Focus Groups: How Do We Get Students to Participate?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-abby3I’m back conducting another focus group. You may remember that I did a focus group earlier last year to get feedback and ideas for the design of our online learning goals tool (“Career Tracks”). The student voice was influential to Career Tracks’ design: it now has a whole “Planning” component on which students can put career development tasks, services, and programs on a calendar and add their own deadline, due to the great feedback we received from students. This is likely not surprising to you that student input positively shaped a college initiative; but this acts as a good reminder of the power that one student voice can contribute in the creation of effective, student-centered initiatives.

But my question lately is, how the heck do I get students to show up and offer their voice??? Recently I’ve been working on a research project focusing on what students learn from their internship about being an employee (a project that could not be done without the power of collaboration!). To collect data we had two focus groups and several one-one-one research interviews. To find participants, I reached out to a number of interns, provided lunch, held it during a time of day in which no classes are offered, and besides RSVPing, there were no additional tasks students had to do to participate (so a very low barrier to entry). Sounds perfect, right? I’m guessing you know better; there is no perfect outreach method to students (but if you’ve figured that out, patent the idea and then become a millionaire – or, better yet, comment below with your revelations!).

I know many of us struggle with student participation in different forms, whether it be getting students to complete surveys, vote in student council elections, attend open forums for on-campus faculty and staff candidates, and other times in which the student view is imperative. But how do we get them to complete the things or show up at the stuff (outside of paying them or tying participation to things like course registration)? And how do we proceed if they don’t?

At the NEEAN fall forum in November, I attended one presentation about a topic related to student participation in surveys/focus groups/etc. A woman in the audience had been herself a participant in a longitudinal research project (over 15 years). She offered up some advice on how to get and keep students engaged with research/data collection-type projects that I will keep with me and share with you:

  • Show the project’s importance in the big picture – Communicate to students how their voice will shape and be an important part of the future of these initiatives for their future peers and colleagues.
  • But also keep it relevant to the present – Share with students how their participation contributes to college initiatives becoming more beneficial to them. Their voice will help make things better/more effective in their time at the college, not just in some nebulous future time.
  • Make it a mutual investment – In the case of a focus group, where you know your participants and they’re sharing much of their time for your project, make the time and effort to remember or attend one of their events. This of course isn’t always applicable (or in cases of confidentiality, appropriate) but if students are giving you their time, give them yours. Send a birthday card, attend their on-campus presentation, go to their orchestra concert, etc. The participant is investing in your project, so invest in theirs.
  • Follow up with the results and check in – Depending on the timeline and scope of your project, (briefly) check in with your student participants on the research’s progress and give them access to the results. Not only does this help with transparency but also keeps students engaged in the process, and, potentially, creates early adopters of the findings.
  • Preach and model ‘pay it forward’ – Whether you’re a student, faculty, or staff member, there will come a time when you will need other people to complete something for you (e.g., a survey, research questionnaire, etc.), so for this and other reasons, we should all probably be thoughtful about doing the same for others. This concept is larger than the bounds of one person’s project, so how do we as a college-wide community communicate this to students?? (Also, there’s got to be a term for this out there already – Data Stewardship? Civic Participation? Academic Responsibility? Survey Karma? – …ideas???)

I’m working on a few of these already, but the “pay it forward in data collection” is a concept I want to keep thinking about. I haven’t hit a millionaire-level idea with it yet but I’ll keep you all updated. You do the same. What have you done to get the student voice?

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