What is a Focus Group?
One of the methods for obtaining information about your teaching, or the student experience of education, is through focus groups.
Focus groups were originally developed in marketing to bring together diverse groups of people representative of a range of target groups in order to gather opinions about a brand or a product etc. They are a good way of obtaining in-depth qualitative data.
In education, focus groups can be used in a number of ways, for example to help you explore and generate solutions to a particular problem or to explore students’ experiences of a particular course or module. They can lead to much greater insights and much richer data than individual or group interviews as students should be allowed to respond to, refine and develop each other’s views within the focus group.
Focus groups need to be long enough to develop a discussion, but not so long that the participants lose focus. In our experience, this requires an absolute minimum of 20 minutes and, ideally, around an hour.
In theory 6-12 participants are optimum, although in practice you may have to go with what you can get. As you will be evaluating a class, or a cohort of students, and all students should have an equal right to participate if they choose to, you may need to consider running more than one focus group. You should bear in mind that running more than three focus groups is unlikely to unearth any new ideas or opinions. If you think the focus groups will be popular you could try recruiting on a `first-come-first-served’ basis to give everyone an equal chance of participating.
Although focus groups will help identify new issues, or help confirm the relative importance of the ideas you may already have, they can only be used a guidance. The biggest problem with focus groups is that they are not representative. The constitution of the group will be a self-selected sample, limited to those who can make that session, need printer credits more, are more committed to their studies. Within the group, the opinions expressed will not be representative of the group. Focus groups favour those who are more extrovert, and the full diversity of opinions are often not expressed. They should therefore always be used only as a guide to the issues to be addressed in further evaluation methods, either to inform the questions to ask in one-to-one interviews, or in parallel with surveys or questionnaires, where the issues cannot be explored in the same depth, but where a wider set of viewpoints can be sampled.