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Program Review Resources

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SAUP Program Review: Focus Group Primer

Many SAUP program reviews will include focus groups because of their power and flexibility in gathering customer and constituent opinions, perceptions, responses, etc.

Focus Group Description

A focus group is a gathering of 8-12 unit constituents assembled to discuss unit performance through moderated discussion. The focus group discussion is purposeful, yet informal. It is truly a discussion.

  • Questions are prepared in advance but not held to legalistically
  • There is always a focus group moderator and at least one note taker
  • Focus groups for program reviews are not recorded on audio or video tape
  • Normally, more than one focus group is conducted for a given review
  • A focus group is not a survey, not all questions must be answered by all participants

Functions of Groups

  • Encourage each person to speak his/her mind
  • Develop an understanding of the "language" of unit constituents
  • Determine perceptions and misconceptions
  • Explore terms and concepts thoroughly
  • Ask "why?"
  • Hear the unit's "story" from the group's perspective
  • Generate ideas for unit improvement

Often, a focus group is used before a survey so that the research-able concepts introduced by the members of the focus group can be studied on a broader scale.

What a Focus Group is NOT

  • A statistically reliable survey
  • Research of a representative sample
  • A gripe session
  • A lecture
  • A source of statistical conclusions

Steps in Planning a Focus Group Session

  • Arrange time, date, and location
  • Determine 12-20+ participants who share a common connection with the Unit
  • Send out initial invitation letters 4 weeks in advance
  • Arrange for light refreshments
  • Make telephone follow-up calls
  • Determine participants and send reminder e-mail
  • Complete work on questions and strategy
  • Send final reminder e-mail one week prior

Focus Group Moderator Strategies

  • Use an inverse pyramid approach to questions
    • Start with broad, "soft" questions
      • What do you think are the one or two most important ways in which the department has helped you do your job most effectively?
      • What is the most fulfilling aspect about your interaction with the department?
      • What are ways in which the department seems to understand your needs? What about ways in which they don't appear to understand?
  • Work toward more specific questions and questions that may be more emotionally charged
    • Let's talk about your last interaction with a representative of the department. How did it go? Was your problem solved quickly?
    • Were you made to feel important?
    • Which of the department's policies or procedures make sense to you? Which don't?
  • Develop ways for the people to relax
    • Refreshments, opening icebreaker, introductions, etc.
    • Promise to start and end on time (90 minutes tops)
    • Assure individual confidentiality/anonymity
  • Be alert – look for opportunities to ask follow-up questions or pursue topics initiated by the group members
  • Spread the conversation around, don't be afraid to call on the quiet ones and gently interrupt the dominators
  • Remember the goal is to harvest perceptions, ideas, concepts, etc.
  • Assure the members of the group that their opinions matter. (In fact, their opinions are all that matter in a focus group such as this.)

Sample Focus Group Questions

  • Let's talk about how you interact with the department. What does that usually look like?
  • What are stories you can share that illustrate the department's strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are areas in which the department doesn't seem to understand your particular needs?
  • If you were put in charge of the department, what's the first change you would implement?
  • As a group, let's see if we can list the top 7 strengths of the department along with the top 7 ways in which the department could improve.