Focus Groups: Before Writing a Grant, Know Your Constituents' Needs and Desires; Widely Used in Politics and Marketing, Focus Groups Provide an Effective Means of Gathering Data in Other Settings, Too

Article excerpt

The idea for this article spawned from writing a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) grant application/proposal. The importance of this topic was reinforced by lessons learned at the Winning Grants Workshop, sponsored by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and held in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in July 2005. Throughout the workshop, several presenters underscored the value of having constituents articulate their own needs and desires rather than grant writers just assuming constituent needs.

As a means of responding to the "needs" section of the PEP grant application, we chose to use a focus group. The purpose of our focus group was to determine current barriers to accomplishing state physical education standards and barriers to advocating physical education needs to state legislators. In addition we felt it necessary to understand teachers' current and past experiences, as well as their beliefs regarding these issues, in order to interpret their responses.

The purpose of this article is to explain what a focus group is, identify reasons for using a focus group, help readers determine whether a focus group is right for them, and offer ideas for how to conduct a focus group.

What Is a Focus Group?

Used initially in marketing research and more recently in social science research, focus groups provide a means to gather data. They are special assemblies that may be used as a source for interviewing. As such, this interview technique relies on group interaction based on specific topics predetermined by the researcher. Focus groups allow participants to share and compare a multiplicity of items including attitudes, beliefs, experiences, feelings, and opinions. This in turn provides researchers with a broader view than is possible through individual interviews. In short, focus groups are a way of listening to and learning from people (Morgan, 1998).

Why Should You Use Focus Groups?

There are four major reasons to use focus groups: problem identification, planning, implementation, and assessment (Morgan, 1998). When preparing our PEP grant application, we used a focus group to identify the problem, design a remediation strategy, plan an implementation process, and create a method to assess whether the intervention was successful. Key to all of this was realizing constituents' needs and connecting their needs to our (the primary investigators') interest in conducting the research. This was accomplished by generating conversation from the grassroots (physical educators) that may not have occurred without focus group facilitation.

Are Focus Groups Right for You?

To determine the suitability of using a focus group as a data collection technique, readers should reflect on the following questions.

Is your goal to listen and learn? As previously noted, if your intent is to hear what constituents have to say and find out what they think are good solutions, then a focus group may be right for you.

Is there a gap between people? When defining the need for a project, if you sense a significant difference of opinion regarding direction, either among constituents or between constituents and researchers, then a focus group may be right for you.

Is there variability among constituents? Are you attempting to address the needs of a diverse group? Including representatives from each constituent group involved with the project will insure that all voices are heard. For example, does the project speak to teachers in different school environments (e.g., urban versus rural, or upper versus lower socioeconomic class)? If so, then a focus group is right for you.

Do you want to explore topics through conversations among participants? Rather than collecting information through unilateral processes such as pen/pencil surveys, if you desire to become better informed by listening to constituents' conversation and the dynamics of their interaction, then a focus group may be right for you. …