Cognitive Interviews in the Workplace

Posted on March 15, 2012 by Katherine Razzi

Cognitive interviews are a method for gathering expansive information during survey distribution. While information collected through survey research is useful, cognitive interviews take the process to the next level. Cognitive interviews allow the researcher to understand how their survey may influence how respondents are answering survey items.

A typical survey may ask an employee a question such as: To what degree are you satisfied with your current work role? A question such as this may provide valuable information when a number of employees are pooled. The question is, did the employees know what was being asked of them with this question? If the employee did not understand what the item was asking them, the results may not be very helpful for the organization.

In a cognitive interview, the idea is to understand what respondents are thinking when they read a survey item. Therefore, during most cognitive interviews, the researcher will ask the respondent to engage in a “think-aloud” method. An example using the same item above about degree of satisfaction would be to ask the respondent questions such as:

What is this question asking you to think about?
What does “satisfaction” in the context of your workplace mean to you?
Walk me through your thought process as you read this question and answered it.

How can cognitive interviews be used in organizational settings? One of the best uses of this method is during employee training. Often training and development programs utilize pre and post-test surveys to detect how much knowledge employees gained during training. It is likely that not every employee will read and interpret the same items with the same frame of mind. Therefore, the trainer can probe employees to describe their thought processes when answering questions.

During leadership development programs, cognitive interviews can be extremely helpful. Organizations can learn more about employees and identify strengths and weaknesses depending on how they answer questions. If an item asks an employee “I tend to get stressed during the work day”, the trainer can ask cognitive interview questions such as:

Give an example of a time that you were stressed during the work day?
How do you handle stress at work?

These questions examine how the employee views stress and how they respond to stressful situations. When we simply ask employees to circle an answer, we tend to miss out on important questions that can help and hurt the development of that individual.

Have you ever participated in a cognitive interview? Do you think cognitive interviews would be useful in organizational settings?

About Katherine Razzi

Katherine Razzi hails from the Midwest and holds a B.A. in Applied Behavioral Science from National-Louis University, Evanston Campus. Coursework in cultural diversity, management, organizational dynamics, morals and ethics, group interaction, and psychology.

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