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Qualtrics Tutorials: Item Coding

Change the coding of responses of multiple choice items on a Qualtrics survey.

Coding of Multiple Choice Questions

When you create a multiple choice question on a Qualtrics survey, Qualtrics automatically assigns a numeric code to each answer. When your survey data is exported to Excel or SPSS, those numeric codes appear in the dataset as "shorthand", and the text of the responses are used as value labels. This has the benefit of simplifying data analysis, especially if your items' responses are ordinal.

There are several things to keep in mind when creating multiple choice items in Qualtrics:

  • When creating the responses to a multiple choice question, numeric codes are automatically assigned to each response in increasing numeric order (1, 2, 3, ...)
  • If responses to a multiple choice question are added, deleted, and replaced with new options, the numbering will continue to increase sequentially.
  • If you change the order of the responses for an item, the numeric codes associated with each response will stay the same. This may mean that the numeric codes may not be ordinal with respect to the order that the responses appear in.
  • You can safely change item coding anytime before your survey launches. However, after you begin collecting data, DO NOT change the item coding or alter/delete existing answer options. (Doing so risks losing or altering the meaning of the items' codes, making your results uninterpretable.)

What is Reverse Coding?

One common validation technique for survey items is to rephrase a "positive" item in a "negative" way. When done properly, this can be used to check if respondents are giving consistent answers.

For example, consider the following two-item instrument concerning "healthy behaviors":


  1. When traveling short distances, I generally prefer to walk to my destination instead of travelling by automobile.
    • Strongly agree
    • Agree
    • Neutral
    • Disagree
    • Strongly disagree
  2. If given the choice between walking or using an automobile to travel a short distance, I would prefer to use an automobile.
    • Strongly agree
    • Agree
    • Neutral
    • Disagree
    • Strongly disagree

For question 1, "strongly agree" corresponds to the "healthiest" possible option, and "strongly disagree" corresponds to the "least healthy" possible option. However, for question 2, "strongly disagree" corresponds to the "healthiest" possible option, and "strongly agree" corresponds to the "least healthy" option. We say that question 2 is reverse-coded.

The need for an item to be reverse-coded is specific to the instrument and the factor of interest: in particular, what "high" and "low" scores on the instrument are intended to convey.

Manually Changing Item Coding within Qualtrics

Qualtrics automatically assigns numeric codes for each multiple choice item you create, but it's possible to modify those codes manually.

  1. While editing your survey, click the item whose coding you want to modify. Depending on whether you are using the old survey editor interface or the new editor interface:

    Old Survey Editor
    (April 2021 and earlier):

    Click the Advanced Question Options button (the gear icon), then click Recode Values.

    New Survey Editor
    (May 2021 and later):

    In the Edit Question menu, locate the Question Behavior section, then click Recode Values.

  2. The Recode Values window will open. When the window first opens, neither Recode Values nor Variable Naming will be checked off.

  3. When you check the box next to Recode Values, you will see text boxes appear next to the responses. Here, you can change the numeric code associated with any of the responses. Note that the code assigned to each response must be unique; you can not assign the same code to more than one response.

  4. When you check the box next to Variable Naming, another set of text boxes will appear. By default, the text in these boxes will be identical to what the response text is.

    The text in the Variable Naming box determines what the value labels will be set to when your data is exported to SPSS or Excel. This setting will not change the text that shown to users on the public version of the survey: it merely changes the value label used in the exported survey dataset.

Automatically Updating Item Coding within Qualtrics

As of May 2021, the new survey editor interface includes a new option to automatically update the item codes for all questions on the survey. This tool is especially helpful if your process of setting up your survey resulted in "messy", non-sequential item codes!

To update the item codes for all questions on the survey, click Tools > Reset Recode Values:

The Reset Recode Values window will appear. There are two choices:

  • Clear recode values for all questions will "throw out" any item codes you've manually entered. They will return to the "original" item coding that was assigned when you first created the question.
  • Reset recode values to sequential numbers for all questions will automatically update the item coding to be sequential for all applicable questions on the survey. The first option will always have the code 1; the second option will always have the code 2; and so on. (If you have manually specified any item codes, this option will over-write them! So if you plan to manually assign any item codes, we recommend applying this reset first.)

See also: Auto-Number Questions (Tools > Auto-Number Questions).

Item Coding for Built-In Answer Scales

Accessing Built-In Answer Scales

Qualtrics has many built-in answer scales for multiple choice items. These built-in answer scales include commonly used unipolar and bipolar scales, as well as answer categories for common demographic questions.

In the old survey editor, these built-in options for multiple choice questions can be accessed by clicking the Automatic Choices option in the sidebar menu. In the new survey editor, these can be accessed by clicking the Use suggested choices option in the sidebar menu.

Old Survey Editor (April 2021 and earlier):

New Survey Editor (May 2021 and later):

Default Item Coding for Built-In Scales

When using Qualtrics's built-in Likert items, the response options are always ordered from "positive" to "negative". (The meaning of "positive" or "negative" will vary between scales, but in general, "positive" categories correspond to agreement or high frequency, while "negative" categories correspond to disagreement or low frequency.) Additionally, "positive" answers are coded using smaller numbers, while "negative" answers are coded using larger numbers. Another way of thinking about this is that "positive" answers have a lower score, while "negative" answers have a higher score. For example, Qualtrics's built-in automatic scale for Disagree-Agree scales uses the following order and coding:

Default choice order and coding for built-in Disagree - Agree scale in Qualtrics (as of October 2016).
Item Code Answer Label
1 Strongly agree
2 Agree
3 Somewhat agree
4 Neither agree nor disagree
5 Somewhat disagree
6 Disagree
7 Strongly disagree

Using the Reverse Order option for Built-In Scales

When you have enabled "automatic choices"/"suggested choices" option, the Reverse Order option will be available to reverse-order the items. This means that the responses will be listed from "negative" to "positive". This will also change the coding order, so that the "negative" answers are coded using smaller numbers, and the "positive" answers are coded using large numbers. This is what the built-in Disagree - Agree scale looks like after turning on the Reverse Order option:

Order choice and scoring for reverse coded Disagree - Agree scale in Qualtrics (as of October 2016).
Item Code Answer Label  
1 Strongly disagree
2 Disagree
3 Somewhat disagree
4 Neither agree nor disagree
5 Somewhat agree
6 Agree
7 Strongly agree

To reverse the display order for a Likert item:

Old Survey Editor
(April 2021 and earlier):

Check the Automatic Choices check box, then check the Reverse Order check box at the top of the list. You can then select any of the pre-made scale options, and reverse coding will automatically be applied.

To turn on reverse coding for a Likert item, select the Automatic Choices check box, then select the Reverse Order check box at the top of the list.

New Survey Editor
(May 2021 and later):

In the Edit Question menu, locate the Choices section. After enabling Use suggested choices, check the Reverse order check box.

All editing options related to the built-in suggested choices for multiple choice questions (new May 2021 editor interface).

Note that using this method to reverse-code items changes both the display order and the coding of the response options. This means that if you have a mixture of reverse-coded and non-reverse coded items, using this method to reverse-code your items will mean that some items have the negative choices presented first, while other items will have the positive choices presented first. This inconsistency may confuse respondents. For this reason, we do not recommend using Reverse Order to implement reverse coding unless it will be applied to every Likert item on the survey.

You can verify how responses have been coded by looking at the Recode Values section (described in the Manually Changing Item Coding within Qualtrics section above). In the Recode Values window, select the Recode Values check box. This will display the numeric codes assigned to each response option.

In late 2016, Qualtrics reversed the default "polarity" of their Automatic Choice scales. Prior to October 2016, Automatic Choice scales were ordered from "negative" to "positive", with negative items being scored lower. After October 2016, all Automatic Choice scales are now ordered from "positive" to "negative", with positive items being scored lower. Survey items created before this date are unaffected, but all new survey items created using Automatic Choices (even on pre-existing surveys) will have this new ordering.

New Suggested Choices Options: "Show All" versus "Show First and Last"

As of May 2021, the new survey editor interface includes new options for suggested choices (formerly "automatic choices"): Show All and Show First and Last.

  • Show All displays a descriptive text label for all answer choices.
  • Show First and Last displays a descriptive text label only for the first and the last answer choices. No text labels are displayed for the choices in between.

For example, here's what the built-in Disagree-Agree scale looks like with Show All:

Built-in Disagree-Agree scale with Show All: all 5 answer choices have a text label (Strongly agree, Somewhat agree, Neither agree nor disagree, Somewhat disagree, Strongly disagree).

All five scale points have text labels attached.

Here's what the built-in Disagree-Agree scale looks like with Show First and Last:

Built-in Disagree-Agree scale with Show First and Last: only the first and last of the 5 answer choices have a text label (first label=Strongly agree, last label=Strongly disagree)

Only the first and last scale points have text labels attached; all points in between are unlabeled.

These differences in labeling can have an effect on how respondents answer the questions. If you are implementing an existing, validated survey instrument in Qualtrics, you should follow the text labeling protocol that was used when the instrument was validated. For example, only use the Show First and Last option if the original, validated instrument used that labeling.

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