directly related to the purpose of
the study and have a good probability of yielding the kind of data desired.
- Selection of respondents--Even though a question may be relevant to
the study, it may not be answerable by the people to whom it will be asked.
- Ease of response--Questions need to be relatively easy to answer and
should not create embarrassment for or an undue burden on the interviewee.
Among the types of questions that should be avoided are those that require
respondents to consult records or other information sources, would make
them uncomfortable for any reason, would reflect negatively on them, would
make the interview confrontational, or have no specific answer.
SELECTING A QUESTION FORMAT
Important considerations in deciding on the format of questions include
how the question is to be delivered (mail, telephone, face to face), the
type of information the respondent is expected to provide, and the possible
alternative responses. Making these decisions will result in the selection
of open-ended, fill-in-the blank, binary-choice, scaled-response, or unscaled-response
questions. Of course, depending on the type of information desired, a structured
interview questionnaire will generally have a combination of these types
- Open-ended--Because open-ended questions provide no structure for
the answer, they should be tightly focused to elicit the kind of information
the researcher wants to get. And, because they require accurate and time-consuming
transcription, their use should be limited to initial research where the
number of respondents is small and the object is to refine the research
direction and determine more precise questions that can be structured another
- Fill-in-the-blank--This type of question has a simple answer, usually
a name, frequency, or quantity, which is the kind of information these
questions are good at obtaining.
- Binary--These are good for obtaining factual information that falls
into the yes-no, true-false category of answer.
- Scaled-response--These consist of a list of alternative responses
that increase or decrease in intensity in an ordered fashion. These kinds
of questions can be further defined as balanced, unbalanced, and rating
- Unscaled-response--With this type of question, the respondent is asked
to choose one or more options from a list; this is the type of question
that should include the ootheroe category so that the responder is not
forced to select an answer with which he or she is not completely satisfied.
The reader should be alerted to the fact that this digest provides only
an introduction to structured interviewing. Success in developing and conducting
structured interviews requires consulting and studying additional references
and reliance on the assistance of experts in the field.
REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
Campion, M.A., Campion, J.E., & Hudson, J.P., Jr. (1994). "Structured
Interviewing: A Note on Incremental Validity and Alternative Question Types."
Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 998-1002.
Hollwitz, J. & Wilson, C.E. (1993). "Structured Interviewing in
Volunteer Selection." Journal of Applied Communication Research, 21, 41-52.
General Accounting Office. (1991). Using Structured Interviewing Techniques.
Washington, D.C.: Program Evaluation and Methodology Division (http://www.gao.gov/policy/10_1_5.pdf).
Pawlas, G.E. (1995). "The Structured Interview: Three Dozen Questions
to Ask Prospective Teachers." NASSP Bulletin, 79, 62-65.
Watts, G.E. (1993). "Effective Strategies in Selecting Quality Faculty."
Paper presented at the International Conference for Community College Chairs,
Deans, and Other Instructional Leaders. Phoenix, AZ.