What is a Likert Scale Survey Question & How to Use It

April 24, 2012

In all likelihood, you have used a Likert scale (or something you’ve called a Likert scale) in a survey before.

It might surprise you to learn that Likert scales are a very specific type of survey question, and what you have been calling “Likert” may be something entirely different.

Not to worry — researchers that have been doing surveys for years still get their definitions confused. In fact, many researchers don’t even agree on the best way to report on the numeric values in a Likert scale.

To try and clear up any confusion, we’ll take a look at the traditional and, in our opinion, most valuable way to use Likert scales and report on them using survey software.

What is a Likert Scale vs. a Likert Item

A “Likert scale” is the sum of responses to several Likert items. These items are usually displayed with a visual aid, such as a series of radio buttons or a horizontal bar representing a simple scale.

A “Likert item” is a statement that the respondent is asked to evaluate in a survey. In the example below, the statement, “The checkout process was easy” is a Likert item. The table as a whole is the Likert scale.

Online software likeability scale, strongly disagree to strongly agree

Historic Trivia: The Likert scale question itself was invented by the educator and psychologist Rensis Likert in his thesis at Columbia University. You never know when this might come up in Market Research Trivia night at your local bar.

Here’s an easy way to remember the distinction: the “scale” in “Likert scale” refers to the total sum of all Likert items in the question, not the 1-5 range you see associated with each item. In our example above, the scale would be 4 to 20.

In a “good” Likert scale, the scale is balanced on both sides of a neutral option, creating a less biased measurement. The actual scale labels, as well as the numeric scale itself, may vary.

Our example is a nearly perfect Likert scale. It has one potential flaw, which we’ll discuss later.

So, given this information, when should you use a Likert scale?

To answer that, it’s important to look at how you’d report and analyze the data for this question type. Let’s take a look.

Reporting on Likert Scales

The traditional way to report on a Likert scale is to sum the values of each selected option and create a score for each respondent. This score is then used to represent a specific trait — satisfied or dissatisfied, for example — particularly when used for sociological or psychological research.

This method of reporting is also quite useful for evaluating a respondent’s opinion of important purchasing, product, or satisfaction features. In these cases the scores can be used to create a chart of the distribution of opinion across the population.

For further analysis, you can cross tabulate the score mean with contributing factors.

Important tip: for the score to have meaning, each item in the scale should be closely related to the same topic.

In a customer satisfaction survey, for example, you should ask all your questions about the product together, all the questions about checkout together, and so on.

In the example Likert scale above, the third option, “The software solved my needs,” is actually slightly out of place, as it doesn’t relate to the purchasing or checkout process, which is the intended topic of the survey section.

Ideally in a Likert scale question all of the items will be categorically similar so that the summed score becomes a reliable measurement of the particular behavior or psychological trait you are measuring.

That trait might be overall happiness, or the likelihood to vote for a particular political party, but in either case you must pick a topic and stick with it to get accurate data.

If you have an item on the scale that doesn’t fit, the total score for the respondent becomes potentially polluted and you’ll end up spending a great deal of time deciphering the results!

When to Use Likert Scales

This is a very useful question type when you want to get an overall measurement of sentiment around a particular topic, opinion, or experience and to also collect specific data on factors that contribute to that sentiment.

You should not use this form of question (or at least not call it a Likert scale) when the items in the question are unrelated to each other, or when the options are not presented in the form of a scale.

As with all other rating and scale questions, we encourage you not to mix scales within your surveys. Choose a particular scale (3 point, 5 point, 7 point, etc.) and use it as your standard through the survey. This will cut down on potential confusion and reduce survey fatigue. It also allows for accurate comparisons within and between your data sets.

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