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Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning Focus Groups

Using Focus Groups for Program Assessment at WSU

For programs and departments wishing to assess the learning experiences of undergraduates in their majors, there are several different groups of students who might participate in focus groups, for different purposes. Examples of different purposes for focus groups include:

  • A group of seniors nearing graduation: focus groups provide an opportunity to ask a number of different program assessment questions about students’ overall experience of the major, such as students’ perceptions of how well pre-requisites prepared them for later classes
  • Assess experience of the first student cohort in a new curriculum mid-way through the curriculum, so that adjustments can be made, and again in the senior year
  • In response to results from other assessments, to add depth of understanding to other data

ATL-Facilitated Focus Groups

ATL offers three different focus group formats, each developed for specific contexts. ATL serves as the neutral third party to facilitate focus groups, consulting in advance to customize questions and topics that target the program’s assessment needs and fit with their overall assessment plan.

Traditional Focus Group
Facilitated discussion

An ATL assessment specialist facilitates a whole group discussion with students about their experiences in the program. Students respond to a set of questions that ATL and the program assessment team develop in advance.

ATL staff take notes of student responses (no recordings are made), without names.

ATL analyzes student responses and provides a summary report of themes that emerge, along with the focus group notes.

  • Works best with a fairly small group: 8-12 students, with a maximum of about 20 in a classroom setting
  • Requires 50-75 minutes
  • Facilitator manages safe space to maximize individual participation
  • Facilitator can follow up as needed: gently probe, ask clarifying questions, request examples, check agreement within the group, invite quieter students to participate, read non-verbal cues
  • Can provide rich qualitative data, going into depth where appropriate
Mixed Activities Focus Group
Several varied activities

In this format, ATL facilitates small-group activities designed to promote discussion and consensus —as well as allow for individual responses—about experiences in the program.

Customized by ATL, activities target topics or questions the program has.

ATL collects individual and group-consensus responses and provides a report with these responses.

  • Well-suited for class settings of 15-30 students
  • Requires 50-75 minutes
  • Works especially well in discussion-based classes where students have actively participated and are comfortable interacting in small groups
  • Small groups allow more students to participate than does a traditional focus group format
  • May also collect written individual responses, which allows students to provide sensitive feedback they may prefer not to share with peers
Team-based Focus Group
Online group responses

In this format, using a live, online discussion board, students work in groups to respond to questions that ATL and the program develop in advance.

This activity is geared to class settings where students have worked in established teams, inviting teams to shape their consensus responses to specific questions, while also allowing students to include some individual perspectives.

Teams give brief responses using a live group discussion board, and can also view other groups’ responses and express agreement or disagreement. This format collects group responses anonymously, posted by the team leader.

ATL provides a report with each team’s responses.

  • Well-suited for class settings of 35-100 students
  • Requires about 50 minutes
  • All discussion occurs in team setting, guided by a team leader who moderates discussion, builds consensus and posts responses
  • Works especially well in courses with established, successful student teams
  • Requires a room with monitor and each team or group to have a laptop and an effective leader
  • Team format allows more students to participate than does a traditional focus group format
  • Responses are brief (using a 140-character twitter format) and may discourage complex answers or detailed examples

Survey or Focus Group?

Some assessment questions can be better addressed using a survey than a focus group, so programs should consider the strengths of focus groups and of surveys. Some programs include a short survey at the end of the focus group, if there are questions better suited to that format.

PurposesSurveyFocus Group
To understand what, how often, to what extentX
To understand how or whyX
To get information from many people (100+)X
To test a new ideaX
To get feedback on a new ideaX
To contextualize survey findingsX
*Adapted from University of Hawai'i at Manoa Assessment Office

Resources for Focus Groups

ATL is available to conduct focus groups for undergraduate programs, contact us for additional information.

Program Spotlights Related to Focus Groups

Washington State University