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Exploring focus groups with adolescent students.

Abstract

Many educational action researchers use interviews as a method for gathering data. However, these interviews are usually on an individual basis and do not capture interactions between participants in the way focus groups can. In this paper some advantages and challenges of conducting locus groups with adolescents are discussed using examples from an investigation of a senior high school personal development program.

Introduction

Good teaching involves being reflective and seeking feedback from stakeholders. Often the most important stakeholders that educators can consult are their students. This consultation enables educators to be reflective about their practice, while providing students with a voice in the education process. Inviting students into the feedback process fits comfortably with the inclusive focus of action research where those least powerful are the starting point for an investigation. Yet the best way to include these important participants in research is often a challenge presented to classroom-based researchers. While there is a broad range of research methods used by action researchers, not all are suitable for classroom-based research with all student groups. The tendency to favor methods of observation, individual interviews and reviewing documents in educational action research can restrict the scope of classroom investigations (Stringer, 2004). For example, many group processes and interactions cannot be captured from the participant's perspective using these methods.

However, there are methods that do allow such behaviors to be captured, and the focus group is the most recognized of these. Focus groups, a means for collecting data on a set topic using group interaction (Morgan, 1997), are one approach which enables researchers to bc flexible and interactive with participants during the investigative process (Berg, 2004). While focus groups have been used extensively in health and business (sec Morgan, 1997 for a review), their application in education is often underestimated because there is a tendency to associate them with the advertising industry, particularly with market research (Esterberg, 2002). In this paper some of the advantages and challenges for classroom-based researchers using focus groups with adolescents are presented. These characteristics are discussed using examples from a study conducted with adolescents that utilized focus groups as the only means of data collection.

The current study

This study used focus groups to investigate the strengths and areas of need in a senior high school personal development program. The program, referred to as coaching, consisted of a weekly one hour class where students could participant in a range of activities aimed at fostering positive relationships between students and teachers, increasing students' knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses, and providing a 'downtime' from academic lessons. The implementation of this program had been based on what the teachers believed was required in the school and involved no formal consultation with the students who would be the consumers of the program. After the program had been running for a term, some of the school staff felt it was important to evaluate it. This was not only important in terms of providing the right opportunities for students based on what they perceived as their needs, but was also necessary for providing staff with direction for the program. Providing evidence from research about the students' perceptions of, and wants for, the program was seen as a way of raising motivation for students and staff The sample for this study consisted of 34 students (18 male, 16 female) from one senior high school in Australia. Students ranged in age from 16- to 19-years-old. A total of six focus groups were conducted with this sample. A range of cultural backgrounds were represented in the sample and all participants were competent speakers of English.

The facilitator of the focus groups was a teacher from a different campus and was not familiar to the participants. This approach was adopted because teachers at the school did not feel confident conducting the focus groups on their own. A disadvantage of this arrangement was that the facilitator did not know the students' names or interaction styles at the start of the focus groups, was not very familiar with the program that was being discussed and was seen as "just another person coming into the school to conduct research". The advantage in having someone from outside the school conduct the focus groups was that students felt they could speak freely in the group without any negative consequences for themselves.

All focus groups were conducted in a private staff area of the school. While no focus group was run in exactly the same way, because all presented different group dynamics and experiences, the same key questions were used for each group. These set questions were a mixture of open and closed questions. An hour was allocated for each focus group to fit with the length of lessons on the school's timetable. The same ground rules were set for each group, being the general rules of polite communication such as turn taking, no offensive language and respecting different opinions. All focus groups were audio recorded and all recordings were later transcribed.

The advantages and challenges that emerged

Focus groups are often thought of as only being appropriate for adults because of their historic use in marketing research, yet when the social and cognitive developmental needs of adolescents are considered, focus groups can be very effective with adolescent samples. For example, focus groups enable adolescents to participate in groups with their peers, an important consideration given peer groups help create a sense of belonging for adolescents (Emler & Reicher, 1995). For most adolescents more time is spent with peers than family during adolescence, with the peer group being important for shaping a sense of status (Ausubel, Montemayer & Svajian, 1977) and conformity to peer norms (Brown, Clasen & Eicher, 1986). Indeed in this study students emphasized that a weakness in the coaching program being investigated was that grouping was not based on friendships as expressed by the following male student: "Most of the time you go to coaching you can't hang with your friends. You can't choose what groups. They don't put you with friends, they just put you with whoever." Allowing friends to be together in a focus group can increase a sample size substantially because adolescents will often not attend an activity if they cannot be in the company of their friends.

Focus groups can be viewed as a collaborative approach to research, involving participants and the researcher in what Field (2000) refers to as a "collective identity" (p. 325). While researchers are often perceived to have power during an individual interview, during a focus group there is an interaction that places everyone on a "more even footing with each other and the investigator" (Berg, 2004, p. 127). This sense of equity appeals particularly to older adolescents as they move towards adulthood and independence. Adolescents want to participate in activities that enable equity in their relationships and allow all enjoyment as the following student expressed when asked what teachers should be like during coaching: "It is also fun if the teachers get involved and do what teachers don't do. It makes it fun. It should be for the teachers as well." A well managed focus group can create this sense of involvement, equity and, depending on the topic, enjoyment. None of the participants in this study were reluctant to share their thoughts and feelings when in the focus group context. A number actually commented that they had enjoyed the experience and asked if they could come back and talk about other aspects of their schooling. This is a common response from participants who have not always felt they can express their views, and indeed, some researchers have found that these types of participants are often so overwhelmed by the opportunity to share their views that they can become focused on sharing all issues of concern rather than just those that are the topic of focus (Osborne & Collins, 2001).

When participants are overwhelmed by the opportunity to share in a focus group it can lead to breaches of the ground rules, particularly turn taking. Avoiding such situations requires a strong facilitator who can keep the ground rules in focus and also careful sampling for each focus group. While the literature is varied about what is the ideal number of participants for a focus group, 10 participants are commonly suggested as appropriate (Berg, 2004). In the current study a group of 10 adolescent participants was found to be too large, making the enforcement of ground rules difficult. This difficulty was not because participants were disrespectful of each other, rather, their enthusiasm to share caused them to forget to take turns. A group of five to six participants worked more effectively and it is recommended based on this study that when conducting focus groups with adolescents groups should be smaller than the size suggested for adult samples in the literature.

During adolescence self-identity is developing and is nurtured by exploring the experiences, views and beliefs of others in a variety of ways. Through a focus group participants can be given an opportunity to share with their friends multiple insights in a respectful and inclusive manner, often on topics they would not normally talk about when in their friendship groups. This characteristic of focus groups fits comfortably with the suggestion that data gathering in action research is most effective when individuals are given the opportunity to "explore their experiences interactively" and are given power in the research process (Stringer, 2004, p. 76). Within a focus group there is more than just an opportunity to gather information, there is a process where participants can increase their understanding of the phenomena under investigation as well as each other interactively. For classroom-based researchers working with adolescents this means a focus group can be an ideal opportunity to challenge the egocentrism that often characterizes the thoughts of adolescents.

Recruiting for focus groups can be a challenge for any researcher and over recruiting by one or two participants is always recommended (Stringer, 2004). It was found in this study that adolescent samples require over recruiting by three or four participants per focus group. While 50 students were recruited for this study, only 34 eventually attended a focus group. Indeed, for one focus group only two participants attended making the experience that of an individual interview rather than focus group. Even with a fellow teacher reminding participants and "chasing them up" at the start of a group, participation was low. Despite suggestions that data saturation is reached after three to four focus groups (Vaughan, Schumm and Siaguh, 1996), this can only occur if all the focus groups consist of a suitable number of participants. Despite having six focus groups in this study, not all aspects of the questioning were saturated and it is suggested that this occurred because some groups did not achieve the same level of interaction as others. In action research data collection is more effective when participants can explore experiences in an interactive way (Stringer, 2004), and only when recruitment for focus groups is managed appropriately can this be achieved. Hence, based on this study appropriate recruitment practices need to include grouping friends, using small groups and over recruiting.

Flexibility and efficiency are frequently mentioned as strengths of the focus group method (Berg, 2004). For example, focus groups can be held in a variety of settings and enable a large amount of data to be gathered in a short period of time. For the classroom teacher this means that evidence can be gathered quickly, does not require participation from all class members and can occur easily within the school setting. While the preferred approach for running focus groups is to have a facilitator as well as someone to take notes, in this study the facilitator was able to do both. This was achieved by using an audio recorder for the verbal interactions, shorthand notes when necessary and the use of concrete prompting materials. For example, participants were shown a series of words and asked to group them along a continuum. All the materials used in this activity were on laminated cards that could be left on the continuum until after the group finished and the results were recorded. Naturally it was not possible to record all of the non-verbal communication that occurred during the session, however, given the topic of the focus groups in this study non-verbal communication was not considered important. While it is acknowledged that in the ideal focus group situation a facilitator and note taker would be present, it is possible to gather sufficient data and maintain a healthy focus group discussion with just a facilitator.

While there are many advantages to using focus groups, there are some limitations that need to be considered by the classroom-based researcher. Firstly, the data gathered from a focus group will not be as deep as that gathered from longer, more structured interviews (Berg, 2004). Researchers need to carefully consider the depth of detail they require before considering the focus group method. Secondly, sensitive and personal topics are often not appropriate to discuss in groups (Strickland, 1999). If the researcher feels uncomfortable discussing the topic in front of strangers than there is every chance the participants will feel the same way. This point is magnified when working with adolescents who are reluctant to talk to adults about many aspects of their personal lives but will often share about educational matters (Osborne & Collins, 2001). Hence, a locus group approach can be useful for eliciting students' opinions about teaching styles, class content and structure, and extra curricula activities, but less suitable for exploring student relationships, outside school activities and family concerns.

Another limitation of focus groups can be the transcription of audio-recorded data. Transcription is by far the most time consuming aspect of the focus group method (Rice & Ezzy, 1999). Generally it takes between two to three hours to transcribe every hour of recorded data. Given the time constraints on most educators the idea of spending time transcribing is often a major deterrent from an activity like a focus group. However, there are a number of ways that the transcription load can be reduced for a researcher. Firstly, if questions are very focused and require a small range of answers the facilitator can often note these during the interview process. Secondly, an activity like the word task used in this study enables the researcher to jot down very short points during the interview. Often the researcher can print a list of the words prior to the interview that can then be ticked off during the session reducing further the volume of writing to be completed during the focus group. Another way of reducing the transcription load is to ask the group to summarize the main points discussed for each issue and for the researcher to document these as they are shared. If the researcher does not need to provide specific quotes from participants or lengthy responses, generating these summaries can be an efficient way of reducing the time demands of transcribing.

Conclusion

Focus groups provide researchers with an approach to data collection that is flexible, efficient and collaborative. While more commonly used with adults, focus groups can be very effective with adolescent samples if the following are considered. Firstly, larger samples can be recruited when adolescents are allowed to participate in groups with their friends. These groups tend to be more productive if they are small, consisting of five to six participants. Secondly, it is important to over recruit for each focus group by at least three or four participants. It is also important to consider a strong facilitator for each focus group who can maintain the discussion on the focus issue and ensure ground rules are respected. Finally, if questions are structured appropriately, a facilitator can effectively conduct a focus group without the need for a note taker.

References

Ausubel, D., Montemayor, R., & Svajian, P. (1977). Theory and problems of adolescent development. New York, NY: Grune and Stratton.

Berg, B. L. (2004). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Brown, B., Clasen, D., & Etcher, S. (1986). Perceptions of peer pressure, peer conformity dispositions and self-reported behaviour among adolescents. Development Psychology, 22, 521-530.

Emler, N., & Reicher, S. (1995). Adolescence and delinquency: The collective management of reputation. Oxford: Blackwell.

Esterberg, K. G. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Field, J. (2000). Researching lifelong learning through focus groups. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 24, 323-335.

Morgan. D. L. (1997). Focus groups as qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Osborne, J., & Collins, S. (2001). Pupils' views of the role and value of science curriculum: a focus-group study. International Journal of Science Education, 23, 441-467.

Rice, P. L., & Ezzy, D. (1999). Qualitative research methods. A health focus. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Strickland, C. J. (1999). Conducting focus groups cross-culturally: experiences with Pacific Northwest Indian People. Public Health Nursing, 16, 190-197.

Stringer, E. (2004). Action research in education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Vaughan, S., Schumm, J. S., & Siaguh, J. M. (1996). Focus groups in education and psychology. London: Sage.

Diane Louise Szarkowicz, Charles Darwin University, Australia

Diane Szarkowicz, PHD., is a lecturer and register psychologist in the School of Education, Charles Darwin University
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Author:Szarkowicz, Diane Louise
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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