Questionnaires: how to use them as training aids

Questionnaires come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Choosing the right type and format of questionnaire largely depends on your purpose. Peter Honey advises.

One of the many jokes about psychologists is that they simultaneously greet you with a handshake and a questionnaire to fill in. Well, you do not have to be a psychologist to become the butt of this joke; just a trainer who uses questionnaires as training aids.

Questionnaires come in a variety of shapes and sizes. At one end of the scale, there are ‘pop’ questionnaires of the ‘Are you a good lover?’ variety, and at the other, respectable psychometric instruments administered by certified people under licence. They all have their place in the scheme of things.

The reason why there are so many different types of questionnaire is because they cover such a broad spectrum of human attributes. Here are six questionnaire types, ranged from the most straightforward to the most complex:

1. Knowledge/attainment

2. Skill/aptitude

3. Behaviour styles/preferences

4. Attitudes/beliefs

5. Intelligence

6. Personality/temperament

Just to complicate matters, within these different categories there are considerable variations in the house-style of questionnaires. Some use a checklist format, others offer paired statements, and others still offer a range of options and invite you to select one or to prioritise them.

Choosing an appropriate type and format of questionnaire largely depends on your purpose. Broadly, there are just four purposes. You could use questionnaires to:

1. Test whether people have attained a certain standard in knowledge and/or skills

2. Establish people’s perceptions, attitudes and beliefs about something

3. Help someone learn/develop and increase their self-awareness

4. Predict people’s suitability for a job/career and/or their potential.

Clearly these four categories may not be mutually exclusive. You could, for example, combine one and four by testing know-how and use the results to select or reject candidates for a particular job. Or, you could conduct an attitude survey, listed as two above, and feedback the findings to help people learn – number three in the above list.

Questionnaires to help learning and development differ significantly from psychometrics that are designed for assessment by third parties.

A questionnaire for development purposes needs to be reliable (ie, to tell the same story on different occasions) and valid (ie, to measure accurately enough whatever it set out to).

However, even more important are norms that help learners compare themselves with other people. Norms usually put scores into bands – five bands is typical – so that people get a relative feel for whether their score is high, moderate or low.

If you are going to make frequent use of a questionnaire, it is useful to develop your own local norms rather than relying on norms which have been calculated for other groups from different organisations and, sometimes, different cultures. You only need, say, 50 sets of scores to make this a worthwhile exercise.

My advice for the trainer using questionnaires for development is:

1. Whenever you plan to use a questionnaire on a training programme, always do it yourself first as preparation. The best way to understand a questionnaire is to complete it yourself and see what it tells you about you. When you have completed it, read all the supporting material so that you feel comfortable with what it’s all about and the background.

2. If you are designing a training programme that includes a number of different topics, never schedule more than two questionnaires per day. Familiarity breeds contempt, and if people are over-exposed to questionnaires, they tend to lose their novelty value. Questionnaires, even when they employ a different format and/or probe different aspects, are too similar, and need to be separated by other activities.

3. When people are sceptical about the value of questionnaires, don’t be defensive or make exaggerated claims. Simply say that questionnaires are just devices for provoking initial thoughts about a topic. The results are purely for their own ‘edification and delight’ and not to be placed on files or used by third parties.

4. By all means invent your own questionnaires, but always dry run them before going ‘live’, and do statistical checks to establish their reliability and validity. Detailed advice on the steps to go through is given in the final section of my manual on self-assessment questionnaires.

Peter Honey, learning and development commentator and founder of Peter Honey Publications.

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