Focus Groups

Imagine bringing together 8 to 10 students that represent a particular segment of the student population, e.g., freshmen, international students, transfer students, asking them specific questions about an experience they have in common, recording their responses, and analyzing their responses according to topics and level of concern. This, in brief, would be a focus group.

While focus groups do not have the quantifiable—countable—characteristics of other assessments, they have the advantage of much more depth to the understanding one may garner about a specific group. What may be missing as quantitative is made up in the qualitative nature of a focus group. In essence, a well designed and implemented focus group can provide a meaty substance to one’s understanding of a group’s experience, beliefs, perceptions, and learning.

Two additional advantages to the focus group are the opportunity to “drill” deeper into students’ responses and the generative dynamics available through a small group discussion. Within the context of a focus group, careful and thoughtful questioning can bring clarity and richness to students’ responses. Open ended questions on a survey or questionnaire allows students to express their specific thoughts; however, the richness of the responses is static and does not have the fullness that may be expressed in a focus group. This richness may not only be the consequence of the opportunity to ask questions or request clarification but may result from the generative dynamics of a group. As students listen and consider the responses of others, their own thinking may be stimulated to provide additional comments.

When using a focus group, the student affairs professional should keep in mind that the information from a focus group may not only provide a measure of intended outcomes but may more importantly create a recognition of what may be needed to improve programs and services. One should clearly expect that the answers to questions, if the questions are well developed, will result in more than “Yes” and “No” responses, or even “Strongly Agree” or “Strongly Disagree.” From the focus group, student affairs professionals will have a better understanding or what works and what does not, and how, from a student’s perspective, they could be enhanced or corrected.

Basic considerations when using a focus group include:

  1. Identify the populations to include in the focus group.
  2. Develop the objectives to be achieved through the focus group.
  3. Create a series of questions to stimulate discussion within the group.
  4. Invite a sufficient number of students to assure a variety of responses and to assure the dynamic nature of a focus group.
  5. Prepare the setting for the group, so that all participants may be relaxed and may see each other.
  6. Establish rapport. Introduce yourselves and clarify the purpose of the focus group and the ground rules, such as respect, openness to comments, and confidentiality.
  7. Thank the participants for attending and express the importance of their being within the focus group.
  8. Begin the focus group with less challenging, “ice breaking” questions.
  9. Maintain an accurate report of the comments, particularly if the focus group is not being recorded. Because of the importance of maintaining an accurate report of responses, it may be helpful to have at least two or three facilitators for the group.  In some circumstances, you may want to use colleagues from other departments to facilitate the discussion, if students may be ill-at-ease discussing issues with a department arranging the focus group.
  10. Review the report of comments from the group within 24 to 48 hours, to fill in any details that may be missing. Beyond 24 hours, memories of the comments may be seriously compromised.
  11. Debrief the focus group experience. What worked very well? What needs improvement in facilitating the focus group?
  12. Analyze and categorize the responses. What is learned from the students’ comments? Take caution to not extrapolate meaning from what was not said.
  13. Prepare a report on the focus group that will provide meaningful information on the assessment of a program or service.
  14. Share the report with supervisors and colleagues.
  15. Begin planning for the next focus group, using the information and experience to make an even greater contribution to the assessment process.

Descriptions and recommendations for focus groups are discussed in the following books available through the Dean of Students’ office:

  • Assessment Practice in Student Affairs: An Application ManualJohn H. Schuh, M. Lee Upcraft, & Associates 2001
  • Assessing Student Learning and Development: A Handbook for PractitionersMarilee J. Bresciani, Carrie L. Zelna, & James A. Anderson 2004

Additional brief descriptions of and recommendations for focus groups may be found at the following web sites:

Iowa State University

North Carolina State University

The Free Management Library

University of Minnesota