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Diagnostic Questions in Surveys: What Are and How to Use Them

Questions are the backbone of a good survey, and they need to be chosen carefully because the type of survey questions you use and the specific questions you ask will determine the success of your survey. For instance, closed-ended questions are quick to answer and will give you quantifiable data that’s easy to analyse, while open-ended questions can give you rich data and insight into opinions and behaviours. But another option that’s not often explored is to ask diagnostic questions, which can help you understand a person’s misunderstandings and thought processes.

In this article, you’ll learn what diagnostic questions are, see some in action, and discover how you can incorporate them into your surveys to get answers you might not otherwise uncover.

Diagnostic questions are questions formulated in a way that allows you to understand the thought process of the person answering. They’re often used in an educational setting, where they give teachers insight into students’ understanding of a particular concept.

Rather than just determining that a student answered a question correctly or incorrectly, teachers can draw conclusions about what led them to that answer, so that they know which learning areas to focus on. In fact, with diagnostic questions, which are typically multiple choice, we learn the most when people select an incorrect answer. This is because a good diagnostic question can help show how someone came to a common misunderstanding or problematic conclusion based on their everyday experiences.

Teachers often use diagnostic questions before starting to teach a new topic to establish a baseline for learning and assess what students already know – and what they don’t. This is sometimes combined with a test part-way through and at the end of the lesson to confirm what students have learnt.

But diagnostic questions can also be applied to contexts beyond education to help us gauge a person’s understanding of, or thoughts around, a particular topic.

You can use diagnostic questions in surveys to better understand respondents’ thinking. For example, from a market research perspective, you could ask diagnostic questions to get to the bottom of prospective and current customers’ perceptions and misconceptions about your brand, or a specific product or service.

Staff surveys are another area where diagnostic questions can be helpful. Let’s say you want to examine how much employees know about the staff benefits available to them. Asking diagnostic questions can help assess their current knowledge and reveal misunderstandings. You could also provide additional training or information to improve their knowledge, then ask some more diagnostic questions to check how much they’ve learnt.

Diagnostic questions can also help inform career guidance. In a university setting, career guidance counsellors could use diagnostic questions as a tool to assess students’ existing knowledge of, and misconceptions about, a particular subject or career. Meanwhile, in a work environment, human resources departments or those responsible for professional development could have employees answer diagnostic questions to determine areas of focus for career development or additional training.

Now that we’ve discussed how diagnostic questions can help, let’s look at some examples. If you’re struggling with coming up with questions of your own, SurveyMonkey’s Question Bank can help you generate a variety of questions using keywords and filters.

As you’ll see, diagnostic questions also have some common characteristics. They:

  • Are closed-ended
  • Typically offer multiple-choice
  • Normally have four answer options
  • Have only one correct option
  • Have incorrect options, each of which reveals a different misunderstanding
  • Are focused and quick to answer

How expensive are company X’s organic soap bars in comparison to other brands?

a)    Among the most expensive soap bars on the market

b)    Among the least expensive soap bars on the market

c)     Around the middle of the soap bar range

d)    Around the upper half of the soap bar range

Which of the below is company X’s tagline?

a)    Suds for you and your buds

b)    Suds you’ll love

c)     Suds-tastic

d)    Soap up with suds

How many days of annual leave are you entitled to in your current role?

a)    25 days

b)    25 days plus 8 days of bank holiday

c)    30 days

d)    25 days plus closures for Christmas and Easter (totalling 8 days) and 8 days of bank holiday

Which of the following types of leave are you entitled to as an employee?

a)    Maternity or paternity leave, sickness leave, compassionate leave

b)    Maternity or paternity leave, long service leave, compassionate leave, parental leave, adoption leave, emergency leave, sickness leave, volunteer leave

c)    Maternity or paternity leave, long service leave, compassionate leave, parental leave, adoption leave, sickness leave

d)    Maternity or paternity leave, compassionate leave, parental leave, adoption leave, emergency leave, sickness leave, volunteer leave

Which of the following benefits are not available to employees of your current employer?

a)    Pension

b)    Season ticket loans

c)    Discounted gym membership

d)    Life insurance

A career in accountancy offers the following benefits:

a)    A clear career path

b)    No further training required after qualification

c)    Regular 9–5 working hours throughout the year

d)    A stress-free job

As the examples above show, diagnostic questions can be tailored to a range of contexts and asked as part of many survey types to investigate perceptions, awareness and understanding. However, to ask these questions, you need to come up with a range of answer options that reveal common mistakes or misunderstandings, meaning you need to know a lot about the topic and about people’s thought processes. One technique that can help is to refer to past surveys. Look at answers to open-ended questions and pick a few that come up often.

Next up, let’s look at how SurveyMonkey can help you create a survey using diagnostic questions. Start things off by picking one of our many survey templates. From course evaluation to brand awareness and online shopping attitudes, there are plenty to choose from. And remember, you can even start with a survey containing open-ended questions to give you added insight that will help you prepare your diagnostic questions.

When it comes to writing diagnostic questions, refer to the tips and examples above, making sure that the answer options are interpretable and will give you useful insights. Then use SurveyMonkey Genius to help you take your survey from good to perfect. Or get an extra helping hand with Momentive Insights, providing market research expertise and engagement tailored to your brand.

Diagnostic questions can be applied to a variety of research situations. They can add an extra layer to your survey findings, helping you gain useful insights into people’s thought processes and misconceptions. Get a head start with a SurveyMonkey.

Diagnostic questions are designed to give insight into people’s thinking. They feature one correct answer and three incorrect answers, with each incorrect answer based on a common mistake or misunderstanding.

A common example of a diagnostic question comes from mathematics teaching, where students are asked to calculate the area of a particular shape. One answer is correct, while the three others are incorrect but reveal different misconceptions, such as confusing area and perimeter or adding numbers rather than multiplying them.

What diagnostic questions you should ask in your surveys will depend on what you’re researching. But whatever the question, it should include four answer options: one correct, three incorrect, with each incorrect answer revealing a different misconception.