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Evaluation for Excellence Toolkit: Student Focus Groups


Focus groups are a great way to take a snapshot of student opinion and to generate ideas. It is important to remember that focus groups may not give representative view of a whole cohort, as participants tend of be self-selecting, but they are still a great way in which to hear from a range of student voices, and – in particular – solicit ideas for improvements or changes. 

Recipe Card Detail

Undertaking focus groups with students is a good way to explore issues and generate feedback on your teaching.

Focus groups are good for:
– Getting detailed qualitative feedback
– Developing discussion and generating ideas
– Exploring issues in depth

PREPARATION: Focus group script / questions; recruitment of groups; participant incentives.
TIMING: 30-60 minutes per group plus analysis time.
EQUIPMENT: Digital recorder, optional prompts (e.g. photographs).
Start by deciding what areas you want to focus on. This will depend in part on how long you have for your focus groups –anything from fifteen minutes to an hour can work, but for shorter sessions it is easier to work with smaller groups of students. Select a small number (three is ideal) of key overarching questions or areas you want to explore.
Building on the initial areas, you now need to write a more detailed script of questionsthat drill down into the specifics of the topic. Start with core questions and have follow-up questions for each area. Some groups talk a lot while others say little, so it is good to have lots of optional questions.
Participants will need to give full informed consent and have the right to withdraw at any time. It is useful to produce an information sheet so that they know what data will be collected and how it will be used, whether the data will be recorded, whether direct quotes are used, and whether it will be anonymised.
This is often the hardest part of this approach. Think about how you can best get students to engage by finding times when they are on campus and offering incentives (pizza usually goes down well). Recruit more students than you need because there is always drop-off. Consider how you can make engagement equitable to ensure a representative sample.
Carry out your groups in a quiet, private space. Decide whether you will audio record and transcribe, take notes yourself, or use a note-taker. Make sure that all students in the group are given the chance to share their views and use the follow-up questions to tease out detail. If an interesting side-track appears, consider whether you stick to the script or follow it.
Review your notes or transcript, looking for ideas and themes that have emerged to address the questions in your focus areas. Be careful to consider how representative an opinion is rather than just who shouted loudest. It’s easy to experience confirmation bias (where you’re naturally drawn to ideas that echo your own) so be alert to this and have your conclusions reviewed by a colleague.
When reporting feedback from focus groups, make sure you add contextual information, such as the number of groups, students, and any biases in recruitment. Use direct quotes to add colour, but make sure that you provide information on how likely it is that the ideas expressed are representative.
Download a full colour version of the recipe cards.Recipe Card (PDF)

Links to Online Resources

  1. Using Student Focus Groups to Improve a Class, Last Accessed January 22
  2. How to Run a Focus Group with Students, University of Reading,, Last Accessed January 22

Links to Papers/Books

  1. Winlow, Heather, et al. “Using focus group research to support teaching and learning.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 37.2 (2013): 292-303,, Last Accessed January 22