Focus Groups

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Screenshot of the discussion of focus groups in the evaluation toolkit.Section 6 continues looking at data
collection methods. This page looks
at focus groups.

Read about the toolkit.

Focus groups can be a useful evaluation method for collecting qualitative data from group discussions. This webpage on focus groups addresses:

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What’s a focus group?

Focus groups are usually composed of individuals who are similar to one another on one or more factors of importance (e.g., parents of children with learning disabilities; high school special education teachers).

Ideally, participants should be “typical” or representative or key informants of the broader target audience you want to learn from. However, focus group findings cannot really be generalized to the larger target population.

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When to use a focus group

Focus groups are most effectively used when:

  • planning and designing program activities,
  • conducting needs assessments, and
  • obtaining information about experiences that individuals have with your program activities and dissemination efforts.

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What happens in a focus group?

In a focus group, a moderator follows a predetermined guide to direct a discussion among 5-10 people with the purpose of collecting in-depth qualitative information about the group members’:

  • perceptions,
  • attitudes,
  • opinions and suggestions,
  • experiences, and
  • resource needs on a defined topic or issue.

Focus groups obtain data with open-ended questions, in which participants influence and are influenced by the discussion within the group.

Focus groups are structured with an interview protocol or questioning route, in which questions are arranged in a natural and logical sequence. Often:

The beginning section of the protocol is intentionally broad and less structured, with a goal of learning about participants’ general perspectives.

The middle section of the protocol is usually more structured, with the goal of addressing the topics more systematically.

The final section tends to be narrower and is usually the most structured.

It is usually advisable to conduct more than one focus group to learn about a topic; two or more groups may be needed to ensure that a full spectrum of views and opinions is obtained.

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Advantages of using a focus group

Can provide insights about what participants think, as well as why they think it.

Can reveal consensus and diversity about participants’ needs, preferences, assumptions, and experiences.

Allows for group interaction such that participants are able to build on each other’s ideas and comments which can provide an in-depth view not attainable from questioning individuals one at a time.

Unexpected comments and perspectives can often be explored easily.

Can often be planned and organized more quickly, and produce information faster, than some other evaluation techniques – especially telephone and mailed questionnaires.

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Disadvantages of using a focus group

Samples of participants are typically small and thus may not be very representative of the larger target audience.

The logistics of gathering participants together in one place at the same time may be challenging and somewhat costly.

More outspoken individuals can dominate the discussion, making viewpoints and contributions from less assertive participants difficult to assess.

The quality of the discussion and the usefulness of information depend much on the skills of the moderator. The moderator’s job is to both encourage discussion and maintain focus. Too much moderator control may result in not obtaining participants’ input and perspectives, while too little control may result in the discussion veering off topic.

Can generate a large amount of qualitative data which can be difficult, complicated and resource demanding to analyze.

Analysis of the data collected may be more open to subjective, biased interpretation than is the case with quantitative data.

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Select participants who represent the target population, and who are comparable or somewhat similar on important demographic characteristics. For example, you might design a focus group to include only elementary school special education teachers to provide input and perspectives about their professional development needs. Or, you might want to conduct a focus group of parents of children with autism to identify effective ways to disseminate resources to them. Homogeneous groups can really help to create a sense of comfort, trust and compatibility among participants – and thus provide more useful input.

Limit the group size to between 5-10 individuals. This size generally facilitates opportunities for all to participate, while also providing diversity of input. Consider a smaller group when you need to obtain more depth and detail, or if participants are very involved with a topic and will likely have a lot to contribute.

Multiple focus groups? Sometimes project staff may want to conduct multiple focus groups in order to obtain adequate input and perspectives to answer key evaluation questions. Conducting a single focus group is often not sufficient; at minimum, a second group should be conducted to check on the consistency of findings obtained from the first group.

The focus group protocol should comprise a mix of general and more specific questions. If questions are too general, participants’ responses may not be adequately detailed, clear or useful. On the other hand, if questions are too specific, responses may not provide enough information about the main topics of interest. Follow-up probes for most focus group questions are often needed to clarify a question and have participants elaborate on their responses.

Select a moderator who has good group processing and interpersonal skills, and who reflects a non-judgmental approach. Usually, a moderator should represent the demographics of the participants; for example, a focus group of parents of children with severe cognitive disabilities should probably be moderated by another parent with a child with similar disabilities.

Digital or tape recording (either audio or video) is often used as the primary source of focus group data collection. However, recording can add significant costs (e.g., transcription service) and personnel time (e.g., detailed review and analysis of lengthy transcripts). As an alternative to digital or tape recording, an individual could serve as an observer and recorder, making sure to capture with detailed notes the comments and input provided during the discussion.

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Suggested citation

This webpage is an excerpt from the evaluation toolkit produced by NICHCY. The suggested citation is:

To the entire toolkit
Sawyer, R. (2012). Toolkit for the OSEP TA & D network on how to evaluate dissemination: A component of the dissemination initiative. Washington, DC: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

To this section/webpage on focus groups
Sawyer, R. (2012). Focus groups. In Toolkit for the OSEP TA & D network on how to evaluate dissemination: A component of the dissemination initiative (pp. 13-14). Washington, DC: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

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What section of the toolkit would you like to read now?

Introduction to the Toolkit

An Approach to Evaluating Dissemination

Formative Evaluation

Process Evaluation

Summative Evaluation

Data Collection Methods

Focus Groups (you’re already here!)



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