Data Collection–Focus Groups
CAVEAT LECTOR: This resource is intended as a brief introduction to a data collection strategy that can yield useful and actionable information about student learning. If you are interested in exploring focus group methodology in more detail, please visit SAGE Research Methods.
A focus group is a data collection strategy with which to gather information from and about a purposefully selected group of participants through facilitated conversation. Krueger (2004) defines a focus group as “a limited number of homogenous participants, discussing a predetermined topic, within a permissive and nonthreatening environment” (p. 391). Some researchers use focus groups to study conversation itself, but generally, focus groups are content- or topic-specific. The focused conversation creates an opportunity for researchers to get an in-depth look at participants’ knowledge of, attitudes about, the topic being investigated. In addition, researchers often use focus groups to “complement or augment other methods, such as the development of a survey instrument” (Krueger, 2004, p. 392). A primary benefit of this strategy is the potential to reduce perceptions of risk that might occur during one-on-one interviews. In addition, focus groups encourage participants to interact with one another, which can lead to insights the researcher might not discover using other methods.
During the planning phase, researchers identify the participants they believe will provide insight into the questions, and decide how many groups to hold. Rather than use statistical formulae to determine an appropriate sample size, focus group researchers aim for theoretical saturation, which is the point after which further data collection will not yield new insights. Practically, it is helpful to note that thematic redundancy “tends to occur regularly after 3 or 4 groups with one audience” (Krueger, 2004, p. 392).
Group homogeneity is an important factor to consider when recruiting participants (Bloor, Frankland, Thomas, & Robson, 2001; Davies, 2010; Kitzinger, 1995; Morgan, 2008, 2012). An example of group homogeneity could be students from a degree program
“In general, focus group researchers tend to adopt homogeneous focus groups. It is crucial that the participants in a focus group share some of the social and cultural backgrounds or have similar lived experiences, or some combination of these. Homogeneous groups are appropriate when the researchers wish to generate insight into the thoughts or experience about a specific issue of the participants.” (Liamputtong, 2011, p. 34).
Ultimately, recruitment should be informed by, and reflect, the researcher’s guiding question (Bloor et al., 2001). Therefore, if the goal is to explore a topic in depth, homogenous grouping is likely to be more effective.
Successful recruitment for focus groups is: personalized, repeated, and incentivized (Krueger, 2004). Personalized recruitment encourages potential participants to feel like they have been intentionally invited to share opinions and insights. Sending repeated invitations echoes the sense that researchers are interested in what potential participants have to offer. Offering incentives (e.g., food, gifts, money) is another recruitment strategy to consider.
Other resources for focus groups
Using focus groups in evaluation and research (the informal education homepage)