The Narrative to the Numbers: Focus Groups

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-abby3Assessment may use many sources from which to collect data (e.g., surveys, pre/post-tests, etc.) – especially when you’re working with assessing learning (due to its the blessed messiness). Conducting a focus group can be a good way to collect the narrative that complements or explains the quantitative data; focus groups breathe life into an otherwise typically survey-based methodology (read: fancy way to say “the ways I plan to collect data”).

Not to mention, focus groups also tend to provide a flare in the data that surveys and other written methods have a harder time conveying: inspiration. I can collect all the survey data I want and find great trends and solid longitudinal results. But the minute I actually hear the same thing out of one student’s mouth, WHOA – talk about a call to action!

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Ok, for those who don’t know, I used to be a pretty…um…dedicated (read: obsessed 13 year old) Sailor Moon fan. But anyway…

Focus groups are great (hooray for actually hearing the student voice!) but my goodness can they be a BEAR to plan, coordinate, collect the information, synthesize the information, follow up with participants, assign compensation (when applicable), triangulate the findings with other data, etc. Again, WHOA – talk about exhausting.

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I think some of this comes from the dichotomy you’re trying to achieve with a focus group: structured, yet open. You want to construct an environment beforehand that gets your participants in the appropriate mindset to give you the feedback about the specific topic you’re wanting (because you don’t want their feedback on anything and everything; you are seeking their feedback about a certain kind of thing), but while also allowing the environment enough openness to get actual feedback (because you don’t want to structure it so much that their feedback is just a regurgitation of what you -the facilitator- already knows/thinks). Finding the balance between structured yet open with a focus group seems more like an ideal that you’re always seeking to achieve.

I recently conducted a focus group to gauge student perspectives our office learning outcomes. I still have a few steps to go in the process, but here are a few early reflections that I have about preparing for the focus group and creating the environment with the group, and then, questions I need to think about for next time:

Things I’m glad I considered beforehand:

  1. Clarify the aim of the focus group.
    • For me, I wanted student feedback on: [1] their usage and engagement with our learning outcomes, [2] the benefit of the learning outcomes to students, and [3] clarifying #1 and communicating #2 to students and the College community.
  2. Understand more precisely what I hoped to get out of their feedback.
    • I had eight discussion questions that I had them work through that came from the intended aim of the group.
  3. Anticipate what will get the group off track, and account for that.
    • I thought they might want to talk about lots of amazing ideas that, with our time and resources, could never be done. So I addressed that with them prior to starting.
  4. Decide the amount of context to give without overly directing their feedback.
    • I erred on the side of giving them little background because I wanted to hear as many new and different ideas as possible. So I shared our larger office vision for these student learning outcomes, but did not explain HOW (in detail) we hoped students would achieve them.
  5. Use different methods to engage everyone.
    • I had the students provide feedback to me in the large group, and then break into smaller groups to accommodate different learning and communication styles to discuss the discussion questions.

But next time, I need to ask myself:

  • What visuals should I provide to convey our aim with the focus group and the topic they’re focusing on?
  • How should I use facilitation to encourage innovation and mitigate tangents?
  • How should I handle the conversation-dominators? How to better engage introverts?
  • Which other facilitators should I bring into the focus group to provide greater perspective on the participant feedback?
  • And, just overall, how can I do this better next time?

I’m still at the early stages with this focus group. Next up for me will be the fun part – analyzing the feedback! Woot woot! But for now, I want to hear from you. Does any of this resonate with your experiences with setting up focus groups? What were some of your successes? What are things that you would change next time? I want to hear from you! Pretty please comment below.

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