Questions may be either closed- or open-ended. With closed-ended questions, a limited number of response alternatives are given; with open-ended questions, respondents are free to answer in any way they like. Thus, you could ask a Page 139person, “What is the most important thing children should learn to prepare them for life?” followed by a list of answers from which to choose (a closed-ended question), or you could leave this question open-ended for the person to provide the answer.
Using closed-ended questions is a more structured approach; they are easier to code and the response alternatives are the same for everyone. Openended questions require time to categorize and code the responses and are therefore more costly to conduct and more difficult to interpret. Sometimes a respondent’s response cannot be categorized at all because the response does not make sense or the person could not think of an answer.
Still, an open-ended question can yield valuable insights into what people are thinking. Open-ended questions are most useful when the researcher needs to know what people are thinking and how they naturally view their world; closed-ended questions are more likely to be used when the dimensions of the variables are well defined.
Schwarz (1999) points out that the two approaches can sometimes lead to different conclusions. He cites the results of a survey question about preparing children for life. When “To think for themselves” was one alternative in a closed-ended list, 62% chose this option; however, only 5% gave this answer when the open-ended format was used. This finding points to the need to have a good understanding of the topic when asking closed-ended questions.