Focus groups can be held `face to face’, online or by telephone although the commonest approach by far is to hold a `face to face meeting.
As bringing together the participants is the most problematic part of the process of organising a focus group there is a certain appeal to holding them online, where discussion can be asynchronous and conducted at a distance. However, they have all of the disadvantages of an online discussion (i.e. it is difficult to get people to contribute, opinions and ideas may be highly self-edited and not spontaneous) and additionally you miss out on the non-verbal data, which can be gathered at a `face to face’ focus group.
If you can spare time, a `face to face’ focus group run within regular contact hours will produce the highest attendance, but it has the drawback of cutting into teaching time. A group established outside of regular contact hours can have a low turn-out, unless the cohort is particularly highly motivated. In these circumstances, bribery is a valuable tool in formulating the group. Inducements used by colleagues have included beer, chocolate and cinema vouchers.
Focus groups should be run as a semi-structured series of open questions. You would probably only need 3 or 4 for a one-hour session. Key questions must be raised, but the facilitator of the group needs to be able to respond to any new ideas brought out and to develop them further. You might consider whether you are always the most appropriate person to run a focus group as students may feel more constrained about what they say in your presence. Ideally, the discussion should be recorded for later transcription. To record groups, a pressure zone microphone (also known as a flat mike, or PZM) is usually the best instrument available. Bear in mind that an audio-recording will obviously not capture non-verbal information from the focus group (e.g. students nodding in support of a point). It may be worthwhile taking brief notes of any particular non-verbal cues to support the audio-recording. A transcription service is provided by Unitemps.