Outlined in this resource is an imaginary research project on the topic of veganism amongst students at university. Aims and objectives are noted, as these are helpful in generating your questions. Following on from these research aims are some examples of good and bad interview questions for this research specific project, including some tips on what makes them either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Imaginary research project:
Research title: Students can be vegans too: Exploring the lifestyle choices of university students.
Research aim: To explore the experiences and choices of students living as vegans whilst at university and the ways in which veganism is part of their everyday lives.
Specific research questions:
- To what extent do students who are vegans experience stigma (judgement) for their dietary choices?
- How does the environment of a university influence experiences of veganism?
- How do vegans manage and navigate their dietary needs within their everyday lives at university?
- Does university life provide a compatible environment to be a vegan?
Examples of bad interview questions:
- Are you a vegetarian?
- Are you a vegan?
- Have you been a vegan long?
- People make judgements about being a vegan, do you agree with this?
- Do you think that being a vegan is hard at university?
- What makes veganism hard at university?
Finding your Way: Think back to the advice in Chapter 12 and consider what is wrong with these before sneaking a peek at the list of ‘good’ ones...
So, what makes these ‘bad’ questions?
- Well, the problem here is that the majority of these are closed questions, which means the participant might only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This limits the amount of data you will be able to collect.
- Some of these questions are not entirely relevant for the research questions, for example, the topic is on veganism, so a question on vegetarianism is not a necessary or effective use of time.
- Another problem here is that some of these questions are ‘leading’, meaning that the interviewer directs the participant and potentially influences/encourages them to respond in a certain way. This means that the data collected might not be a reflection of what the interviewee really thinks.
- Additionally, the questions are not probing and do not give the opportunity for the participant to expand or elaborate in their own way.
So, what would good questions look like for this imaginary research project?
Examples of good questions:
- Would you be able to tell me about why being a vegan is important to you?
- What happened when you first became a vegan, how did people react?
- Can you tell me about your everyday routine and habits, noting how veganism fits into your daily life?
- How do you think that people view students who are vegans?
- Can you tell me more about your own experiences of being a vegan whilst at university?
- Earlier you mentioned that people have questioned your choices in the past, can you tell me about a specific occasion or time when you have needed to explain or justify your dietary choices to others?
- How is being a vegan different at university than other areas or places of your life, if at all?
Finding your Way: These questions are trying to do different things. They are designed to draw out varied responses for example details, challenging ideas, explanation, exploring significance and encouraging categorisation.
Why are these questions better?
As noted in Chapter 12, interviews generate data about how people understand and experience particular aspects of the human world. They are guided conversations, which need to be participant led. The questions here are better as they provide participants with more space to create their own narratives and direct the discussion. The questions are not too leading and the participant will not be influenced to answer in a certain or expected way.
The examples of good questions listed all have a slightly different task or purpose. However. what they all have in common is that they are open. This means that the opportunity for the participant to respond with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is avoided. Instead you are encouraging them to open up. There are different types of questions in this list and a combination of these within your interview schedules is optimal:
Aim of each type of question
Examples of how to phrase each type of question
Finding out more detail
Inviting the participant to provide their opinion
How do you think…?
Challenge the participant and encourage them to elaborate on a point they made at a previous part of the interview
Earlier you mentioned…
Dig a little deeper and encourage the participant to amplify or open up
Can you tell me more about…?
Asks the participant to provide categorization of something
How is that different to…?
Asks the participant to explain the significance of something
Why is that important…?
In addition to these types, remember that interview questions are typically followed up by probes. These are planned prompts where you try to draw out even more information. So even if you do not obtain a full response, or you think that the participant might have more to say, do not be afraid to ask follow up questions or to return to some points at the end. For example, in the project outlined above, you could say ‘earlier on in the interview you mentioned that your parents are not very accommodating of your veganism, would you be able to tell me a little more about this please?’.
How is it best to record these prompts and remember them?
One effective way to remember points you wish to follow up at the end is by noting them down briefly as the participant is talking. Having a blank piece of paper with the heading ‘follow up questions’ in front of you is always a good idea when interviewing, and this is handy for making quick notes. Do not worry about writing some brief notes; just ensure that you explain to participants that this might occur before the interview begins.
Students often ask whether the order of questions matters or when it is best to probe. Well, there is no one correct answer to such questions. Some people choose to ask a probing follow up question immediately, whilst others save them for the end. In some cases, probing questions might formulate part of follow up interviews or additional methods as part of the same project (e.g., you could probe particular pointers in subsequent focus groups or questionnaires).
For further tips on how to effectively collect qualitative data through interviewing: