Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Training

06/01/2002

Interviewers must be well versed in basic interviewing techniques, including reading questions as worded, neutral probing, training the respondent, and confidentiality. At NORC, these basic topics are covered in an eight hour general interviewing techniques training session, which is required of all interviewers new to NORC. In the recent literature on obtaining high response rates, Sullivan et al. (1966) put forth a retention protocol for conducting longitudinal studies with mobile populations that includes three phases, the first of which is relevant to training. In Phase I of their retention protocol (which relates to setting the stage for future contacts with the respondents) Sullivan et al. refer to the importance of establishing trust between the researcher and the respondent (1996:266). To accomplish this, interviewers need to be able to convey to respondents why the survey is needed and how it might impact others in similar circumstances, stress confidentiality of data, and so on. Ensuring that interviewers understand these basics is important to the quality of the data being collected.

Project-specific training then focuses on the purpose of the study, the questionnaire, the informed consent procedure, gaining cooperation, sensitivity, safety, production goals, and other areas. When a project has unique protocols for locating, such as in a study of battered women conducted by Sullivan and colleagues, this is the forum where such procedures would be covered. They had the respondent sign a Release of Information form indicating that she gave her permission to the alternate contact to give us her address and phone number. Each participant receiving governmental assistance was also asked to sign a release form for the government agency handling her case. This is a protocol that has been used successfully at NORC, primarily on drug study follow-up interviews. Contacts are more comfortable knowing (by actually seeing the respondents signature on the form) that the respondent has given permission to help locate them.

Training on gaining respondent cooperation is essential on all types of studies, and is best provided when woven throughout the training session, rather than just being covered directly in a module of its own. The ultimate goal in this type of training is to enhance the interviewers abilities to tailor his or her reaction to the respondent and to maintain interaction with the respondent long enough to gain cooperation. (See Groves and Couper, 1998, Chapter 9, for elaboration on the concepts of tailoring and maintaining interaction.) During training, interviewers practice their approach to gaining cooperation through role playing. They are encouraged to rely on all tools provided by the study. For example, each of the five NORC studies referenced in this paper offered an important tool for gaining cooperation, namely, respondent incentives (see Table 3-1). Interviewers report that when a survey involves a long questionnaire that focuses on sensitive topics, as each of these surveys did, incentives make their task of gaining cooperation/averting refusals significantly easier.

Sensitivity training often is appropriate to prepare interviewers for the situations they may encounter. It is designed to help them respond respectfully to the respondents with whom they will interact and to make them unshockable. Sensitivity training typically covers some background information about the kinds of situations likely to be encountered. The presentation of this information can be done by the principal investigator, an outside expert, or an experienced senior-level field manager. On a study of the terminally ill, for example, the principal investigators talked with the interviewers at training; the interviewers saw a videotape about terminal illness and its effect on the respondent and his or her family; and grief counseling was available to field staff during the course of data collection. In addition to providing interviewers with substantive background, the training often provides opportunities to help the trainees to deal with the emotional responses they are likely to experience themselves and to handle those reactions in the interview situation. On some studies, the field staff are invited to attend special conference sessions prior to the studys implementation. For example, field staff working on the D.C. Networks Study, attended an HIV conference to make them more aware of the types of situations facing potential respondents.

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