Focus Groups As a Key Source of Data

February 15, 2014

There are many reasons schools need to collect data. Central office, building administrators, teachers and other staff all have requirements to record, monitor and report data. For the most part, the data that is being collected and reported is quantitative. For example, we are all looking at our attendance, pass rates and discipline referrals. These numbers are very useful, but there is another type of data that provides a different kind of information to schools, and I would argue that it is equally as valuable. This other type of data is called “qualitative data.”  

Qualitative data “approximates or characterizes but does not measure the attributes, characteristics or properties of a thing or phenomenon. Qualitative data describes whereas quantitative data defines” ( Qualitative data paints a picture with richness and depth; it allows one to understand deeply the issues at hand in a way that numbers alone cannot. Some researchers have described qualitative data as “everyday knowledge that stems from the terms and language people use to give meaning to their everyday world, whereas scientific knowledge involves the use of numerical measurement to test constructs and hypotheses” (McLafferty, 2004).


There are many ways of gathering qualitative data in a school, including interviews with parents, staff or students; conducting surveys, reviewing student writing samples and projects; and conducting focus groups. This brief will be limited to the focus group (a scientific qualitative research method) and the ways in which it can be a valuable tool for school administrators.


What is a Focus Group?

A focus group is defined as “a semi-structured group session, moderated by a group leader, held in an informal setting, with the purpose of collecting information on a designated topic” (McLafferty, 2004). There are three main components of a focus group as a form of gathering qualitative data: (1) a method of collecting data; (2) interaction as a means to generate data; and (3) the active role of the researcher or moderator in creating group discussion for data collection. In a focus group, the consumer is regarded as the expert, and the generation of data is dependent on the dynamic interaction between participants (Kitzinger, 1996). Focus groups allow the moderator to acquire knowledge about participants’ experiences, meaning and understandings, as well as about their attitudes, opinions, knowledge and beliefs regarding a particular topic of interest.


A focus group is intended to encourage a group of people with specific attributes or commonalities to provide descriptive data related to the research topic in a comfortable environment, under the facilitation of a moderator and through group discussion (Cheng, 2002). Participants are encouraged to converse with each other in an informal way, so the composition of the group is very important. The main advantage of using a focus group versus an individual interview, is the power of the interaction between individuals as a means to generate data.

Size and number of sessions. Researchers have not reached a formal agreement about the optimal size of a focus group. Opinions range from four to twelve people per group, and there is agreement that the size is dependent on the purpose of the focus group (Cheng, 2002). The number of people is correlated with the amount and quality of collected data. A focus group with four people will not yield the same quality of data as a twelve-person group (Fern, 1982). In contrast, if the group is too large, it may be difficult to moderate and maintain focus during the session (Morgan, 1998).


Focus Groups in Schools

Focus groups have been used extensively in practical fields such as education and business for more than 30 years (Cheng, 2002). Focus groups can be used by themselves, or in combination with other forms of data collection including surveys or observation.

Focus groups have been used in schools in many ways, including:

  • As a teaching strategy that involves teleconferencing and involving a distance learning component in order to explore a particular issue and generate maximum participation by students in the class

  • As a means to develop a questionnaire. For example, a focus group with teachers could aid administrators in developing a parent questionnaire by increasing understanding of the critical issues at hand

  • A series of focus groups with different groups on different occasions for the purpose of allowing each group to challenge ideas from the other groups in order to reach consensus for a project

  • As a way to evaluate student performance by sharing qualitative data about students


Designing Focus Group Questions

The content, wording and order of the focus group questions is also important to consider. According to Krueger & Casey (2000), the focus group questions should follow these guidelines:

  • Questions are understandable by participants

  • Questions are clear and simple

  • Questions are as colloquial as daily conversations

  • Questions can be easily recited

  • Questions should be open-ended

  • Each question should target only one element

The following sequence is recommended for the focus group questions:

Opening: Discussion of ground rules; the moderator and each participant introduce       themselves

- Introductory questions: aim to establish participants’ connection with the topic

 -Transfer questions: serve as the bridge between the introductory questions and the        key questions

-Key questions: the core of the focus group interview questions

-Specific questions: the moderator can use these questions to gain a deeper understanding.

-Closing question: ask participants to make a conclusions and confirm the answers provided earlier

-Final question: ask participants to provide suggestions and opinions about the topic.

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