Creating Custom Questions: Strategies for Success Print or save as PDF

Custom questions allow you to tailor your survey implementation to your local needs in addition to providing a powerful tool to further the interpretation of your overall survey results. To maximize the impact of these questions, we recommend the following 5-step approach.

  1. Identify area of inquiry
  2. Determine purpose of information
  3. Ensure participants can respond from experience
  4. Choose an appropriate response format
  5. Use words that lead to actionable results and avoid common pitfalls
Focus groups: You may want to ask a custom question, but first would like to find out how students would interpret the question, to make sure that they understand what is asked of them. Focus groups can be used to test new survey questions before you include them in the survey. See our Focus Group Recommendations article for more information.


  1. Identify an area of inquiry
    It is important to decide on an area that will assist with school improvement planning or provide further insight into the setting of an ongoing research initiative.

  2. Determine the purpose of the additional information being sought
    Be clear on why you want to gain insight into that particular area and how the information will help with the school planning process. Custom questions can be used to:

    a. Collect information or feedback pertaining to a specific focus area or initiative

    Ex. You may have a working group on student voice and would like to find out the most effective way to engage all students in the decision-making process.

    b. Collect further information or follow up on the results of a previous survey

    Ex. Last year, you may have noticed a decline in the results of a particular measure (Participation in Clubs) and would like to collect more detailed information to inform strategic planning (how the school can make participation in clubs more accessible to students).


  3. Ensure that the content allows participants to respond through their experience
    To maximize the reliability of information collected through custom questions, participants must be able to speak from their personal experience as opposed to guessing about the experiences of others. Consider using an illustrative scenario to help prompt participants to reflect on a situation that could easily be applicable to themselves.

    Ex. “If your friend told you they were having trouble with their homework, what would you tell them to do?”

  4. Choose an appropriate response format
    Consider the purpose for collecting data and how you plan to analyse the responses. It is important to consider how responses will be reported and whether this format provides actionable feedback. Some questions are better suited as multiple choice, some as multiple answer, and some as open-ended.

    Note: Open-Ended Questions are only available at the school level.
    • Open-Ended Questions (OEQs) are best utilised as a means of gathering a wide range of responses, collecting a variety of suggestions, and encouraging further dialogue. They can be used to collect qualitative data, general feedback, follow up on quantitative findings, generate ideas, and find evidence of successes or areas in which the school could be doing better.

      Ex. “Please list three courses you would like to see added to the fall catalogue.”
    • Multiple-Choice Questions (MCQs) are used to collect numerical data that can be used to demonstrate facts and uncover patterns related to prevalent trends in thought, opinion, attitudes, behaviors, and other specific variables. MCQs are reported as the total percentage of respondents that selected each response option, and can be used to drill down in the Interactive Charts. To learn more about this feature, click here.

      Ex. “Which of the following courses would you like to see added to the course catalogue?”
    • Multiple-Answer Questions (MAQs) also provide the opportunity to collect measurable quantities of data that can be used to demonstrate facts and discover patterns in thought, opinion, attitudes, behaviors, and other contextually relevant variables. Unlike MCQs, MAQs are reported as the total number of respondents that selected each response option. Since each respondent has the option to select multiple answers, MAQs cannot be used as drill-downs in the Interactive Charts.

      Ex. “Please select any of the following courses you would like to see added to the fall catalogue.”
Did you know? For more examples of each type of custom question, see our sample custom questions for the Student, Parent, and Teacher Surveys.


  1. Use words that will yield actionable results and avoid common pitfalls
    Pay careful attention to the wording of questions and be specific. Avoid questions that are:

    • Too lengthy or too short
    • Double-barreled/too complicated
    • Redundant (they are already covered in survey content)
    • Inviting the identification of students or staff
    • Likely to cause divisions in your school community
    • Difficult to act upon
    • Spelled incorrectly or grammatically incorrect