Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)




Blaine R. Worthen


Mail questionnaires are a popular and valuable method of data collection. Nonresponse bias is, however, a potentially serious threat to their validity. The best way to combat this threat is to obtain the highest possible return rate. To this end, many factors that are believed to influence return rates have been empirically studied. One factor that has not been empirically examined is the impact of item response effort on return rates, where response effort is defined as the amount of effort that is required by a respondent to answer questionnaire items.

The purpose of this study was to determine if the type of item response effort required to complete a questionnaire had any differential impact on the response rate of a mailed questionnaire. For this study, two questionnaires that differed only in the level of item response effort were sent to two randomly selected and assigned groups. The first group received a mailed questionnaire with seven questions that were answered by a simple item response type (5-point Likert scale). The second group received a mailed questionnaire with seven questions that required a more difficult item response type (short answer).

A large difference between the return rates of the two questionnaires was observed, with the questionnaire containing questions that could be answered on a Likert scale having a higher return rate (56%) than the questionnaire containing questions requiring a short written response (30%). The results of this study provide evidence that the difficulty of item response effort affects the response rate of mailed questionnaires. The practical application of this finding is that researchers should endeavor to keep the types of item response on mailed questionnaires as simple as possible, to maximize response rates (unless, of course, the needed information can only be elicited by providing written responses).



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