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47 6¥¥ Conducting Focus Groups for Evaluation LARA BRYFONSKI WITH THE ARRAY OF data-collection techniques at the disposal of an evaluator or evaluation team, it is necessary to take careful consideration of each tool’s advantages and drawbacks when deciding how to best elicit the information needed to answer evaluation questions. One such data-collection technique, focus groups, has the potential to elicit rich detail and in-depth descriptions that take the opinions and desires of stakeholders into consideration (Grudens-Schuck, Larson, and Allen 2004). The following chapter first defines and describes focus groups and then identifies possible advantages and disadvantages in using this data-collection technique for evaluation purposes. Next, the relevant steps in planning, moderating, and implementing focus groups are discussed, including tips for developing a clear sequence of prompts as well as key aspects of data collection and analysis. Finally, the chapter ends with issues related to language program evaluation in particular, such as working with multilingual participants, translation, and participant confidentiality. Defining Focus Groups A focus group is a particular type of group discussion or group interview that elicits information on a given issue from a carefully selected group of individuals (Grudens-Schuck, Allen, and Larson 2004). Focus groups are carefully planned and implemented by a trained moderator, whose task is to lead participants through a series of key questions and prompt for specific experiences and descriptions. Moderators also must take care to develop a nonthreatening environment to encourage all participants to share their points of view (Krueger and Casey 2009). Participants in focus groups are intentionally selected and typically have a common characteristic that unites them (e.g., language proficiency level, class year, enrollment in a specific course or university). Unlike a discussion, the goal of a focus group is to gather diverse perspectives rather than make a decision or build a consensus on a particular issue.As table 6.1 indicates, focus groups are distinguished from other kinds of discussion groups by several key features. 48 Lara Bryfonski Focus groups are always guided by a clear, specific plan, whereas discussion groups might be unstructured. Focus groups always include a moderator, whose job is to execute the plan, while discussion groups typically do not have a designated moderator. In focus groups, data collection by means of notes or recordings is critical for subsequent use in the evaluation, whereas in discussion groups data collection is not a critical component . Additionally, the overall purpose of a focus group is to elicit perceptions, opinions, previous experiences, and other reflections. Discussion groups are typically solution- or outcome-focused, and participants are able to argue with each other for their opinions. Focus groups differ in that participants may agree or disagree with each other, but there is no need to agree on a final outcome. The most important outcome in a focus group is the sharing of experiences. When to Select a Focus Group There are many reasons to use focus groups for an evaluation. However, focus-group data are not without limitations (see Marczak and Sewell 1991). The following section will help evaluators decide if a focus group is the right choice for data collection. Advantages of Focus Groups Focus groups have the advantage of being highly flexible. As with interviews, data collection can be adapted to a wide range of evaluation uses, stakeholders, and settings. Few resources other than a trained moderator and a recording device are necessary, making this a low-cost option when time and resources are tight. Focus groups collect qualitative information about the beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and perceptions of groups of people. Focus-group data, then, can help answer questions like: Why do participants feel the way they do? How can the program be improved? How should the new program be designed and implemented? Focus-group data thus enable evaluators to elicit ideas from key stakeholders and gather specific information on why those ideas are important. Focus groups are distinct from the other forms of data collection described in this guide in several ways. A key difference with focus-group data collection, unlike interviews and questionnaires, is that participants are able to hear the ideas of the other focus-group members. This interaction between focus-group participants has the potential to trigger¥¥ Table 6.1 A comparison of focus groups and discussion groups Features Focus groups Discussion groups Clear plan/focus + +/− Moderator always present + − Data collection is critical + − Participants have common characteristics + +/− Participants can argue different opinions − + Builds consensus among participants − + Purpose is...


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