Skip to main content

Tips on writing surveys for youth

By Betsy Olson

Collecting opinions from the youth in your program can be as easy as asking the right question. But in surveys, asking the right question can be tricky. The questions can be too complex, the responses can be mismatched or the vocabulary can be confusing.

Don't go through all the hard work of collecting survey data from a group of young people without ensuring the responses measure what you intend to measure and accurately reflect their experiences. Research into how young people respond to survey items is a topic that has gotten more attention as researchers and evaluators have begun to understand the value of collecting data directly from youth. Here are some tips:

Keep questions short and simple

This one seems obvious to anyone who has asked a young person a question – just remember it when you write your survey. Complex questions are hard for anyone, and particularly for people under age 11. If you want accurate responses, keep it very simple.

Test the vocabulary

Vocabulary makes a big difference, especially for youth 8-11 years old. One-word variations can make a question incomprehensible. For example, if youth refer to the program as 4-H and you ask them about a 4-H community club, they may not understand that they're the same. The only way to be sure your vocabulary is clear is to test it with a few people the same age as those you will survey. Youth under age seven are very hard to survey – my advice is to interview them instead.

Ask about their own experiences

Don’t ask youth about the experiences of others. If only some of the group went swimming, ask questions about swimming only to those who did. Youth are prone to answer all the questions they see, even those that don’t apply to them, so be sure to narrow the questions to only their own experiences.

Avoid negative phrasing

This tip applies to all surveys, but is particularly important for youth.  For example:

I have not served as a leader at camp.
Don’t Know
I disagreed with my camp counselor.
Don’t Know

It's better to use a positive phrase such as, "I served as a leader at camp."

Use words, not numbers and limit the number of responses

It's harder for a young person to translate a scale like this ...

Agree                                  Disagree

... than one like this:

Strongly Agree
Somewhat Agree
Somewhat Disagree

Keep surveys short

This is probably the most important tip. Even the most earnest young person will not push through survey fatigue. The validity of their answers only lasts as long as their interest in the survey itself. So keep it short.

You can use pictures to extend a young person’s attention, but be careful because pictures can mean different things to different people (that’s where testing comes in).

Use the data

All this work is only worth it if you actually use the data to help you adapt the program or share impact with stakeholders.

-- Betsy Olson, Extension educator

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Hi Betsy, Thanks for sharing these great evaluation tips! I think the overarching take away is to test your surveys out! It's so important but so often we skip this step. I know that the surveys that I have tested always get better data. One quick tip I would add about testing vocabulary is to use a readability calculator. There are a variety of these on the internet that allow you to paste in your survey language and see the reading level of survey questions. This is helpful for surveys for youth and adults because you want to make all surveys accessible.

    1. Thanks, Sam! I could not agree more that testing a survey is a critical take away. Thank you also for sharing the readability calculator tip. It can really be a useful tool. All the survey authors out there should keep in mind that readability calculators do not replace testing because surveys can have a high readability but still confuse respondents because the survey asks about the "field trip" and the youth think they went on a "class trip."

      Any others have great tips to help create surveys that are easily understood by the intended audience?

  2. Thanks Betsy! these tips are very timely as I work on some eval. survey questions for young 4-Hers! Although it should go without saying, it was important to be reminded to test out the questions and think about what the kids call the things they did.

    1. Glad you found the tips timely and useful.

      Your comment also reminds me that in order to ensure we are using the same language as our participants we often have to ask directly. For example, when it asks about Cloverbud Camp, what does that mean to you? Sometimes a direct question is the only way to make sure we are on the same page with our young participants.

  3. All great tips! I am working on creating some evaluations now and these were helpful; especially the "class trip" vs. "field trip". Language is key.

    1. Agreed, Courtney! Writing surveys makes our language choices critical choices. Making things brief AND clear is often difficult. Short confusing questions are worse than long clear questions, however, the art of survey writing is really being able to do both. Do you have any tips you use to keep your language clear?


Post a Comment