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Writing and organizing for focus groups

Ask questions that encourage description and depth

One of the advantages of a focus group over a written survey is the opportunity to achieve greater depth of understanding using open-ended rather than yes/no questions. Goldenkoff (1994) suggests that they often begin with, "How do you feel about.," "What is your opinion of.," or "Please describe.." Particularly effective are questions that begin with "how." Beware of "why" questions, however, at the beginning of focus groups, because they may lead participants to justify their actions or opinions.

Example

Discourages elaboration: "Did you register for the program to increase your knowledge in the field?"

Encourages elaboration: "How did you get interested in this program?"

Use simple, clear language

Use language participants understand. Avoid asking questions that have several possible meanings or questions that are so long that they are difficult to follow.

Avoid biased questions

Avoid questions that lead respondents to answer a particular way.

Example

Biased: "This semester you were introduced to state-of-the-art technology through the FAST Tex Program. What is your opinion of the program?"

Better: "How do you feel about the FAST Tex program?"

Similarly, avoid words such as "all," "always," "none," "never," "only," "just," and "merely," which may bias responses.

One concept per question

Questions addressing more than one concept may confuse participants, leading them to answer only one part of the question or to answer neither part. The solution is to separate two ideas into two questions.

Example

Double-barreled: "How did using Blackboard and the Classroom Performance System help you learn the material in this course?"

Better: "How did using Blackboard help you learn the material in this course?"
"How did using the Classroom Performance System help you learn the material in this course?"

Choose relevant subjects

If participants lack knowledge about a subject, they may provide responses that are of little use. For example, if you were to ask students to evaluate government spending in London, they may provide opinions despite having little knowledge about this subject.

Consider the capability of respondents

Participants may not be able to accurately answer certain questions. For example, they may not recall details about the format of tests from a class they took two years ago.

List areas to probe

To ensure that the moderator consistently covers specific topics in all sessions, list probes or follow-up questions after the main question.

Example

Question: What are some factors that would motivate you to enroll for one course rather than another?

Probe: Explore the following factors:

  • fit with preferred schedule
  • interest in subject
  • instructor's reputation
  • course difficulty and grading
  • career concerns

 

Organizing the focus group

Structure the focus group questions

Focus group discussions typically begin with general questions and end with one or two specific questions tied to the study objectives. Because a group cannot adequately discuss a long list of questions in 90 minutes, choose 6 to 10 questions, grouping similar questions. Once participants become comfortable, they may be more likely to answer sensitive questions, so ask these questions toward the middle of the discussion.

Conduct pilot testing

Whenever possible, test your questions on people similar to those who will be in the focus group to check if the questions are clear, if they will produce the needed information, and if participants have the knowledge to answer them. If you plan to conduct multiple focus groups, or your assessment will rely solely on focus group data, conducting a pilot test is recommended. Krueger (1988) outlines three steps:

Additional information

Goldenkoff, R. (2004). Using focus groups. In J.S. Wholey, H. P. Hatry, & K. E. Newcomer (Eds.), Handbook of practical program evaluation (2nd ed.) (pp. 340-362). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Page last updated: Sep 21 2011
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