|The Survey Unit|
Are you planning to carry out discussion groups / focus groups with students to gather their views? If so, the FAQs below provide some advice and guidance based on our experiences of conducting focus groups with students at The University of Nottingham.
If you do not have a secific question about focus groups but would like some advice or guidance have a look at our top tips for running focus groups.
Consider using focus groups when one or more of the following is true:
You need in-depth information from your target population
Your target population is relatively small and easily accessible
You are willing to allow participants to guide the discussion to some extent
You are carrying out preliminary research into an issue, possibly to obtain views and gauge opinions to form the basis of a wider survey at a later date
You require feedback on a specific product or innovation that has yet to be launched
Focus groups may not be appropriate when one or more of the following is true:
You need to obtain the views of as many members as possible of your target population
You have a strict set of short-answer questions to ask and do not wish to deviate from these
Your target population are widely dispersed and not able to easily attend one venue for the group (e.g. part-time students, or students from Malaysia or China campuses)
You want to be sure you can generalise your findings to the wider population
You are researching a particularly sensitive subject matter; students may not wish to be open and honest about such issues in front of a group
Time is short: focus groups take a great deal of organisation. The processing and analysis of your findings is especially time-consuming, don't assume that because the discussion itself will only take an hour or so that this is the best option when you are working to tight deadlines
This is a decision that will be largely influenced by practicalities such as the time and funding available. There is sometimes the temptation to hold as many groups as possible in an attempt to obtain as much data as possible. This is not always the best strategy since many groups raise the same issues again and again so there may come a point where nothing new is being uncovered in the groups. In some instances the desired arrangement of groups and characteristics of your target population will dictate the number of groups to hold (e.g. one group per campus). In our experience around six to eight groups tends to yield an adequate range and depth of data and going beyond that number is not always productive unless you have good reason (e.g. one group per School).
There are two separate issues here, how many to invite and how many to aim to include in your group. There will always be people who are unable or unwilling to attend the group so you will need to invite more people than you actually plan to have in attendance.
Ask potential participants to reply to your invitation and indicate that you will then contact them again to confirm whether they have been selected to attend.
Establishing how many invitations to send out to achieve a set number of participants will depend on a number of factors including:
The subject matter of your research
Whether you offer an incentive to participate (e.g. a small payment or reimbursement of expenses)
Other demands on participants' time (e.g. groups held around exam time are unlikely to be popular)
The location of the group (don't expect students from say, Sutton Bonington to be willing to travel to University Park for a group)
There are no set rules on focus group attendance but we have found that a maximum of 10 people at each group keeps the discussion manageable.
ou need to decide how many attendees you want to achieve and then choose how many people to invite bearing in mind that not everyone will volunteer to take part and that some people will volunteer but then not turn up on the day. In a recent set of discussion groups held by the Survey Unit we invited approximately 50 students to each group in the hope of achieving 10 attendees. This worked well in most instances, however, there were problems with recruiting for the group held at Sutton Bonington and a further round of invitations had to be sent to obtain a sufficient number of acceptances – always allow enough time for this sort of strategy.
Who you should invite will be dependent on your target population and the mechanisms available to you for selecting students based on specific characteristics.
Your options are:
Invite all students (this is most appropriate for small target populations such as all students doing one module)
Invite a proportion of students either selected randomly, or selected from different groups based on background characteristics such as: School or Faculty, course, sex, ethnicity, fee status, full or part-time etc. Consider ‘over-sampling' certain categories of students if you think they may be less likely to volunteer to take part (e.g. part-time students)
Try to consider the following points when choosing a location for your group:
To encourage participation, hold the group at a location which is as convenient as possible for your target population – you should go to the students rather than them having to come to you.
Book a suitable room in advance and ensure the room is easy to find and is accessible to all including those with disabilities.
You room should be big enough to accommodate the group but small enough to be conducive to a group discussion.
Book the room for half an hour before and half an hour after the scheduled time to allow time for arranging furniture and setting up / packing away recording equipment etc.
On the day, make sure the room is well sign-posted; take your own door sign if necessary.
Arrange any additional equipment you might need such as flip charts, overhead projectors, lap-tops, white boards etc. and ensure you are able to work these in advance of the group.In your confirmation email or letter to students who have agreed to participate, make sure you provide full details of the room number, building and if necessary, brief instructions to help them to find the room.
Wherever possible, we try to offer students an incentive for taking part, this usually takes the form of a small cash payment as a ‘thank you'. Other possible incentives include: gift vouchers, provision of refreshments and/or a lunch, reimbursement of travelling expenses etc. You should also make it clear in your letter of invitation exactly what your research is about and provide an incentive to participate by explaining how you are offering students the opportunity to help shape future developments by expressing their views at the group.
You can lead the groups yourself if you feel confident in doing so. However, note that (depending on the subject of the discussion) it is sometimes more appropriate to have a ‘neutral' party leading the group to encourage an open and honest discussion.
This is down to you as the researcher, however, be warned against going into a discussion group without at bare minimum a set of specific topics you wish to cover. You can prepare as much or as little as you wish, it is sometimes useful to have a ‘schedule' listing each topic to cover, a set of questions to ask about each topic and some prompts and / or examples to use if participants do not understand your questions.
The use of a ‘schedule' is particularly important if you are conducting more than one group as it helps to ensure the same topics are covered in each group – the schedule may evolve with each group you conduct to reflect for example, instances where specific questions didn't work, or where group members raised a topic of interest which wasn't on your original schedule.Be prepared to allow group members to take some of the initiative in guiding the discussion but try to tactfully steer the discussion away from irrelevant subjects. Also be prepared to discuss your topics in a different order to that detailed in your schedule due to the natural flow of the discussion.
The best way to have an accurate record of the discussion is to record it.
To make the most effective use of recording equipment you should:
Use two tape recorders or digital recorders in case one goes wrong and place them in a central position so that all voices can be picked up.
Tell the group participants that the discussion is being recorded during your introduction and provide them with appropriate reassurances of confidentiality.
Always test your tape recorders before the discussion commences and carry spare batteries / tapes with you.
If using tape recorders (rather than digital), start one approximately half a minute before the other so that you don't lose the section of the discussion when the tapes turn over.
It is helpful to get the recordings transcribed so that there is a written record of the discussion.
Note that it will probably not be possible to distinguish who said what on your audio recording, so if it is important to your research that you know who is speaking, you may need to ask participants to identify themselves before commenting (though this sometimes disrupts the flow of the discussion) or consider filming the session rather than just making an audio recording. If you choose to film the groups be aware that some participants may not feel comfortable being filmed and the discussion may be affected.
Another option sometimes used is to have a note taker at the discussion, or for the discussion leader to take notes throughout, these methods are not ideal since you will inevitably lose some of the information and the meaning of what is said could be lost and open to the note taker's interpretation.
Focus or discussion groups are qualitative rather than quantitative methods therefore your report on such research is likely to be mainly text: i.e. a commentary describing the main issues which arose in the groups interspersed with illustrative quotes. It is useful to ‘code' the transcripts using NVivo (or similar) software; this enables you to view students' comments on specific issues and topics together, even if your research comprised more than one group.
Allow yourself sufficient time in your project plan for organising the groups, this includes:
Encourage participation by offering an incentive and reassure participants of the value of their contribution
Create a ‘schedule' for the group leader which lists topics to cover and questions to ask to ensure everything is covered and to prevent awkward silences
Record the groups on a tape or digital recorder and use two machines in case of equipment failure
Begin your group by introducing yourself and explaining the purpose of the group and talk through how the session will be run, e.g. explain that you have a list of topics to discuss and that you are happy for people to speak as and when they wish to, also explain that the session will be recorded if this is the case
Try to keep the use of audio-visual aids to a minimum as these can sometimes detract from the discussion.
If you are leading a discussion group, try to tactfully prevent one or two people from dominating the group and encourage everyone to have an input into the discussion (but don't pick on people – sometimes people are quiet simply because they don't have anything specific to add to the discussion).
Consider using an ‘exit questionnaire' for participants to fill in at the end of the discussion, this should be as short as possible but can be useful in collecting data from everyone on a specific topic of interest, you can also provide the opportunity for participants to note down any issues they had wanted to bring up at the group but didn't manage to do so.
Remember to work within the appropriate ethical guidelines for your field of work, for example, do not place participants under undue stress and do not coerce people to take part.
For more information on running focus groups or for guidance on any other types of survey, please contact the Survey Unit.
Tel: +44 115 8466091