7.3 Types of surveys

Learning Objectives

  • Define cross-sectional surveys, provide an example of a cross-sectional survey, and outline some of the drawbacks of cross-sectional research
  • Describe the three types of longitudinal surveys
  • Describe retrospective surveys and identify their strengths and weaknesses
  • Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the various methods of administering surveys


There is immense variety when it comes to surveys. This variety comes both in terms of time—when or with what frequency a survey is administered—and in terms of administration—how a survey is delivered to respondents. In this section, we’ll look at what types of surveys exist when it comes to both time and administration.


In terms of time, there are two main types of surveys: cross-sectional and longitudinal. Cross-sectional surveys are those that are administered at just one point in time. These surveys offer researchers a snapshot in time and offer an idea about how things are for the respondents at the particular point in time that the survey is administered.

An example of a cross-sectional survey comes from Aniko Kezdy and colleagues’ study (Kezdy, Martos, Boland, & Horvath-Szabo, 2011) of the association between religious attitudes, religious beliefs, and mental health among students in Hungary. These researchers administered a single, one-time-only, cross-sectional survey to a convenience sample of 403 high school and college students. The survey focused on how religious attitudes impact various aspects of one’s life and health. The researchers found from analysis of their cross-sectional data that anxiety and depression were highest among those who had both strong religious beliefs and some doubts about religion.

Yet another example of cross-sectional survey research can be seen in Bateman and colleagues’ study (Bateman, Pike, & Butler, 2011) of how the perceived publicness of social networking sites influences users’ self-disclosures. These researchers administered an online survey to undergraduate and graduate business students. They found that even though revealing information about oneself is viewed as key to realizing many of the benefits of social networking sites, respondents were less willing to disclose information about themselves as their perceptions of a social networking site’s publicness rose. That is, there was a negative relationship between perceived publicness of a social networking site and plans to self-disclose on the site.



One problem with cross-sectional surveys is that the events, opinions, behaviors, and other phenomena that such surveys are designed to assess don’t generally remain stagnant. They change over time. Thus, generalizing from a cross-sectional survey about the way things are can be tricky; perhaps you can say something about the way things were in the moment that you administered your survey, but it is difficult to know whether things remained that way for long after you administered your survey. For example, think about how Americans might have responded to a survey asking their opinions on terrorism on September 10, 2001. Now imagine how responses to the same set of questions might differ were they administered on September 12, 2001. The point is not that cross-sectional surveys are useless; they have many important uses. But researchers must remember what they have captured by administering a cross-sectional survey—a snapshot of life as it was at the time that the survey was administered.

One way to overcome this sometimes problematic aspect of cross-sectional surveys is to administer a longitudinal survey. Longitudinal surveys are those that enable a researcher to make observations over some extended period of time. There are several types of longitudinal surveys, including trend, panel, and cohort surveys. We’ll discuss all three types here, along with retrospective surveys. Retrospective surveys fall somewhere in between cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys.

The first type of longitudinal survey is called a trend survey. The main focus of a trend survey is, perhaps not surprisingly, trends. Researchers conducting trend surveys are interested in how people in a specific group change over time. Each time the researchers gather data, they ask different people from the group they are describing because their concern is the group, not the individual people they survey. Let’s look at an example.

The Monitoring the Future Study is a trend study that described the substance use of high school children in the United States. It’s conducted annually by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Each year, NIDA distributes surveys to students in high schools around the country to understand how substance use and abuse in that population changes over time. Recently, fewer high school students have reported using alcohol in the past month than at any point over the last 20 years. Recent data also reflect an increased use of e-cigarettes and the popularity of e-cigarettes with no nicotine over those with nicotine. The data points provide insight into targeting substance abuse prevention programs towards the current issues facing the high school population.

Unlike in a trend survey, in a panel survey the same people participate in the survey each time it is administered. As you might imagine, panel studies can be difficult and costly. Imagine trying to administer a survey to the same 100 people every year for, say, 5 years in a row. Keeping track of where people live, when they move, and when they die takes resources that researchers often don’t have. When they do, however, the results can be quite powerful. The Youth Development Study (YDS), administered from the University of Minnesota, offers an excellent example of a panel study.

Since 1988, YDS researchers have administered an annual survey to the same 1,000 people. Study participants were in ninth grade when the study began, and they are now in their thirties. Several hundred papers, articles, and books have been written using data from the YDS. One of the major lessons learned from this panel study is that work has a largely positive impact on young people (Mortimer, 2003). Contrary to popular beliefs about the impact of work on adolescents’ performance in school and transition to adulthood, work in fact increases confidence, enhances academic success, and prepares students for success in their future careers. Without this panel study, we may not be aware of the positive impact that working can have on young people.

Another type of longitudinal survey is a cohort survey. In a cohort survey, the participants have a defining age- or time-based characteristic that the researcher is interested in studying.  Common cohorts that may be of interest to researchers include people of particular generations or those who were born around the same time period, graduating classes, people who began work in a given industry at the same time, or perhaps people who have some specific historical experience in common.  In a cohort study, the same people don’t necessarily participate from year to year.  But each year, participants must belong to the cohort of interest.

An example of this sort of research can be seen in Christine Percheski’s work (2008) on cohort differences in women’s employment. Percheski compared women’s employment rates across seven different generational cohorts, from Progressives born between 1906 and 1915 to Generation Xers born between 1966 and 1975. She found, among other patterns, that professional women’s labor force participation had increased across all cohorts. She also found that professional women with young children from Generation X had higher labor force participation rates than similar women from previous generations, concluding that mothers do not appear to be opting out of the workforce as some journalists have speculated (Belkin, 2003).

All three types of longitudinal surveys share the strength that they permit a researcher to make observations over time. This means that if whatever behavior or other phenomenon the researcher is interested in changes, either because of some world event or because people age, the researcher will be able to capture those changes. Table 7.1 summarizes these three types of longitudinal surveys.

Table 7.1 Types of longitudinal surveys
Sample type Description
Trend Researcher examines changes in trends over time; the same people do not necessarily participate in the survey more than once.
Panel Researcher surveys the exact same sample several times over a period of time.
Cohort Researcher identifies a defining cohort based on an age- or time-related characteristic and then regularly surveys people in the cohort

Finally, retrospective surveys are similar to other longitudinal studies in that they deal with changes over time, but like a cross-sectional study, they are administered only once. In a retrospective survey, participants are asked to report events from the past. By having respondents report past behaviors, beliefs, or experiences, researchers are able to gather longitudinal-like data without actually incurring the time or expense of a longitudinal survey. Of course, this benefit must be weighed against the possibility that people’s recollections of their pasts may be faulty. Imagine, for example, that you’re asked in a survey to respond to questions about where, how, and with whom you spent last Valentine’s Day. As last Valentine’s Day can’t have been more than 12 months ago, chances are good that you might be able to respond accurately to any survey questions about it. But now let’s say the researcher wants to know how last Valentine’s Day compares to previous Valentine’s Days, so she asks you to report on where, how, and with whom you spent the preceding six Valentine’s Days. How likely is it that you will remember? Will your responses be as accurate as they might have been had you been asked the question each year over the past 6 years, rather than asked to report on all years today?

In summary, when or with what frequency a survey is administered will determine whether your survey is cross-sectional or longitudinal. While longitudinal surveys are certainly preferable in terms of their ability to track changes over time, the time and cost required to administer a longitudinal survey can be prohibitive. As you may have guessed, the issues of time described here are not necessarily unique to survey research. Other methods of data collection can be cross-sectional or longitudinal—these are really matters of all research design. But we’ve placed our discussion of these terms here because they are most commonly used by survey researchers to describe the type of survey administered. Another aspect of survey administration deals with how surveys are administered. We’ll examine that next.


Surveys vary not just in terms of when they are administered but also in terms of how they are administered.

Self-administered questionnaires

One common way to administer surveys is in the form of self-administered questionnaires. This means that a research participant is given a set of questions, in writing, to which they are asked to respond. Self-administered questionnaires can be delivered in hard copy format, typically via mail, or increasingly more commonly, online. We’ll consider both modes of delivery here.

Hard copy self-administered questionnaires may be delivered to participants in person or via snail mail. Perhaps you’ve taken a survey that was given to you in person; on many college campuses, it is not uncommon for researchers to administer surveys in large social science classes (as you might recall from the discussion in our chapter on sampling). If you are ever asked to complete a survey in a large group setting, it might be interesting to note how your perspective on the survey and its questions could be shaped by the new knowledge you’re gaining about survey research in this chapter.

Researchers may also deliver surveys in person by going door-to-door and either asking people to fill them out right away or making arrangements for the researcher to return to pick up completed surveys. Though the advent of online survey tools has made door-to-door delivery of surveys less common, it still happens on occasion. This mode of gathering data is apparently still used by political campaign workers, at least in some areas of the country.

If you are not able to visit each member of your sample personally to deliver a survey, you might consider sending your survey through the mail. While this mode of delivery may not be ideal (imagine how much less likely you’d probably be to return a survey that didn’t come with the researcher standing on your doorstep waiting to take it from you), sometimes it is the only available or the most practical option. As mentioned, though, this may not be the most ideal way of administering a survey because it can be difficult to convince people to take the time to complete and return your survey.

Often survey researchers who deliver their surveys through the mail may provide some advance notice to respondents about the survey to get people thinking about and preparing to complete it. They may also follow up with their sample a few weeks after their survey has been sent out. This can be done not only to remind those who have not yet completed the survey to please do so but also to thank those who have already returned the survey. Most survey researchers agree that this sort of follow-up is essential for improving mailed surveys’ return rates (Babbie, 2010).  Other helpful tools to increase response rate are to create an attractive and professional survey, offer monetary incentives, and provide a pre-addressed, stamped return envelope.


Online surveys are becoming increasingly common, no doubt because it is easy to use, relatively cheap, and may be quicker than knocking on doors or waiting for mailed surveys to be returned. To deliver a survey online, a researcher may subscribe to a service that offers online delivery or use some delivery mechanism that is available for free. Both SurveyMonkey and Qualtrics offer free and paid online survey services. One advantage to using services like these, aside from the advantages of online delivery already mentioned, is that results can be provided to you in formats that are readable by data analysis programs such as SPSS. This saves you, the researcher, the step of having to manually enter data into your analysis program, as you would if you administered your survey in hard copy format.

Many of the suggestions provided for improving the response rate on a hard copy questionnaire apply to online questionnaires as well. One difference of course is that the sort of incentives one can provide in an online format differ from those that can be given in person or sent through the mail. But this doesn’t mean that online survey researchers cannot offer completion incentives to their respondents. Sometimes they provide coupon codes for online retailers or the opportunity to provide contact information to participate in a raffle for a gift card or merchandise.

Online surveys, however, may not be accessible to individuals with limited, unreliable, or no access to the internet or less skill at using a computer. If those issues are common in your target population, online surveys may not work as well for your research study. While online surveys may be faster and cheaper than mailed surveys, mailed surveys are more likely to reach your entire sample but also more likely to be lost and not returned. The choice of which delivery mechanism is best depends on a number of factors, including your resources, the resources of your study participants, and the time you have available to distribute surveys and wait for responses. Understanding the characteristics of your study’s population is key to identifying the appropriate mechanism for delivering your survey.


Sometimes surveys are administered by having a researcher poses questions verbally to respondents rather than having respondents read the questions on their own. Researchers using phone or in-person surveys use an interview schedule which contains the list of questions and answer options that the researcher will read to respondents. Consistency in the way that questions and answer options are presented is very important with an interview schedule. The aim is to pose every question-and-answer option in the very same way to every respondent. This is done to minimize interviewer effect, or possible changes in the way an interviewee responds based on how or when questions and answer options are presented by the interviewer. Survey interviews may be recorded, but because questions tend to be closed ended, taking notes during the interview is less disruptive than it can be during a qualitative interview.


Interview schedules are used in phone or in-person surveys and are also called quantitative interviews. In both cases, researchers pose questions verbally to participants.  Phone surveys make it difficult to control the environment in which a person answers your survey. Another challenge comes from the increasing number of people who only have cell phones and do not use landlines (Pew Research, n.d.).  Unlike landlines, cell phone numbers are portable across carriers, associated with individuals, not households, and do not change their first three numbers when people move to a new geographical area. However, computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) programs have also been developed to assist quantitative survey researchers. These programs allow an interviewer to enter responses directly into a computer as they are provided, thus saving hours of time that would otherwise have to be spent entering data into an analysis program by hand.

Quantitative interviews must also be administered in such a way that the researcher asks the same question the same way each time. While questions on hard copy questionnaires may create an impression based on the way they are presented, having a person administer questions introduces a slew of additional variables that might influence a respondent. Even a slight shift in emphasis on a word may bias the respondent to answer differently. Consistency is key with quantitative data collection—and human beings are not necessarily known for their consistency. Quantitative interviews can also help reduce a respondent’s confusion. If a respondent is unsure about the meaning of a question or answer option on a self-administered questionnaire, they probably won’t have the opportunity to get clarification from the researcher. An interview, on the other hand, gives the researcher an opportunity to clarify or explain any items that may be confusing. If a participant asks for clarification, the researcher must use pre-determined responses to make sure each quantitative interview is exactly the same as the others.

In-person surveys are conducted in the same way as phone surveys but must also account for non-verbal expressions and behaviors. In-person surveys have one distinct benefit—they are more difficult to say “no” to. Because the participant is already in the room and sitting across from the researcher, they are less likely to decline than if they clicked “delete” for an emailed online survey or pressed “hang up” during a phone survey.  In-person surveys are also much more time consuming and expensive than mailing questionnaires. Thus, quantitative researchers may opt for self-administered questionnaires over in-person surveys on the grounds that they will be able to reach a large sample at a much lower cost than were they to interact personally with each and every respondent.

Table 7.2 summarizes the various ways to collect survey data.

Table 7.2
Self-administered given in a large group setting
delivered in person
sent through the mail
Interviews in-person


Key Takeaways

  • Time is a factor in determining what type of survey researcher administers; cross-sectional surveys are administered at one time, and longitudinal surveys are administered over time.
  • Retrospective surveys offer some of the benefits of longitudinal research but also come with their own drawbacks.
  • Self-administered questionnaires may be delivered in hard copy form to participants in person or via mail or online.
  • Interview schedules are used in in-person or phone surveys.
  • Each method of survey administration comes with benefits and drawbacks.



  • Cohort survey- describes how people with a defining characteristic change over time
  • Cross-sectional surveys- surveys that are administered at just one point in time
  • Interview schedules- a researcher poses questions verbally to respondents
  • Longitudinal surveys- surveys in which a researcher to make observations over some extended period of time
  • Panel survey- describes how people in a specific group change over time, asking the same people each time the survey is administered
  • Retrospective surveys- describe changes over time but are administered only once
  • Self-administered questionnaires- a research participant is given a set of questions, in writing, to which they are asked to respond
  • Trend survey- describes how people in a specific group change over time, asking different people each time the survey is administered


Image attributions

company social networks by Hurca CC-0

posts submit searching by mohamed_hassan CC-0

talk telephone by MelanieSchwolert CC-0



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Foundations of Social Work Research Copyright © 2020 by Rebecca L. Mauldin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book