Documentation:Student Focus Group

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Participants in a focus group

What is a Focus Group?

Focus groups (also called group interviews) are a valid and reliable method for collecting qualitative data. Krueger and Casey (2009) define a focus group as “a carefully planned series of discussions designed to obtain perceptions on a defined area of interest in a permissive, non-threatening environment”. They are exploratory in nature and typically involve small groups of 6 to 10 people with something in common who come together to discuss a specific set of questions. By design, focus groups rely on group dynamics and interactions to stimulate thinking and provide rich and detailed perspectives on an issue (Krueger, 1994, Morgan, 1993 in Asbury, 1995).

Why Use a Student Focus Group?

Because they are exploratory in nature, focus groups are ideal for obtaining in-depth feedback regarding participants’ attitudes, opinions and perceptions. Focus groups have been rated by Faculty as more accurate, useful, and believable than either student ratings or written comments. (Ory & Braskamp, 1981). They are particularly effective for identifying agreement across a group and for gaining insight into the experience of students that share something in common (like a class, major, experience, etc). Since they allow for question clarification and follow-up questions to probe vague or unexpected responses, they can elicit meaningful insights. A skilled interviewer/facilitator can use the interaction between participants to draw out deeper reflections and get at core issues for further exploration.

Focus groups can help uncover:

  • attitudes, beliefs, feelings and emotional reactions to a change.
  • new ideas or ways of looking at a situation.
  • language students use to describe what they are learning.
  • diverse ideas and opinions on a question or topic of discussion.

Facilitators/Interviewers

To "facilitate" means to "make easy". Your job as a focus group facilitator is to make the discussion as easy and comfortable for the participants as possible. You will be concerned with the method and the flow of the group discussion rather than the content.

Characteristics of an Effective Focus Group Facilitator

Effective focus group facilitators are:

  1. comfortable with the content of the questions being asked.
  2. skillful at probing participants’ answers and comments to identify underlying beliefs, reasoning, and experience.
  3. competent in reacting to the dynamics of a lively group to nurture it into focusing productively on the topic of interest.
  4. compatible with the group to be interviewed.
  5. impartial and do not have a reporting relationship with those being interviewed.
  6. insightful and genuinely interested in hearing other people’s thoughts and feelings and can summarize and clearly articulate the ideas expressed.

Student peers with good communication skills may make excellent facilitators for student focus groups. While you may not have all of the skills right away, not that you know what you are aiming for you can hone those skills with each opportunity you have to practice.

Prepare

Organizing an effective student focus group requires planning. The interviewer should meet with the faculty member prior to the focus group to learn about the goals of the course and identify the specific questions that the focus group should address. They will also need to make arrangements for where and when the group will meet. It is important that the interviewer to be someone not directly involved with the course or with the evaluation of the students in another context, such as a teaching consultant or faculty colleague from another department.

In considering the objectives for the focus group, the following questions may provide a guide for your meeting with the faculty member:

  • What do you want feedback on? (specific learning activities, resources, workload, collaboration?)
  • What do you want to learn more about? (what do you want to know about the students?)
  • What will you want to do with the feedback? (For example: To improve the class activity you are working on)


Develop the questions

(Excerpt from Using Focus Groups to Get Student Feedback - Eberly Teaching Centre at Carnegie-Mellon)

Plan on 5 – 7 questions for a sixty-minute session to allow enough time for everyone to speak and for unanticipated answers that lead to new questions. When thinking about the questions, the following guidelines are useful:

  • Questions should be open-ended. Avoid questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”.
  • "Why" questions are rarely asked in a focus group. Why questions tend to imply a rational answer whereas you want the participants to openly share their impressions, opinions, and perceptions. It may be preferable to ask "How would you...?"or "Can you say more about...?"
  • Questions should be systematically and carefully prepared but have a natural feel and flow. Get feedback on the tone and flow from colleagues beforehand.
  • Arrange questions in logical sequence. Usually this means going from the general to more specific about a topic before moving on to another topic.
  • Allow for unanticipated questions.
  • Pilot test focus group questions among a few peers.

Set a timeline

Plan enough time (a couple of weeks)to:

  • Meet with Faculty
  • Identify the participants. Determine how many participants you need and how many to invite.
  • Develop and test the questions.
  • Locate a site to facilitate the focus group
  • Invite and follow up with participants, and gather materials for the session.

Choose a location

Finally, you need to choose a setting which can accommodate the participants and where they would feel comfortable expressing their opinions. Make sure that the location:

  • Encourages conversation.
  • Can accommodate 9~15 people including the facilitators
  • Easily accessible. Consider access for people with disabilities,safety,parking and transportation

Once you decide, reserve the location

Select and invite the participants

  • Determine how many participants you need and how many to invite. A call for participants will may go out to an entire class and you may need to make a selection. 6 to 12 participants are recommended to generate rich conversation. Invite more participants in case some of the participants do not show up.
  • Develop a list of key attributes to seek in participants based on the purpose of the focus group.
  • Create a list of participants with their contact information and send invitations.


Develop a script

Having some structure in a focus group reduces stress for participants. It helps to set the framework for your discussion so people know what to expect. Preparing a script also helps the facilitator feel more comfortable so that they can focus on the process of engaging students in conversation.

Plan on 1~2 hour time frame because the process requires some time for opening and closing remarks.


There are three parts to a focus group script:

  • Opening, where you will be Welcoming the group and Introducing the purpose and the context of the group.
  • Question Section, where you will be asking questions to the participants
  • Closing Section, where you will be thanking the participants, and giving them an opportunity for further input. Make sure to tell them how the data will be used and explaining when the larger process will be complete.

Conduct

It is time to conduct the session. The facilitator should arrive before the participants, set out the refreshment, and arrange the room so all participants can view one another(For example, U-Shaped seating or all at one table). As participants arrive, welcome them, and make sure they are all relaxed.

Materials that you may need for the session are:

  • List of participants - to keep record on who came to the session
  • Laptops or notepads with pen - to take notes
  • Focus Group script - to make it easier to ank questions to the participants
  • Name tags - to make the discussion easier
  • Refreshments - for making participants comfortable
  • Watch/Clock/Timer/stopwatch - to keep on track with the time limit
  • Sound Recorder - to record the session


Tips to make the session successful:

  • Set the tone so that the participants have fun and feel comfortable about the session
  • Make sure every participants are heard.
  • When the participant's answer is not clear or vague, ask him/her a follow up question
  • Monitor time closely. Try not to exceed time limits
  • Keep the discussion on track. Try to answer all or most of the questions

After the Focus Group

The action that you take after the Focus Group is also important. You have to summarize and analyze your notes, write the report, and translate the report into action.

Summarize and Analyze

1. Clean up your Notes. Make sure that the pages are numbered, and fill out any notes that do not make sense.

2. Review the session: Review the session with another person to capture fresh impressions.

3. Write the summary of the focus group. Write the summary as soon as possible to avoid memory lapses. Recorder may be useful to recall the information that are vague.

4. Analyze the summaries. Read all the focus group summaries, look for trends and unexpected comments. Do not ignore all the negative responses too.

Write the report

Final Report Includes the following information:

  • Background and purpose of the focus group
  • Details of the session
  • Results
  • Conclusion

Follow Up

Translate the report into action.

  • Schedule a meeting with your group member/colleagues to review the summaries
  • Put the focus group information in context. Refer to your goal of the Focus Group, and analyze the answers or insights the focus group gave you. You may also compare, contrast and combine the focus group information with statistical information such as from surveys, interview or from your secondary research
  • Highlight the main themes, issues, problems or questions that arose in the focus group.
  • If there are a lot of information, prioritize it. Then decide what actions need to be taken first.

Video

Useful Resources

References

Asbury, J. E. (1995). Overview of focus group research. Qualitative Health Research, 5,414-420 Link: http://qhr.sagepub.com/content/5/4/414.refs

Billups, F. (2012) Conducting Focus Groups With College Students: Strategies to Ensure Success http://www.jwu.edu/uploadedFiles/Documents/Academics/JWUGradCREFocusGroupsBillups.pdf

Krueger, R. A., & Casey, M. A. (2009).Focus groups: A practical guide for applied research (4th ed.). San Francisco: Sage.