3. Utilising the student cohort as focus groups

A more structured and controlled environment can also be of use when assessing the needs and characteristics of a postgraduate degree programme. For example, focus groups can offer an appropriate interaction between the department and its students while allowing the group to discuss ideas and reach agreement on key aspects of the issue. This not only offers a better framework for future research, but also gives a more in-depth perception of the way students receive, analyse and express ideas about the subject, together with their flexibility and reaction to new and innovative methods of knowledge distribution.

However, like any other research method, focus groups require careful planning and are a labour-intensive process. Fortunately, a variety of specific and detailed ‘how to’ guides exist to assist researchers embarking on a focus group project; these address some of the more theoretical issues associated with the focus group methodology.

The advantages of using a focus group consist of the freedom that the group has to discuss ideas important to it, rather than to the department, and the unstructured or semi-structured nature of the discussions. As a technique that collects data through group interaction, focus groups in most cases do not constitute the only basis for a complete analysis. They need careful planning and organising to ensure that the highest quality results are obtained.

In terms of efficiency, focus groups are located between participation observation and individual interviewing and as such they present a balanced outcome. Their structured but not fully controlled environment offers a valuable source of insights into complex behaviour and motivations. However, time constraints have to be taken into account and if only from this point of view, they make an excellent choice for fast qualitative data collection. This is not to say that other methods are less functional; if anything, using focus groups with individual interviews for instance, can give more value and increase the quality of the data gathered. Preliminary, unstructured individual interviews before a focus group can therefore point the department in the right direction in terms of the way students might think and feel about a postgraduate degree. From there, the information can be used when conducting the focus groups, with key elements being woven into the discussion.

When considering the composition and structure of a focus group there are some key general elements to bear in mind. They should be small enough to manage, but large enough to allow a variety of ideas, opinions, attitudes, beliefs and preferences to be expressed, argued and developed. As well as their size it is important to consider the differences among potential contributors, such that the group’s dynamic depends upon the membership’s background, education and interest in the topic. Keeping this in mind, if using current undergraduates within the department, it is worth considering having students from different courses and from different cultural and social backgrounds to illustrate the potentially different levels of interest in a postgraduate degree. As most universities and departments stress the importance of diversity this should be easily achieved. Consideration should be given to any differences between students with arrangements to facilitate comfortable conversations without inhibiting students or causing off-topic arguments. Finally, ideas discussed during a focus group are likely to generate new ones, even days after the meeting. Thus, making sure participants feel comfortable about getting in touch and expressing these ideas is vital.

Even if a focus group provides a rich insight into the students’ behaviour and motivation, it has to be noted that as a research method it has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, it helps to determine needs, evaluate programmes and the effectiveness of a particular curriculum topic. However, generating new ideas and analysing them as a direct result of the group environment can also bring into the equation a substantial level of subjectivity. Focus groups are particularly sensitive to cultural variables so the composition and dynamic of each group should ensure that the participants have something to say about the topic and feel comfortable speaking to each other. For best results, it is suggested that focus groups should be used to elicit information that can guide future work, but not determine it.

Focus groups offer a wide picture of participants’ thinking in a relatively short time and can be used as a preparation tool for surveys; they provide data necessary to reduce invalidity within a survey through ensuring that the questions mean the same to both the questioner and questioned. Providing insights into question wording will define the quality of the data obtained from a survey. Thus it is important to consider how to express an idea in a way that resonates with students while minimising questions and confusion, using students’ vocabulary and taking notice of students’ priorities when considering a postgraduate degree etc. The focus group should be thought of as a social experience and it has to maintain an informal, conversational environment; using jargon could confuse, inhibit and discourage participants from expressing their ideas.

Another aspect to remember when using focus groups is that the results will be influenced by the number of students taking part in the exercise. This is usually small so generalising the findings can be a difficult task. Hence, a possible solution is to follow up focus groups with either quantitative research methods or to expand their use by incorporating technology in the research. Traditionally, focus groups take place face to face, but now online forums and groups can be used to transfer the function of a focus group to an online community. The advantages of such a media are, first, the disappearance of the time factor. Once a question/topic has been posted users can take their time in replying, which in return potentially offers a richer insight and a more detailed response to the topic. Secondly, this method makes it easier to reach users/students located all over the world, giving the research more authenticity and making generalisation easier. However, the use of online platforms means that it is not possible to analyse, and reflect, on body language during discussions.

One way to put into practice the focus group idea is to use students who have already demonstrated a commitment to the department, for example, through being members of the Student Staff Liaison Committee and/or members of other departmental societies and thereby illustrating an active involvement and interest in all aspects of academic life. The groups would then have a semi-structured style, with the moderators guiding the participants along the way. Indeed, there are several questioning strategies that allow moderators to subtly influence the group process: leading questions, factual questions, anonymous questions, obtuse questions, testing questions, feelings questions and summary questions. Beyond aiming to generate questions for each of these types, it is worth incorporating both factual and personal, objective and subjective types of questions.