Focus groups provide a way to get feedback about student experiences, perceptions, and motivations, and can provide insight into the ways a curriculum can be most effectively designed to support student learning.

In Spring 2017, ATL worked with Dr. Desmond Layne, Director of Agricultural and Food Systems (AFS), to pilot a new focus group activity designed to elicit feedback on capstone students’ project team interactions with their industry partners. While traditional focus groups typically involve a facilitated whole group discussion, ATL’s pilot activity used a live online discussion board where teams leveraged their experience in group decision-making to respond to questions. 

Focus Group Team Format. The AFS project teams met in their regular classroom, where they responded to seven questions about their industry partner experience, posting group responses to Today’s Meet, a web-based, live classroom discussion board. One member of each team, posting under a nickname to afford anonymity, was chosen to post the group’s responses using a laptop. As responses were posted, teams were able to view and comment on other teams’ replies. There was a robust noise level in the room as teams discussed issues and formulated their responses. This activity is particularly geared to classes where students have worked in established teams.

Advantages and Opportunities. Positive features of this alternative focus group approach include an engaging online format, and the fact that posted responses provide a transcript of the session, with the data easily cleaned and organized, resulting in a quick turnaround of results by ATL to the program.

The online format offers other advantages over a traditional focus group. In this activity, student groups participate anonymously and their responses are posted, rather than spoken aloud. In traditional focus groups, some people may be reluctant to voice contrary opinions or may feel intimidated by dominant voices within the room. The team approach also allows more students to participate than in a regular focus group setting where only one student is talking at any given time. This format is especially valuable for collecting feedback in a larger class setting.

According to AFS Director Desmond Layne, “This was a completely worthwhile use of an entire class period because it generated anonymous and honest feedback from student teams about their capstone project and partner experience. It generated compelling information when summarized that resulted in us making actual improvements for the course offered now (Spring 2018). In particular, based on student feedback, we have opted to increase the number and frequency of self/peer evaluations, we’ve chosen to eliminate some guest speakers and we’ll take steps to ensure that industry partners and instructors have better alignment in expectations regarding the quality of project deliverables. Student feedback also suggested that the on-site visit with the industry partner occur earlier in the semester.”

Capstone courses, such as the example above, can be a particularly rich setting to collect input from seniors. ATL offers a variety of focus group type activities, to fit the given course context and program assessment questions. To learn more about these focus group activities, see the Using Focus Groups for Program Assessment at WSU webpage. For a more comprehensive and in-depth description of focus groups, see ATL’s Student Focus Groups for Program Assessment: Guidelines for Programs and contact ATL for more information.