Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Four Lessons in Conducting Focus Groups

There are many big and baby steps in the making of a dissertation.  

Last week I just passed a big one, completing six focus groups totaling 40 college students leader participants.  My travels to two institutions totaled 522 miles, resulting in 15 hours of driving within six weeks.  The next hurdle, I have 540 minutes+ of content to transcribe and then gather over 2,000 social media posts!

To learn more about my dissertation, feel free to check out my dissertation proposal defense below.

[slideshare id=37786227&doc=j-140807225248-phpapp02]

My research questions:

1.  What role does social media play in the identity and experiences of college student leaders?

2. What patterns of behavior exist for social media activity of college student leaders in how leadership, identity and decision-making are portrayed online?

3. Do the self-reported experiences of college student leaders represent their documented actual behavior documented on social media?

I have been part of various research projects, from survey research, 1-1 interviews and document analysis.  But focus groups by far have been my favorite.  It has been the hardest.  To put it in perspective, I knew none of the students or the complete political dynamics of either institution, having not worked there.  Even from the ideal room to reserve and where to park was a learning process.

My focus group efforts began as far back as April establishing contacts at each institution, and recruitment started in early July.  I learned so many lessons through the process that I especially want to share with other doctoral students, but also other educators exploring focus groups as part of assessment, evaluation and research.

1. Recruitment

10864263_mlStart as early as possible.  I thought one month would be plenty, but found myself recruiting students up until the very last focus group.  I used nominations to obtain participants, which added to my timeline.  (For more information about my procedures, click page two at the bottom of the page).

Consider snowball sampling.  I used nominations to originally obtain participants.  However I had some trouble meeting my goals.  By also using a snowball method, I was able to get another five participants.  For example, after you have one confirmed participant, ask them if they know of others that would be interested.  Have them bring that person or recommend them for a future focus group.

Scheduling.  I attempted to spread out the focus groups between the two campuses, averaging two per week total.  I used doodle polling to aid in finding availabilities.  I found the most difficult time to keep student active was on Fridays.  The most engaged time was Tuesday evenings around dinner, luckily I had three of these.  I scheduled each for 90 minutes, which also include dinner.  I honestly believe we could have filled two hours (and twice we did).  I scheduled spaces that were right where my participants would already be, including student housing and a prominent academic building.

Keep the faith.  One day I thought I would have to give up on one location due to low nominations/response, but then one week later I had more nominations.  Stay positive and look under some unturned rocks for resources.  See snowball sampling.

22184370_s2. Participants

Number of Participants.   Ideal focus group numbers have a large range.  I have read four to six, but I have also seen eight to ten.  My rule was there needed to be at least three confirmed, especially since I would be driving at least 75 minutes to the campus.  My max would be scheduling 10. 

I found out of all six groups my idea group number was six attendees.  I had a group with four, but had a hard time keeping dialogue going but I also had a group of 10 and we hardly got through half the questions.  Six allowed for conversation, as well as covering my priority questions.

There will be No-Shows.  Every focus group I administered had at least one person that did not show up.  I have heard statistics for focus group attendance to actually be even scarier, like 50% failing to show.  Be ready for this, meaning you can also schedule more participants than you have room for.

Participant Activity.  Every focus group I conducted had at least one participant I had to call on more to evoke responses.  Have a plan and tally responses so you don’t leave the focus group realizing one member only answered one question.

Offer Incentives.  As part of my research, participants must complete a social media usage questionnaire, attend a 90 minute focus group and allow the researcher to join them on two social media platforms for the fall semester.  I also was very specific in who I wanted as participants: junior/senior student leaders who were in very good standing in their leadership roles and on at least two social media platforms.  Because of this ask, I decided I would offer incentives.  Not only did I provide a meal at the focus group, but a $25 amazon gift card.  Is this expense going to hurt me financial?  You do the math, $25 x 40 = absolutely.  But I believe the quality that I received because of this incentive is an investment that will pay me back twofold.

3. Administration

14231675_mlSpace Set-up.  There is another debate in focus groups, whether to have them in an open circle or placement around a table.  Especially since I offered food and we checked our phones, having a table worked well.

Participant Management.  I had each participant sign-in on arrival, including signing the informed consent and creating a name plate.  I am really bad with names, so these were realy nice to have in front of them during the conversation.

Equipment.  Bring extra copies of everything, pens, informed consent, surveys, napkins and batteries.  I used three recording devices (yes that is OCD you read there).  I used a professional recorder audio recorder in the very center of the table, as well as my cell phone, which I placed near me to also track time.  I used my iPad to video record at the back of the room.  I also took notes, especially on group observations and thoughts I was having from responses.

4. Being a Researcher & Moderator

Establishing Trust.  I practiced my opening and closing to make sure all the elements required for my research were covered.  I tried very hard to establish creditability, as well as trust in my opening and relieving any concerns about their social media activity being researched.  Because I was working with college students about a fun topic, I allowed my personality to be present.  I ensured I arrived early and stayed late to allow for ‘casual’ conversations with participants, which also aided me in participant relations.

14700456_mlMoving Through Questions.  I had 15 questions.  After two focus groups I already started to see themes that naturally came up, so I modified my questions slightly.  I also found that I was having a hard time getting through all the questions.  All my participants were ok with sending me their responses to questions we did not get to.  You need to ask for their approval in the focus group to do this, so if this happens for you make note.

Managing the Conversation.  Ideally focus groups you would have more than one researcher in the room.  I did not have that option.  It was a challenge being everything: taking notes, making observations, moving the conversations, etc.  Because of this is why I had three recording sources.  When I was able, I would reflect what I had heard or even draw back to a previous response to make a connection.  What I wish I could have done more of is more strategically engage participants that did not contribute as much as others.

Post Reflection.  Immediately after each focus group I journal for at least 20 minutes.  There were two times that itme did not allow for this and I recording my thoughts on my cell phone on the drive home, which I transcribed later.  I reflected on how the conversation went, things I wanted to change for the next time, themes I was seeing, etc.  In qualitative research these can be formally referred to as memos, and coded along with participant responses.

Are you completing focus groups for your research?  Contemplating it for an assessment project?  I’d love to support your efforts.  Let me know in the comments below.

If you are still curious about my focus groups and methodology, I have provided more context on the next page.  Click “Page 2” below!   

For all content cited on this post, explore {here} for all references used on this blog.

*All images purchased from https://www.123rf.com

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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