A focus group is a qualitative research methodology. Focus groups are used to gather information, opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about a topic or issue. Usually focus groups include 6-12 people.

I. Suggested Uses of Focus Groups:

  • Encouraging expression of views that might normally be suppressed
  • Identifying needs, expectations, and potential reactions before launching a program
  • Refining an ongoing program by understanding needs, problems, and ways to increase participation
  • Evaluating completed instructional program or innovation
  • Providing insight to inform a subsequent survey or interview protocol
  • Following up on results from a survey to better understand interesting or unexpected findings

II. Limitations:

  • The time and expense of training facilitators, recruiting participants, conducting focus groups, and transcription
  • Results that do not generalize to others outside the group
  • Cannot determine causal effects
  • Not appropriate for faculty to facilitate groups with their own students or for supervisors to facilitate groups with subordinates

III. Conducting the Focus Group:

Participants

To encourage participation and openness, select participants with common concerns or backgrounds. You should try to put people together who are not in the same chain of command, so don't include a professor and her student or an employee and his boss in the same group. It's not necessary to randomly select participants because results from a focus group are not meant to generalize to a larger population. The goal is to recruit enough participants to get a full range of opinion, but not so many as to discourage participation. When recruiting participants, you should:

  • Explain who your organization is and the purpose of the study
  • Invite people to a "discussion" or to "share their views" rather than to a "focus group"
  • Stress the purpose, the importance of their opinions, and how you will use the information

Give participants a reminder call or e-mail a day before. Expect that some people will change their mind or not show up, so invite more than your target number. Some incentive for attending is usually provided, such as food, a small amount of money, or gift certificates.

Setting

The setting should be convenient, comfortable, and relaxing. Rooms with one-way mirrors, conference tables, and microphones hanging from the ceiling may make participants feel like they are performing, so make the setting informal, because people are more likely to open up if they feel at home. If business operations are being discussed, a conference room may be fine, but for more personal topics, living room-style seating is better. Serving light snacks and beverages can create a friendly atmosphere. However, if you are using food as an incentive, serve it before or after the session, so it doesn't distract participants from the discussion.

Moderating

An effective moderator keeps the discussion focused without discouraging the sharing of ideas and gets all members to contribute while making sure that one or two members don't dominate. Moderators should develop qualities as outlined by Kvale (1996) and Fern (2001):

  • Knowledgeable: Become thoroughly familiar with the topics of the focus group.
  • Enthusiastic: Value your work but remain impartial.
  • Structuring: Explain the purpose for the focus group; ask whether participants have questions.
  • Clear: Ask simple, easy, short questions without using jargon.
  • Approachable: Blend in; make sure the group can relate to you.
  • Gentle: Allow people to finish; give them time to think; tolerate pauses.
  • Sensitive: Listen attentively to what is said and how it is said; be empathic.
  • Open and flexible: Respond to what is important to the participants.
  • Steering: Keep the group focused; keep one or two members from dominating.
  • Critical: Prepare to politely challenge what is said. For example, you might question inconsistencies in participants' replies.
  • Remembering and integrating: Relate what is said to what has previously been said.
  • Interpreting: Clarify and extend meanings of participants' statements without changing the meaning.
  • Inclusive: Encourage reserved members to contribute by using eye contact, body language, and directly asking for their input.

The focus group begins with an introduction that explains the purpose, ground rules, and duration (usually between 45 and 90 minutes) and conveys the expectation that everyone will contribute, all contributions will be valued and remain confidential, and the session will be tape-recorded. Recording increases the accuracy of your conclusions, so test your recording equipment immediately before each focus group.

Inform participants of any exceptions to confidentiality. For example, if a participant discloses details of child abuse or threats to his or her safety, you may be required by law to report this. If a college is conducting the focus group, you may need to get approval for the study from its Institutional Review Board and obtain an informed consent from participants, which explains potential risks or benefits of their participation. Anticipate possible emotional reactions from participants and how you will handle them.

After the introduction, the moderator typically has group members introduce themselves or uses an icebreaking exercise to get them involved. To preserve confidentiality and commonality, the moderator should ask members to introduce themselves by first name only and should avoid topics that emphasize differences in status that might threaten cohesion. For groups that focus on sensitive issues such as race or gender, the moderator's demographic background should match that of participants.

Skilled moderators use reinforcers and probes. Reinforcers communicate interest in what members share but don't suggest what is expected or acceptable. Use reinforcers like, "I see," or "Let me write that down," but avoid comments like, "Excellent response," or nodding your head after some responses but not others. Try to smile and appear open and friendly.

Be prepared to use probes such as, "Could you tell me some more about that?" "What do you mean by that?" or "Anything else?" Allow participants time to respond, using silence in moderation to encourage someone to expand on an answer. Nonverbal behaviors will help you judge whether a participant is uncomfortable or just thinking about an answer. When a participant rambles or does not state a clear point of view, ask an interpretive question, such as, "Do you mean that your priorities have shifted from developing programs to building support for programs?"

At the end of the discussion, summarize important points to ensure you have made the correct interpretation and to allow participants to elaborate. Always thank respondents for their participation and ask them if they have any questions for you.

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