Student focus groups

Student focus groups are facilitated group discussions, whereby

  • the group is a group of students whose perspective, opinions, attitudes, experience etc. is of interest to the evaluator
  • the topic of discussion is focussed on issues of relevance to the evaluation, although the extent to which these are predetermined by the evaluator or allowed to emerge from the discussion will depend on the purpose of the focus group in the evaluation, and the approach to questioning.

Why use focus groups?

  • When there may be particularly diverse perspectives amongst students.
  • If you need to get a general feel for the diverse perspectives and issues in a short period of time.
  • To help narrow down the focus of evaluation issues to those important to students. Themes and topics emerging can later be explored by more in depth methods on an individual basis (e.g. questionnaires, interviews).
  • To filter potential interviewees for later stages of the evaluation.
  • To gain insight into how students discuss their experiences as a group.
  • To focus on a topic in more depth than is possible through a questionnaire approach.
  • To explore or help develop hypotheses about how the change has influenced outcomes.

Using focus groups

  • The first step will involve deciding on the purpose of the focus group in relation to how and why other methods are being used to inform your evaluation questions.
  • Preparation of a question guide will help you to keep the discussion reasonably focused. Prompt cards with statements asking students to rate the extent to which they agree or disagree with them on a Likert scale might be a useful way of getting some measure of the diversity of perspectives, as a precursor to more open discussion of the underlying explanation for these ratings.
  • You will probably have to rely on volunteers for the focus group who will have appropriate experience to express opinions, perspectives, attitudes, emotions etc about these experiences that will be informative to the evaluation. A group of around 7 is ideal, and it is recommended that there should be no more than 12. Any more than this and the discussion is likely to become unmanageable. The risk from having too few students is that their perspective will not fairly reflect the range of perspectives in the population as a whole.
  • If the discussion is not scheduled in class time, a suitable venue will need to be booked and participants informed of arrangements.
  • It can be difficult to facilitate the discussion and note-take at the same time. If you do not have access to suitable or reliable equipment to record the discussion, or it may be too sensitive to record, you may want to think about enlisting assistance to help facilitate or take notes.
  • Although it is usual to approach the discussion with a draft guide of questions, a flexible and adaptable approach will help you follow-up unanticipated but relevant issues that emerge. It can be a difficult balance to both keep the discussion reasonably focused but also allow sufficient freedom for different issues and perspectives to emerge.
  • Analysis of the data will depend on qualitative approaches which help to identify key themes in student opinions, attitudes, feelings etc about their learning experience.


Strengths

  • It may be possible to get more out of individuals in a group discussion than by interviewing them individually. As one person raises an issue, others may be prompted to contribute opinions and perspectives that would not otherwise have emerged.
  • The discussion can be focused on a narrow or broad range of issues, depending on the needs of the evaluation.
  • They can be enjoyable and interesting for participants who get to hear the views of others as well as contributing their own.

Limitations

  • Discussion can be difficult to facilitate.
  • Group dynamics can bias the discussion. For example it may become dominated by particular personalities, or those that perceive they hold a minority view may be reluctant to contribute.
  • Having to rely on volunteers may also introduce bias into the discussion. Those that have become disengaged with their learning experience may be unlikely to volunteer. This is one example of why it is important to use this method with other methods.
  • Students may view the activity as an opportunity to air their grievances, focussing more on their negative experiences at the expense of the positive.
  • There is also a risk that some may say what they think others in the group will want to hear, hence the need to balance the data with some individual feedback.
  • The number of questions that can be asked in the time available is more restricted in group discussion (when compared to interviews), as time must be allowed for all perspectives to be discussed for each topic.


Practicalities

  • Data collected will only be meaningful if the students involved are willing and able to effectively discuss their learning experience. You may need to select participants from a wider population of volunteers, being reflexive about the selections decisions you are making, and the effect this may have on the discussion.
  • Scheduling the discussion in class time, or just after, is likely to be most convenient for students and maximise the number of volunteers.
  • Encouraging students to volunteer will involve providing them with clear information about how they will be contributing to the evaluation, its purpose, and how they will be informed of any findings and actions that will be taken as a consequence of their feedback.
  • Further motivation for student attendance might be needed if the discussion is scheduled in their own time, such as refreshments or book tokens.
  • If you would like to make a sound recording of the discussion then an ethical approach involves explaining to students why you are doing this and how you will use the recording, and seeking their consent to do so.
  • Group discussion can be difficult to record without good quality, reliable equipment that is able to pick up discussion from different proximal locations and when more than one person is talking. You may want to test the equipment available to you is able to do this so that if it is not you can make further arrangements such as using more than one piece of recording equipment or enlisting the help of a note taker. It may also be worth requesting of students that they speak slowly and clearly and one at a time.
  • Around one hour should allow for discussion of around 10 main questions.
  • One way to manage groups of more than 12 might be to split them into smaller groups to discuss different issues. In this case, some thought needs to be given to how the feedback from each group will be recorded, since sound and video recording will be difficult if groups are in one location at the same time. Written feedback of each group’s findings could be collected, or each group could be asked to make a short presentation of the discussion of the group, which could be recorded.
  • In case there is a problem with the audibility of the recording it is advisable to listen to it as quickly as possible after the discussion and make notes of the main findings and interesting quotes. If there is a problem you will still be able to remember the gist of what was discussed.
  • A full transcription of the recording may not be practical because of budget constraints or because of the problems of distinguishing which students are talking at any one time, and because students may interrupt and talk over each other. However, at the same time it may not be necessary for the level of analysis you are intending to undertake to inform the evaluation questions.


Further reading

Cohen, L., Manion, L. and Morrison, K. (2000) Research Methods in Education 5th Edition.London: RoutledgeFalmer. See Chapter 15 pp 288. [Available from University Main Library.]

Morgan, D.L. and Kreuger, R.A. (1998) The Focus Group Kit. Thousand Oaks, Ca. : Sage Publications Ltd. A 5 volume kit covering general guidance, planning, developing questions, moderating, analyzing data. [Available in University Libraries.]

USAID Center for Development Information and Evaluation (1996) Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, TIPS, Conducting Focus Group Interviews, Number 10 – Accessible online (15 December 2005) at
http://pdf.dec.org/pdf_docs/pnaby233.pdf