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?

The Dog Days of Summer Orientation

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Somewhere around the time I mentioned our college’s honor code, I looked up at the students sitting in a “U” around the room. Several of them sat with their hands to their cheeks supporting their heads. One was leaning so far back he was nearly sleeping. Our Peer Advisors (undergraduate student staff) were trying their best to stay awake. I thought to myself “self, this is painful.”

I’m a fairly energetic presenter. One of my favorite crowd tricks is to ask them a question: By a round of applause, how many of you are excited to be here? The initial response varies, but it doesn’t matter. I then place both arms out, palms up, waist height; raise my eyebrows and slowly lift my hands. Even the comatose crowds tend to get a respectable clap going. If it’s a good crowd, I’ll even lower one hand while I keep another one up — about half the crowds make it that far.

I’ll then transition into one of my favorite energizers — I avoid the term “ice breakers” because of their inherent negative connotation. I explain the rules of the rock paper scissors tournament. You know the one, where if you win, you accumulate the person you beat and all of their fans (the people they beat) as your fans. By the end of the ice breaker you have two groups raucously cheering on their respective representative. The best energizers are the ones that are easy to understand, and hard to do while looking cool.

Then we break into smaller groups. Everyone leaves cheery and riled up. We get to a classroom, sit down, I turn on the projector, *WHAM — I’ve lost them.

*That was someone’s sleepy head bouncing off the desk

Sometimes I sympathize with Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Only the difference is that he gets to see the same people every day. The people I meet are there for one day only before I get a completely new crowd. I try the same jokes — every day. Sometimes they work. When they don’t, I’ll say something like “well… it’s pretty clear I need to work on my jokes… or maybe my audiences!” That one works half the time.

For inspiration, I weave into my presentation little tidbits of my story. That is, the experiences I’m comfortable sharing with my advisees about my undergraduate years. You know, to give them something to look up to (yes, that was simultaneously sarcastic and completely serious). I’ll even get our Peer Advisors involved by having them discuss their experiences.

Later on I meet with each of my advisees one on one for a few minutes. We chat for a few minutes about their interests and come up with a set of classes. This is the time when they’re most alive. It seems a fair number of them are too careful to fully engage when we’re with the group of nine.

When we’re preparing for orientation, we spend SO MUCH TIME discussing the same of orientation. How much time do we devote to energizers and ice breakers and how much to presentations. How much to organized time and how much to free flowing conversations.

And the worst part is, when you ask them later on why they joined a particular extra-curricular, or how they knew about our tutoring program, some of them will say “I remembered it from orientation.” It’s as though they all get together and agree one which parts they will each individually remember. Come on guys, we can do this. Frank, you remember the first slide of the presentation. Tina, you pretend to be asleep for the first half, then at the very end ask a question that clearly indicated you were paying attention the whole time. Thomas, you pretend to sleep for the whole thing — only, actually be asleep.

When I make up names, I almost always go with Frank and Tina. I’m not sure where Thomas came from.

It’s orientation season folks. No matter how you lay out the time, just about everything you do will be well-received by a portion of the group, but not everyone. Some students are worried about making friends. Others about if they can handle college. Some wonder if they’ve picked the right one. While I don’t think there’s a perfect way to do orientation. It seems to me that orientation should be a time of meeting people (both students and staff), thinking deeply about their college experience, and learning just enough to make do for the first semester — they’ll pick up the rest.