A focus group consists of a small number (8-12) of relatively similar individuals who provide information during a directed and moderated interactive group discussion (Popham, 1993). Focus group participants are typically chosen based on their ability to provide specialized knowledge or insight into the issue under study. Focus groups are particularly well suited for gaining insight into what issues are most relevant to students or clients, understanding how students or clients are being affected by a change in practice, or assisting in the development of surveys by identifying issues most relevant to potential respondents.
Suggested uses of focus groups:
- Encouraging expression of views that might normally be suppressed
- Gaining in-depth information about attitudes, perceptions, behaviors, and motivations
- Identifying needs, expectations, and potential reactions before launching a program.
- Refining an ongoing program by understanding needs, problems, and ways to increase participation
- Evaluating a completed instructional program or innovation
- Providing insight to inform a subsequent survey or interview protocol
- Following up results from a survey to better understand interesting or unexpected findings
Limitations of focus groups:
- Training facilitators, recruiting participants, conducting focus groups, and transcribing are time-consuming and can be expensive.
- Data analysis is often complex and time-consuming.
- Results do not generalize to others outside the group.
- Cannot determine causal effects.
- Not appropriate for instructors to facilitate groups with their own students or supervisors to facilitate groups with subordinates.
Conducting a focus group requires a high level of resources. You must know facilitation techniques, how to write appropriate questions, and how to analyze qualitative data. In addition, you may need to hire and train staff, purchase recording equipment and analysis software, solicit participants, arrange venues, and transcribe tapes. [more]
Plan your focus group
STEP 1. Describe the context
Include the objectives of the program: the need it addresses, its expected effects, current resources, resources to implement changes, and its stage of development. Describe your students or clients (education, motivation, skill levels) and how the program setting and environment impact the program. A worksheet is available to help you document your program context
STEP 2. Identify stakeholder needs and develop central questions
Central questions shaped by what is most essential for program participants to accomplish, your needs, and any organizational priorities-identify what you want to learn through a focus group. For example, "What features do instructors want in the Ongoing Course Assessment system?" A worksheet is available to help you identify stakeholder needs and develop central questions.
STEP 3. Determine the purpose of the focus group
Avoid the temptation of asking too many questions or conducting a focus group "just to see what's going on." Specify how a focus group will help you gain insight, change current practices, or understand the effects of a change you have implemented. A worksheet is available to help you develop and refine your study’s purposes.
STEP 4. Determine how you will use focus group results
How you intend to use results should guide the content of your focus group. If the answer to a focus group question will not guide change in your program, leave the question out. A worksheet is available to help exemplify how to use results after determining the purpose of a study.
STEP 5. Write questions and organize the focus group
Writing good questions is crucial, so revise them until they are clear and succinct. [more]
American Statistical Association (1997). What are Focus Groups? Retrieved on January 14, 2005 from Survey Research Methods Section Web site: http://www.amstat.org/sections/srns.brochures/focusgroups.pdf.
Berkowitz, S. (1997). Analyzing Qualitative Data. In J. Frechtling, L. Sharp, and Westat (Eds.), User-Friendly Handbook for Mixed Method Evaluations (Chapter 4). Retrieved June 21, 2006 from National Science Foundation, Directorate of Education and Human Resources Web site: http://www.ehr.nsf.gov/EHR/REC/pubs/NSF97-153/CHAP_4.HTM
Fern, E. F. (2001). Advanced focus group research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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.
Krueger, R. A. (1988). Focus groups: a practical guide for applied research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kvale, S. (1996). Inter Views: An introduction to qualitative research interviewing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Patton, M. Q. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Popham, W. J. (1993). Educational evaluation. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Silverman, G. (n.d.) How to get beneath the surface in focus groups. Retrieved June 21, 2006 from Market Navigation, Inc. Web site: http://www.mnav.com/bensurf.htm.