The purpose of this article is to present an overview of the use of focus groups as a source of data in higher education, especially in doctoral programs. The need for emerging scholars to develop experience in using focus groups to collect data is important to their development of their research study. The challenges that emerging researchers have in securing focus group participants may lead to a need for more guidance and practice in conducting focus groups. One focus group conducted well may be better than two or more that are less effective. A quality focus group has participants who are individually and collectively eager and willing to share (Mathena, 2017). A focus group should be a dialogue between participants. Focus groups are best when anticipating comprehensive discussion (Duwe, 2017). Such dialogue may improve when participants are socially and intellectually homogeneous (Lorrain, 2020).
A focus group is an interview format consisting of multiple participants assembled for a specific purpose (Krueger & Casey, 2000). Emerging researchers may use a focus group protocol to guide the data collection. Focus group data consists of transcripts, commonly analyzed thematically. A focus group can be more structured or less structured, depending on the purpose. The purpose of a focus group is to explore the phenomenon of a research study. The focus group as a data source for a dissertation may explore different aspects of the phenomenon from individual interviews. The focus group may probe details that emerged from the individual interviews. In this article, we present guidelines for doctoral learners to use focus groups effectively in data collection for the dissertation.
Focus groups in general
A focus group can consist of any number that the researcher defines as a group, from three to 12 participants being common. As with individual interviews, focus group sessions generally last no more than 90 minutes out of consideration for the participants’ time. A focus group should be, in keeping with the name, focused; trying to cover too much material or too many topics will reduce the depth and breadth of the discussion. A researcher who needs to cover more material or more topics should use more than one focus group. The structure of a focus group should enable answering each of the research question in a study (Reifer, 2001).
A focus group can provide a researcher with an opportunity to probe more deeply ideas or themes that emerged from individual interviews and is useful for gathering data from difficult populations or those that might feel unsafe (Anderson, 2020). A focus group may also be useful in trying to reconcile conflicting ideas from individual interviews or responses from questionnaires or surveys. Researchers also use one or more focus groups to discover perspectives from the interaction between participants that would not emerge from individual interviews (Tsan et al., 2022).
Focus group questions have a collective rather than an individual focus (Bourgeois, 2016). A focus group may address research questions distinct from other data sources (Cron, 2020). The questions can emerge from responses from other data sources (Isome & Filtz, 2018). Focus groups can help refine other data sources (Aiman, 2020) or uncover different interpretations of questions (Williams, 2020).
Focus groups provide an opportunity to expand on data gathered previously by the researcher for the dissertation. Focus groups may provide more depth in response to questions than individual interviews (Weaver, 2007). Focus group questions can allow participants to expand on interview question responses (Sedlock, 2020).
Interaction between participants can yield data not available through other data sources (Isome & Filtz, 2018). The direction of a focus group can shift based on the responses and reactions of the participants (Markantonakis, 2019). Focus groups should balance the need for homogeneity among participants that increases comfort in speaking up within the group. However, diversity of opinions, interest, and involvement with the topic is necessary to achieve a sense of data saturation and may lead to variability in the level of participant contribution (Kitzinger & Barbour, 2001; Morgan, 1998).
Moderating focus groups
Effective moderation of a focus group requires training and practice. Although the moderator may have passion and excitement for the topic, the purpose of the focus group is to extract the perceptions of the participants and not to provide a platform for the moderator to try to impress the participants. An effective moderator facilitates discussion by the participants and does not allow one or more participants to dominate the discussion or to unreasonably sway the other participants. The number of themes that may emerge from a focus group will be fewer than from individual interviews. Findings will tend to be subjective opinions, particularly if the researcher does not maintain neutrality in reporting the data (Krueger & Casey, 2000; Morgan, 1998).
The collective nature of a focus group may seem unnatural, in part because the discussion has a formal moderator (Kitzinger & Barbour, 2001). Some participants may not have extensive experience in group discussions with potential strangers. As a result, the collective discussion within some focus groups may suppress deep expression of experiences and opinions found in individual interviews (Kitzinger & Barbour, 2001; Morgan, 1998) and enhance those expressions in others. The moderator has less control in a focus group environment than in individual interviews. The moderator, who is often the researcher, may need to reiterate or rephase the original question to mitigate digressions in the conversation (Ho, 2006). The experience of the moderator may be a factor in the robustness of the data from the focus group (Ho, 2006). Moderators need to be skilled at getting participation from all members, which will help avoid one or more participants feeling that the participation was a waste of time.
Conducting doctoral-level focus groups
A doctoral dissertation is a unique form of academic research. This type requires skills that may not be present in novice researchers. Some of these missing skills may include leading group discussions, gathering data in a group setting, and getting all members to participate. Doctoral researchers may also struggle with keeping the focus group discussion moving along and knowing when to move on to a new topic. A focus group provides an opportunity for participants to discuss and debate new ideas and perspectives and create new approaches (Young, 2018). A more structured focus group protocol establishes a sense of flow to the discussion.
Focus group protocols
A focus group protocol should anticipate generic questions likely to arise from the completion of other data collection such as interviews. However, as the researcher analyzes those earlier data sources, the protocol should be refined to reflect what has just emerged. A focus group protocol should include prompts to moderate continued discussion and aid saturation. The academic literature supports the concept of data saturation in focus groups as the point when a researcher has collected sufficient data.
The focus group protocol should have a maximum of 12 primary questions, not including probing or follow-up questions (Duwe, 2017). Once the researcher senses that the participants are growing weary of the current discussion, it may be beyond the point at which the researcher should have moved to the next topic. A focus group protocol may not be finalized until after earlier data collection steps are complete.
Data saturation within a focus group may appear within a topic rather than in the broader discussion. For the doctoral researcher, recognizing data saturation is challenging. The focus group discussion should continue past where saturation is first perceived (Cron, 2020). However, saturation may only be noticed during coding of the focus group transcripts (Franks, 2020). The mood of the focus group participants may be the most practical indication of data saturation.
The researcher can confirm data saturation by reading and re-reading transcripts and developing initial codes. Data saturation may be harder to detect across multiple focus groups than single focus groups. Data saturation within one focus group can be obtained when participants have no additional ideas to contribute (Cron, 2020). During thematic analysis, coding stops when no new codes emerge (Duwe, 2017) and may indicate data saturation. It is possible, that the researcher may realize that the initial set of generated codes may not be sufficient to address the research questions, so the researcher may want to have an alternate focus group available.
Size and number of focus groups
A focus group should be small enough to allow for rich and deep data analysis. To prepare for the focus group, the researcher should over-recruit by 20% to 50% to allow for attrition, including an allowance for needing more than one focus group, if necessary, to reach data saturation. If more data is needed after one focus group, the researcher may need to do at least one more (Lorrain, 2020). Focus groups that are too small may have domination problems and larger focus groups are difficult for novice researchers to moderate.
Focus groups should last between 60 and 90 minutes to capture robust data (Joyner-Payne, 2020). A focus group consisting of two to 12 participants seems to be typical for dissertation research. Larger focus groups can become unwieldy for the novice researcher. The researcher will want to make sure that every participant has a chance to contribute.
The purpose of a focus group is to contribute rich data to answer the research questions. Novice researchers need to understand that the number of focus groups is less important than the quality of the data from the focus group. Sufficient data can be extracted from one focus group if that focus group is structured and moderated appropriately.
Dr. Donna Graham is a university professor and dissertation chair. Dr. Graham holds a BA in psychology and education from Rosemont College, a MS in counseling from Villanova University, a MEd in educational technology from Rosemont College, and a doctorate in philosophy from Capella University.
Dr. John Bryan is a university professor, editor, and dissertation chair. Dr. Bryan holds a BA in chemistry from University of California, San Diego, an MBA in operations and marketing from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DBA in leadership from the University of Phoenix.
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