Diving Into Retrospective Surveys

Diving Into Retrospective Surveys

While most survey research involves looking into the here and now, there is one type of study that does quite the opposite. Retrospective surveys entail examining past events to see how they relate to outcomes (a study of interest) discovered at the beginning of a study. 

Used in retrospective research, these surveys unlock many valuable insights that businesses can use to strengthen their marketing efforts and to better understand their target market.

That is because this study is not limited to medicine and psychology. This article will take a dive into retrospective studies and their accompanying surveys to make their purpose lucid in the business world.

Defining Retrospective Surveys

To put it in simple terms, in a retrospective study, researchers gather data on occurrences that have already happened. This places a retrospective study in opposition to a prospective study, in which researchers choose a survey panel or survey respondents from an online survey tool and follow the subjects over a period of time.

Also called historical research, a retrospective study inspects the historical data of a group of people. It falls under cohort studies, which are observational studies that determine how often a phenomenon occurs within a targeted population.

The purpose of a retrospective study is to discover how certain events and mindsets have unfolded or how they developed. It also looks at links and causes between studied events or phenomena. In the case of business, consider the following example:

A group of customers does not wish to make any online purchases. Their aversion comes in spite of the fact that they have internet access and a tendency to frequent the online space. A retrospective study would therefore inspect past events to learn about the factors that contributed to the consumers’ reluctance to shop online. 

In this, the study and therefore the retrospective surveys, seek to find the links between experiences and unwillingness to shop online. They would also uncover when these phenomena began.

The Two Types of Retrospective Studies

There are two main types of retrospective surveys. They can be used in tandem as part of the broader retrospective study. 

  1. Retrospective cohort study: This kind of study would seek to compare the risk of developing a certain outcome to some already known exposure factors. In retrospective cohort studies, the exposure and outcomes have already occurred. The studies are conducted on research already in existence.  The exposures are defined before looking at the outcome data to see if exposure to a factor is associated with a significant disparity in the outcome development rate.
  2. Case-control study: This seeks to determine the possible exposure factors after a known incidence. Most case-control studies are retrospective, but some can be prospective. They define two groups at the onset of the study. These include both the one with the outcome and one without the outcome. They look to the past to find if there is a statistically crucial difference in the exposure rates of a risk factor between the two groups. 

Using Retrospective Surveys with Cross-Sectional & Longitudinal Surveys

Retrospective surveys are not standalone surveys; they are usually conducted as part of a larger cross-sectional or longitudinal study. 

In a cross-sectional study, research is gathered to find prevalence, which is the number of cases in a studied group at a specific point in time. Although cross-sectional and retrospective studies form their own survey methods, they share some common ground. This is mainly due to surveys, in that a retrospective survey, like a cross-sectional survey, can be conducted just once to find historical information.

Retrospective studies can be used with longitudinal studies, which study trajectories and changes over a period of time. Called retrospective longitudinal studies, this kind of research studies a sampling pool over a period of time — the time period involves data that was previously collected. As such, no data from the present and onwards is collected, as it is in longitudinal studies. 

Examples of Retrospective Surveys

The following includes a few examples of retrospective studies. Surveys can be applied to all cases as part of the research process.

  • A group of investigators study the records of factory workers from two decades ago. Their studies include retrospective surveys that question these workers’ health, well-being and exposure to a certain radiation, including its source of emanation. This would unearth whether there is a link between exposure to the radiation and certain health detriments.


  • A researcher who wishes to learn about the origins of stomach cancer will interview a cohort of people who already have the disease. The study will involve asking the group about their medical history, lifestyle choices, family health history and habits to find the causes of the disease. The people with certain lifestyles may be compared with those of contrasting ones.


  • A business owner seeks to discover why a segment of their target market is only interested in one offering of the company. This segment may be filled with loyal customers who predominantly shop from this business. As such, the business owner can conduct an investigation into past shopping experiences, purchases, habits, diversions and interests of the target subjects in the study. The business owner can then use those findings to see which and if any changes in certain aspects of life have contributed to this disinterest of offerings and if it can be changed. 

The Pros and Cons of Retrospective Studies

Retrospective studies are useful for finding the what, when, where and how. They are thus used to find causal relationships between variables as well. Aside from their utility, these studies, along with their respective surveys have some drawbacks

The Pros

  1. These studies offer many insights: surveillance, evaluation, causation and impact of different variables within subjects.
  2. Looking at factors before the onset of a disease/occurrence can help assess the effects of rare or unusual factors, as researchers can identify a number of subjects who have them.
  3. These surveys can help determine if prospective studies are necessary to later carry out.
  4. They are among the fastest studies to conduct, along with cross-sectional studies.
  5. They are inexpensive, especially when compared to long-term longitudinal studies.
  6. Traditionally used in medicine and psychology, they also offer a creative way to understand the mindset and behaviors of consumers.
  7. There is no risk of loss of follow-up.

The Cons

  1. They are prone to recall bias, an incorrect remembrance which skews the accuracy of the study’s results.
  2. They are prone to misclassification bias, a systematic error that can crop up when a subject is assigned to a wrong category of identification. 
  3. There is less evidence than that which exists from prospective studies. 
  4. Since controls are usually recruited via convenience sampling, they don’t represent the general population.
  5. Time-related relationships may be difficult to evaluate.

The Utilitarian Nature of Retrospective Surveys

Although they are fast and relatively inexpensive, these studies can be difficult to conduct for a number of reasons. But their disadvantages shouldn't sway you from charting these market research waters. 

That is because you can avoid errors with surveys. Online surveys in particular grant you fast access to the behaviors and minds of your target market or subject of interest. For example, to weed out misclassification, you can conduct further surveys into your target market segments to better understand which kind of respondents fall under which categories.

All in all, you can take part in this kind of research due to the ever-utilitarian nature of online surveys. 

Frequently asked questions

What is a retrospective survey?

In contrast to survey research that examines events in the present, retrospective surveys are conducted to examine events or occurrences that happened in the past.

What are some disadvantages of retrospective studies?
Some of the problems with retrospective studies are that they are subject to recall bias, prone to misclassification bias, may suffer from inaccuracies due to sampling bias, and don’t always provide sufficient evidence to draw strong conclusions.

What other terms are used to describe retrospective studies?

Retrospective studies may also be referred to as historical research. Retrospective studies are a type of cohort study, which is used to determine how often a phenomenon occurs within the studied population.

What is the purpose of a retrospective study?

A retrospective study is conducted to understand how and why certain events, feelings, attitudes, or behaviors have developed.

What are some advantages of retrospective studies?

Retrospective studies are able to examine a wide variety of variables, understand factors that occurred before an event or onset of a phenomenon, and offer an interesting way to understand the feelings and attitudes of the studied population. They are also fast, inexpensive, and relatively easy to conduct.

What are some disadvantages of retrospective studies?

Some of the problems with retrospective studies are that they are subject to recall bias, prone to misclassification bias, may suffer from inaccuracies due to sampling bias, and don’t always provide sufficient evidence to draw strong conclusions.

The 3 Major Types of Survey Research Methods

The 3 Major Types of Survey Research Methods

Within the ever-evolving and accelerating market research space, there is a litany of surveys making the rounds. Businesses are scrapping to get all the necessary consumer insights into their hands, and this is a fitting approach to satisfy any target market.

That’s because surveys allow you to gain an edge within your niche and outperform your competitors. While nothing is guaranteed, researchers and marketers have long been turning to surveys to observe the minds of their customers and potential customers.

Before perusing through the aforementioned litany of surveys, you ought to know about the different types of survey methods. That’s because there’s no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to survey research. 

Business needs vary, as do their industries, customers and campaigns. Let’s navigate the three most salient types of survey methods.

Survey Research — Beyond Distribution Type

In survey research, there are four types of distribution methods — but we won’t be covering those too much in depth. That is because they are widely known and seen. It’s virtually impossible for you or your business to not have heard of them in a limited capacity at the very least.

However, for the purpose of organizing the in-depth survey methods we discuss later into the deployment types, we’ll briefly mention them here. The four different types of survey deployment methods are:

  1. Paper surveys
    1. Written questionnaires
    2. Mail-in surveys
    3. Newspaper surveys
  2. Online surveys
    1. Online forms
    2. Proprietary surveys (on brand sites)
    3. Email surveys
    4. In-app surveys
    5. Third-party surveys
  3. Telephonic surveys
    1. Cold calling
    2. Anonymous respondents
  4. One-on-one interviews
    1. In-person and onsite interviews
    2. Less anonymity

All of these survey deployment types can serve both qualitative and quantitative research needs. The ones you choose to incorporate into your market research campaigns is ultimately up to the needs of your business. Some businesses prioritize ease, some prefer quick insights while others prefer cost-savings.

Now that you know survey distribution types, less delve further into specific survey methods.

Cross-Sectional Survey Studies

Cross-sectional surveys concentrate on a very specific point in time and exist as a quick overview of a small population sample. This method is ideal for situations wherein quick answers are needed to gain knowledge on standalone, or single situations. 

This survey method is based on three conditions: 

  1. the distribution of surveys to small samples 
  2. within large populations and 
  3. conducted over a small period of time.

The sample pool is drawn from specific variables, usually, only a few to narrow down a unique and usually small population. The findings are recorded within a short period of time and are studied and archived within that one specific point.

The variables are not manipulated as this type of research method is for observations only. This approach cannot measure causation between certain occurrences (ex. Inactivity and weight); rather, it measures the correlation between occurrences.

Longitudinal Surveys

The antithesis of cross-sectional surveys, longitudinal surveys study variables over a longer period of time. This can be anywhere between weeks and on the far end of the spectrum, decades. 

As such, they require more input in terms of several aspects, including participants, time and money. In this regard, a larger pool of participants is used and studied for much longer.

Similar to cross-sectional research, this method is also observational and studies the exact sample pool for the duration of the study.

Longitudinal surveys come in three main sorts:

  1. Trend surveys: 

    1. Study trends
    2. Observe how participants’ tendencies change over time
    3. Ask the same questions at different points in time
    4. Don’t necessarily study the exact same participants throughout, since the focus is on trends
  2. Panel surveys:

    1. Focus more on people than trends
    2. The same participants are studied throughout the duration of the study
    3. Tend to be more expensive and difficult (tracking & keeping up with the same people for years on end)
  3. Cohort surveys:

    1. Regularly study a group of participants that fall under a specific category
    2. Don’t require the same participants to take part every year
    3. Examples include those born within the same decade, workers of the same industry at the same time, other common life experiences

All three of these kinds of surveys help researchers study how people change and, as longitudinal research, they are also part of correlational research.  Longitudinal surveys help businesses and researchers scrutinize developments and changes.

They allow researchers to assess whether the changes are due to age, life factors or trends.

Retrospective Surveys

This survey method is yet another type based on frequency. It combines aspects of both cross-sectional and longitudinal survey methods. 

Retrospective surveys observe changes that occur over a longer period of time, much like longitudinal surveys. However, like cross-sectional surveys, they are facilitated just once. As such, responders discuss happenings from the past. These include feelings, attitudes, experiences and beliefs.

The findings are thereby longitudinal in nature, but performed in a cross-sectional fashion, ie, without requiring the long amounts of time to collect the data, like in traditionally longitudinal studies.

This scaling back on timing and monetary savings are the major advantages of this type of survey method. However, it does have its fair share of drawbacks, mainly those of memory distortion. For example, memories from the recent past may be vivid or clear enough to provide researchers with accuracy.

But memories of the more remote past, or even those of both the recent and distant past, when compared against one another, may lead to inaccurate answers.

Settling on the Correct Survey Method

Before you conduct any survey research, there are several questions you can stand to ask yourself or your own business. These should help you narrow down the proper survey method and distribution channel for your survey research. 

Here are some questions to consider which method is most suitable for you:

  • Do you need to gather long-term, continuous research or are you looking to gain insights on the current timeframe?
    • This will help you decide between choosing a cross-sectional or longitudinal survey study.
  • If you prefer a long-term study, are you willing to persist in obtaining responses from your sample pool, or do you want to pursue different respondents each time?
  • Would you prefer to survey the same group of respondents in the long term?
  • How often do you need survey responders to take part in your survey research campaign?
  • Are you looking to understand the development of people’s behaviors or trends within your industry?
  • If you don’t need to conduct a survey across a large span of time, do you need to question respondents about the past?
  • Do you need to study a specific category of participants, or can they fall within a more broad category?

As a business, you should cross-reference your responses to these questions with the information above. That way, you can make an educated decision about which survey method and (survey types) are best for your business. 

Frequently asked questions

What are the four methods of survey distribution?

The four survey deployment methods are paper surveys, online surveys, telephonic surveys, and surveys conducted via in-person interviews.

Why are cross-sectional surveys conducted?

Cross-sectional surveys are used to quickly get answers about a specific scenario at a certain point in time. They focus on a small sample size to provide a general overview of a specific scenario or situation.

What is a longitudinal survey?

A longitudinal survey studies a pool of participants over a set period of time. The period of time can range from weeks to many years. It is performed to understand how the respondents change or develop over time.

What are the three types of longitudinal surveys?

The three types of longitudinal surveys are trend surveys, panel surveys, and cohort surveys.

How is a retrospective survey different from a longitudinal survey?

Retrospective surveys are performed to observe changes that occur over time, but they are conducted only one time. The survey is performed to understand how the respondents feel or react to something that happened in the past.