Bringing things into focus: Using focus groups to collect feedback

By Theresa Suart & Eleni Katsoulas

Amongst the plethora of student feedback we solicit about our courses, you may wonder why we sometimes add in focus groups. What could be added to the more than a dozen questions on course evaluation and faculty feedback surveys?

The information we gather in student focus groups doesn’t replace the very valuable narrative feedback from course evaluations, rather, it allows us to ask targeted questions, clarify responses and drill down into the data.

Developed from “focused interviews” around the time of the Second World War, focus groups emerged as a key qualitative research tool in the latter half of the 20th century. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist from Columbia University, is hailed as the “father of the focus group.” (He died in 2003 at age 92.)

Merton used focused interviews to gain insight into groups’ responses to text, radio programs and films. Politicians and marketing companies soon seized upon focus groups to gauge voter and consumer trends. The Queen’s UGME Education Team uses focus groups in a targeted way to augment information gleaned from course evaluation feedback, course director’s meetings with academic reps and other feedback tools.

According to a briefing paper from Carnegie Mellon University, focus groups are “particularly effective” for eliciting suggestions for improvement. “They are also much more flexible than surveys or scales because they allow for question clarification and follow-up questions to probe vague or unexpected responses.” It also helps that faculty rate focus groups as “accurate, useful and believable”.

If you’re asked to participate in a focus group, only agree if you think you have something to contribute to the investigator’s project or purpose. (Sure, it’s fun to come for the free food, but be prepared to contribute in a meaningful way).

groupe-discussion2-1What you can expect when you take part in a focus group:

  • To be informed if the focus group is for research or curricular innovation (or both). Research studies must have approval from the Research Ethics Board and require specific paperwork to document informed consent. Curricular innovation focus groups are less formal, but will still respect confidentiality of participants. These might not have the same paperwork.
  • The facilitator to set the ground rules, and guide the discussion. Savvy facilitators will do this with a minimum of fuss: they will listen more than they speak. (But you can certainly ask for clarification if you’re not sure of a question).
  • A co-facilitator will likely take notes and monitor any recording equipment used. The co-facilitator may summarize after each question and solicit further input as required.
  • You’ll be asked specific questions, and engage in conversation with the other participants.

What you shouldn’t expect:

  • A venting session. This isn’t the time to just complain. A focus group is looking for constructive feedback and suggested solutions.
  • To always have your say: the facilitator may realize they have reached saturation on a particular question and will move on. This is to respect your time. (You’ll have an opportunity to send additional comments electronically afterwards if you felt there is an important point that was missed).

What you can do to prepare:

  • If the questions are provided in advance (this is best practice but not always possible on tight timelines!) you should take some time to think about them.
  • Be sure you know where the meeting room is, and arrive on time.

What you can do during:

  • Contribute, but make sure you don’t end up dominating the conversation. The facilitator will be looking for a balance of views and contributors.
  • Listen attentively to others and avoid interrupting. The facilitator will make sure everyone has a chance to contribute – you’ll get your turn.

What you can expect from data collected at a focus group:

  • It will be confidential. Different strategies are employed. For example, you may be assigned a number during the focus group and participants asked to refer to people by number (“Participant 2 said…”).
  • In a formal research study, you should be offered an opportunity to review the data transcript after it is prepared. (This is sometimes waived on the consent form, so read carefully so you can have realistic expectations of the investigator).
  • The end product is a summary of the conversation, with any emergent themes identified to answer the research questions.

What you can’t expect:

  • A magic bullet solution to a challenge in a course or class.
  • One hundred percent consensus from all participants – you can agree to disagree.
  • For all outlier opinions to be represented in the final report. These may be omitted from summary reports.

We’re always grateful to our students for donating their time to our various focus group requests throughout the year. These contributions are invaluable.

If you think this type of data collection could be useful in your course review and revisions, feel free to get in touch. It’s one of the tools in our qualitative research toolbox and we’re happy to deploy it for you as may be appropriate.

Eleni Katsoulas eleni.katsoulas@queensu.ca

Theresa Suart theresa.suart@queensu.ca

 

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