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?

Assessment Conferences

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-abby3Assessment heads – happy almost November! There is so much assessment in November that I’m looking forward to, most specifically:

  1. Higher Education Assessment Friendship Summit (i.e., Mark + Abby + our incredible group of friends = meeting of the minds in the same time zone!), and
  2. my group presentation at the New England Educational Assessment Network (NEEAN – try saying it 3 times fast) fall forum at College of Holy Cross.
Stay tuned next week for Oh no, Friendship Summit edition. For this week, NEEAN!
I wrote last time about great assessment collaborations and the NEEAN presentation is one result of those. You’ve all read our many, many, many (did I mention many) posts about learning goals/outcomes. My office ties several of our programs and services to nine student learning goals, and we’re gearing up to do that on an even broader scale. The Associate Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Carleton (Carol Trosset) has been invaluable as we move into this next phase.
At NEEAN, we’ll be exploring my office’s learning goals through one example of this expansion: our internship program. Students create learning goals and strategies prior to their summer internship. They write reflections during and after the internship about their learning, in order to capture their outcomes. Carol has been helping us code students’ goals so that we may understand on a larger scale what students intend and seek to learn prior to their internship. At NEEAN, we’ll be comparing Carleton’s process to the great process at Bennington College, where Carol examined the outcomes of student experiential learning. I can’t wait to learn more about the Bennington process and get inspired by so many my assessment professionals.
Next up on the home campus front, we’ll conduct focus groups with student interns about their learning outcomes. Over the next few weeks, I’ll have pre-interviews with student interns to start structuring the focus groups. So much great assessment happening – stay tuned for more assessment fun!

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!

venus gif - 3 loop
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.

moon - 3 loop

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.