Self-Administered Questionnaire Method: Definition, Advantages, Disadvantages

Self-Administered Questionnaire MethodA self-administered questionnaire (also referred to as a mailed questionnaire) is a data collection tool in which written questions are presented that are to be answered by the respondents in written form.

A written questionnaire can be administered in different ways, for example:

  • Sending questionnaires by mail with clear instructions on how to answer the questions and requests for mailed responses;
  • Gathering all or part of the respondents in one place at one time, giving oral or written instructions, and letting the respondents fill out the questionnaires; or
  • Hand-delivering questionnaires to respondents and collecting them later.

Other delivery modalities include computer-delivered and intercept studies.

Computer-delivered self-administered questionnaires use organizational intranets, the Internet, or on-line services to reach their respondents. Intercept studies are those that are conducted in-person, generally in a public place or business point.

For instance, interviewers might approach patrons leaving a restaurant and ask to interview them about their experiences. Interviewers might ask the questions or simply explain the project and give the questionnaire to the respondents to fill out.

The surveys might be completed on paper, on a tablet (iPod, Android, etc.), or a laptop.

Intercept studies may use a traditional questionnaire or a computerized instrument in a predetermined environment without the interviewer’s assistance.

The questions included in the questionnaire can be either open-ended or closed (with pre-categorized answers).

Electronic Method of Self-Administered Questionnaire Method

In recent times, electronic surveys can be conducted by e-mail or administered on the Internet or the Web (Malhotra, 2007).

E-mail interviews

To conduct an e-mail survey, a list of e-mail addresses is prepared. The survey is posted within the body of the e-mail message. The e-mails are then sent out over the Internet.

E-mail surveys use pure text (ASCII) to represent questionnaires and can be received and responded to by anyone with an e-mail address, whether or not they have access to the Web.

Respondents type the answers to either closed-ended questions at designated places, and click on ‘reply.’ Responses are entered in a pre­designed sheet and tabulated. Note that data entry is typically required in such surveys.

Internet Interviews

In contrast to e-mail surveys, Internet or Web surveys use Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the language of the Web, and are posted on a Web site.

Respondents may be recruited over the Internet from a potential respondent database maintained by the research firm, or they can be recruited by conventional methods (mail, telephone). Respondents are asked to go to a particular web location to complete the survey.

Many times, respondents are not recruited. Rather, they happen to be visiting the Web site where the survey is posted (or other popular Web sites), and they are invited to participate in the survey.

Many national dailies are currently conducting opinion polls addressing current issues of national interests employing this device.

Advantages of Self-administered Questionnaire

Considerably low cost

The economy is one of the most obvious benefits of a mailed questionnaire. The mail questionnaire does not require a trained staff of interviewers and supervisors; all it requires is the cost of planning, sampling, duplicating, mailing, and providing self-addressed envelopes for the returns.

Processing and analysis costs are usually simpler and cheaper than for other survey methods.

Ease in locating respondents

Except in extreme cases, locating respondents in a mailed questionnaire survey is sometimes easier, especially if the survey is conducted with specialized and homogeneous samples.

Saving of time

The mailed questionnaire can be sent to all respondents simultaneously, and most of the replies will be received within a week or so. It is, however, also true that final returns may take several weeks or longer.

Respondent’s convenience

The respondent may devote total time on it than he or she can do so in an interview study. This convenience may help him or her to answer more correctly. Also, this gives him or her more time to deal with difficult questions.

Greater anonymity

The absence of an interviewer provides the respondent with greater anonymity. This makes him or her more willing to provide socially undesirable answers or answers that violate norms.

Less chance of biasing error

There is no opportunity for the respondent to be biased by the presence of an interviewer. The personal characteristics of the interviewer and the variability of their skills may result in the biasing effect.

In a face to face interview, the respondent may mistrust the interviewer or dodge certain questions or give misleading answers. A mail questionnaire is, in general, free from this error.

Standardized wording

A comparison of respondents’ answers is facilitated by the fact that each respondent is exposed to the same wording.

However, this advantage may be waived out of the respondents vary concerning their level of understanding due to the differences in their level of education.

Ease in securing information

The mail questionnaire allows the respondent to consult his records, personal document, consult with colleagues, or other people for genuine information that he wants to provide.

Greater accessibility

Finally, respondents who are widely dispersed geographically can all be reached for a price of a postal stamp, as compared to expensive travel costs for interviewers.

Disadvantages of Self-administered Questionnaire

Limitations of the questionnaire

The only short and straightforward questionnaire with a few complex, open-ended, screening, and/or tedious questions can be used so that the respondents can understand with the help of the printed instructions and definitions.

Low response rate

The greatest disadvantage of the mailed questionnaire is its low response rate. In contrast, in interview studies, the vast majority of the interviews are completed, and the reasons for non-response rates are known.

Mailed studies sometimes receive a response rate of as low as 10 percent, and 50 percent is considered adequate.


The answers received in a mailed questionnaire have to be accepted as final, because there remains no scope to probe beyond the given answer to clarify an ambiguous one, to overcome unwillingness to answer a particular answer.

Verbal behavior

There is no interviewer present to observe non-verbal behavior or to make personal assessments of the respondent’s social class or other pertinent characteristics. A lower-class respondent may pass himself off as upper class in a mailed questionnaire, with no challenge from an interviewer.

Reasons for refusal not known

It is not always possible to determine the characteristics of non-respondents and reasons for refusals.

No control over the sequence

No control can be maintained over the sequence in which the questions are answered.

When the respondent fills in the questionnaire, he can see all the questions before answering any one of them, and the different answers cannot, therefore, be treated as independent. Following the sequence of a questionnaire is important, because it eliminates response bias.

No control over the environment

In interview studies, the interviewer often takes great pains to ensure that a standardized environment exits for every interview.

In a mailed questionnaire study, there is no assurance that the respondent will be able to complete the answers without interference by others. This may also lead to an invasion of privacy.

High item non-response bias

With no supervision, while filling in the questionnaire, the respondent may leave some questions unanswered. This is particularly true for sensitive and socially undesirable questions.

Cannot record spontaneous answers

When it is important to secure only one person’s views uninfluenced by others, this method is inappropriate. Moreover, the respondent has an opportunity to erase a hasty answer that he or she later decides is not diplomatic.

No way to supplement the answers

With a mail questionnaire, there is no opportunity to supplement the respondent’s answers by observational data.

No way to check the correct identity of the respondents.

With a mail questionnaire, the investigator cannot be sure that the right person has completed the questionnaire.

Dealing with Non-response in Mailed Interview

Low non-response rates may also be achieved through sub-sampling the non-respondents.

Suppose a sample of size 1000 is selected, and a questionnaire is mailed to them. The objective of the study is to ascertain the prevalence of smoking (P) among the respondents. Suppose further that 700 of them fill in and return the same.

Thus the initial number of non- respondents is 300. As a first step, reminders are sent to these 300 non- respondents. Assume now that out of these 300 non-respondents, 100 fill in and return the questionnaire.

There are now 800 respondents from whom responses have been received. The response rate is 0.80, and the non-response rate is 0.20.

The second step calls for selecting 40 of those non-respondents and interviews them. We assume that it has been possible to elicit responses from all the 40 individuals. To estimate P, the following estimator is now used:

p = 0.8pt +0.2p2

where p1 is the estimate applied to the data collected by mail, and p2 is the estimate applied to the data collected by interview. P1 would have been the estimator if no interviews were carried out.

Improving Response Rates in Mail Survey

We enumerate below a few points that lead to a higher response rate in the mail survey:

Follow-up: Follow-ups and reminders are highly remunerative in getting good returns. Since each successive follow-up produces more returns, researchers can potentially achieve an extremely high total response rate through repeated follow-ups.

Prior notification

Evidence is there that advance notification is effective in increasing response rates. For this purpose, telephoning seems to be the best device for advance notification.

Return envelopes

The inclusion of a self-addressed and stamped envelope encourages the respondents to a quick return.

Cash incentives

Some provision of monetary incentives is highly likely to increase the response rate.


The sponsorship of the mail questionnaire has a significant effect on respondents, often motivating them to fill it out and its quick return. Sponsorship guarantees the study’s legitimacy and value. Therefore, investigators must include information on sponsorship, usually in the cover letter accompanying the questionnaire.


The researcher should appeal to the respondents’ goodwill, telling them that he/she should participate by filling out the questionnaire and mailing them back.

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