2.3 Data Processing Instruments

Researchers use a range of instruments for many research techniques. These instruments help them obtain and record ethical consent, manage the materials or organize the data into uniform and meaningful categories. It is advisable to make use of an existing instrument and to modify it to meet the particulars of the method plan. The Inventory of Information Sources, for instance, is very useful for most student papers, as it relates to the widely used “secondary analysis” method.


A questionnaire is the actual form used to question or interview research participants. A questionnaire form consists mostly of forced-response questions with few, if any, open-ended, qualitative questions. Typically used by polling and marketing firms to determine a large number of voter or consumer preferences, questionnaires are comprised of questions and scales that are designed, tested and validated by specialists. Student researchers are well-advised to borrow measures and validated scales from reputable organizations and academic research publications when designing their own questionnaires.


Standardized tests or scales are typically used in psychology and education where successive groups of test takers are subjected to the same questions under standard time limits and results are tallied to determine a standardized score against which other test takers are measured. Personality and intelligence tests are typical of standardized tests. Such testing is not without controversy, as is the case with IQ tests and itinerant testing of complex medical conditions.

Tests to determine whether someone suffers from a disorder, such as pathological gambling using the Gambler Addiction Index (GAI), should only be administered by trained and accredited specialists. Do not attempt to use a standardized test or scale without first reading about the terms of use and without the full permission of your teacher and an institutional review board, should you have one at your institution.

In the event that you use one, in whole or in part, be sure to credit the source.

Spreadsheet file

Though it is not usually required to submit your data spreadsheets (Excel/SPSS), it is a proper form to briefly refer to how the quantitative and qualitative data inputs will be processed. If the confidentiality of participants is an issue, explain how it will be protected.

Focus group schedule

Popular with marketers and political campaigners, focus groups are task-oriented interview sessions with a group of between 5-10 individuals. The schedule includes the timetable, setting, sitting arrangements, list of required props/materials, questions/prompts, goals and plans for recording the event. A brief letter of intent and a consent form are usually included in this schedule package.

Data entry code sheet

Code sheets are usually tabular and list-like in format and intended to systematically record observations at a desk or in a field-like setting. They are useful for non-participant field observations, meta-analyses and content analyses. Code sheets are heuristic devices that make the researcher’s life easier and generate more consistent results, especially when there are a number of different observers.

Recording/measuring device

There are many devices for capturing data – from paper and pen to computers, digital cameras (photos and video), digital sound recorders, cell phones and even field notebooks or scrap paper. Select according to what will work best under the particular circumstances of your research. For instance, do not videotape an interviewee if you are not interested in the visuals. The video camera will only distract and focus attention away from the interview. Fully test out devices, especially complicated digital ones, before actually using them.

Participant consent form/procedure

Informed and voluntary consent are the backbone of research involving human subjects. Without exception, when you have direct contact with human subjects, you must obtain their approval before gathering data. For those who are under 18, you must also obtain the consent of a parent or guardian, perhaps even the institution to which the subjects are attached (school...). Depending on the particulars of the case, you may be asked to draw up a consent form and attach it as an appendix item in the research proposal. At the least, the actual proposal will have to describe the procedure for explaining the terms of participation and obtaining consent.

Student researchers have restricted access to minors, medically or socially disadvantaged individuals (gamblers, alcoholics, eating disordered individuals, chronically stressed or clinically depressed, suicidal, mentally disabled).

Should you need access to photos, personal mementos, letters or other belongings, you must draw up a permission slip that lays out the terms of use for these items.
Most colleges and universities have templates for consent and permission forms and may even require going through an institutional review board (IRB) for permission in advance. It is your duty to be informed of these matters. Your teacher should be able to direct you in this regard.

Permission slip

Organizations and gatekeepers have a responsibility to protect people such as employees, residents, students or guests who are under their care. If a researcher wants access to elderly people in a residential home, they must obtain the permission of the family and the person in charge of the home. A permission slip can be as simple as a brief letter with the letter head of the institution sponsoring your research and the signature of someone in a position of authority, explaining the request.

Inventory of information sources

Though this tool is not well-known, it is useful for those using primarily document sources. Simply identify the main types of sources used and briefly explain the relevance for the study of each of the main types. For instance, if your research study is a descriptive account of the recent conflict in Mali, you might want to indicate the following:

  • Three field studies recently published in reputable international and conflict studies journals, written by a military historian, a social worker and a refugee specialist
  • One book on the political and social history of Mali from pre-colonial through to post-colonial struggles published in 2012 by a historian of West-African history
  • Two recent United Nations reports (2013) dealing with the migration and refugee problems associated with the recent conflicts in the country
  • One critical review of the French government’s involvement in the conflict, written in France by a well-known international specialist
  • Twelve news articles covering the various aspects of the conflict, from US, UK, Qatar and Canadian news agencies/magazines
  • An informal interview with a close friend who is originally from Mali and has regular contact with family and friends in Mali

The inventory demonstrates the seriousness of your intent to embark on a study that does not appear to have much “conventional data.”

Field notebook

A field notebook is an accessible and portable notebook where all your thoughts, ideas, diagrams and mapping can be kept together. Used mostly in anthropology, geography and sociology, it is essentially a sequential record of research in the field and data gathering. Each entry should be dated to keep track of what was accomplished and when. It may be required post-report as evidence of work completed or to back up a claim or interpretation at a later date.

Qualitative interview schedule

A qualitative interview is usually intended as a one-on-one between the interviewer and the interviewee. The schedule should include the timetable, setting/staging, intended questions/prompts, goals and plans for recording and transcribing the interview. A brief letter of intent and a consent form should also be included in this schedule package.