Focus groups can be an invaluable tool to add to an arts researcher or arts advocate’s repertoire. They can help to clarify stakeholders’ experiences, perceptions, and opinions about the arts and school field trips, and can help to make insightful recommendations for the next field trip intervention in that community. Conducting focus groups can give additional context to quantitative study results and ensures that intervention participants feel heard, and that their feedback is important to the success of the intervention. It also gives participants an opportunity to interact face-to-face with organization representatives or program evaluators so that trust can be built and maintained.
Here I am only writing from my experience with post-intervention interviews for K12 arts field trip studies, but researchers or institutions could also consider conducing focus groups before or during an intervention, to learn how an arts field trip experience is being received or how perceptions might change over time. Before inviting interviewees like school principals, teachers or students to a focus group, there is much to consider to ensure that the focus groups are a valuable experience for both the interviewer and the participants.
How to Plan for an Effective Focus Group
When thinking about what knowledge you hope to glean from interviews with study participants, it’s important to think about how to ask them questions. Interviewers should use open-ended questions so interviewees can express what they really think rather than be led toward an answer, or only offer a yes or no in response. It’s important to condense questions to a single page and pair relevant questions in order together so that the conversation will flow without having to flip through pages. It’s ideal to have your questions mostly memorized so that the conversation can carry on naturally and feel more comfortable for interviewees. Your questions should not be lengthy or overly complex so the interviewees can understand what is being asked, and answer authentically.
Think about what size you want your focus groups to be. Ideally a single focus group should be large enough that participants can each have an opportunity to speak up and can bounce ideas off each other, but small enough (less than ten people) that it allows for a variety of perspectives but won’t leave a quieter individual to sit out the conversation. It’s also important to think about who will be included in a single focus group – consider if there is a hierarchy, such as if a principal is in a focus group with a teacher, as the teacher may be less willing to give honest answers with their supervisor in the room.
It’s also essential to make sure you have your permissions covered. Make sure you have IRB compliance to conduct the focus group if relevant to your organization. Have consent forms at the ready, or if you are interviewing a student, make sure the consent form has been signed by a parent or guardian ahead of time and brought back to you. Be sure to let interviewees know at the beginning why you are conducting the focus group, emphasize that answering questions is completely voluntary and their identities and answers will be kept anonymous, and if they are an adult, offer them your business card or contact information if they have further questions.
How to Conduct an Effective Focus Group
When you are ready to reach out to schools to invite study participants to a focus group, make participation as convenient as possible for them, and give them the option of choosing the most convenient date and time for them to participate. It’s important to remember that they are helping you by taking time to answer your questions, so treat them with the respect and thoughtfulness that they deserve. With that being said, it may make the most sense for the interviewer to go out to the school to conduct the focus group so that the participants will not be inconvenienced, will be more comfortable to answer questions in a familiar place, and might be reminded of important information by being interviewed in a place where the intervention took place, if an in-class component was included in the intervention.
If you are conducting a focus group with adults, consider enticing participants to join the focus group by offering compensation for participating, such as cash or gift cards. You may also consider offering snacks if the interview is after school hours, to show appreciation and make the environment feel more relaxed and open.
It’s important for the interviewer to project a respectful, open, and relaxed personality while asking questions so that the conversation doesn’t feel like an interrogation, and the interviewees can feel confident to give candid feedback. Practice active listening, and don’t react to answers in a defensive or disruptive way. If participants don’t feel that the interviewer is open-minded and safe to reveal their opinions to, they may not give honest answers or respond to questions with any useful detail.
If you have multiple interviewers at the focus group, you might consider assigning one person to take notes, and another to be the primary discussion leader. This will give the discussion leader the freedom to give participants their full attention, and the note taker can capture important highlights, unanimous agreement, quotes, or changes in body language or tone in response to a question.
You will also likely want to consider using a recording device so that interviewers will not have to rely on memory later and can give their full attention to the participants. The interviewers can debrief after the focus group to discuss and capture additional ideas or reactions. Make sure your questions are covered, but let the participants guide the conversation – you may learn something that you didn’t even think to ask about!
A 360 Degree View
Qualitative interviews can result in a great deal of data, and many tedious hours of transcription. However, they can be a valuable tool to learn more about the target communities and their needs and wants from an arts field trip intervention, discover why an intervention went well or not so well, and learn why results might vary amongst different participants in different locations and contexts.
Combining quantitative and qualitative components can make for a more well-rounded view of what students, teachers, and school administration are really getting out of an intervention, and can provide valuable feedback on how to create even better arts field trip experiences for those communities in the future.
Laura Florick is a Research Associate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.