Academic journal article Education

Middle Level Teachers Using Focus Group Research

Academic journal article Education

Middle Level Teachers Using Focus Group Research

Article excerpt

Most middle school students enjoy gathering in groups to discuss their thoughts on topics important to them. Jackson and Davis (2000) comment, "Middle grades students are mature enough to engage in thoughtful, sustained analysis and problem solving, especially on matters that clearly affect them" (p. 145). Focus group discussions offer participants time to discuss particular topics. So it seems to follow that focus group research would work well with middle school students. They are experts about their schools and have definite opinions about what works well and what could be improved.

After serving in a team of four university faculty members using focus groups to evaluate the effectiveness of our teacher preparation program, I thought focus groups would work well at the middle school level with students, teachers, administrators, and other members of the school community participating. After considering the content included in a masters level middle level education course, Issues in Middle Level Education, I began to weave in experiences that would prepare graduate students to use focus groups in a small research project.

This article will share results of several graduate students' attempts to implement focus group research. After a brief review of literature reflecting the use of focus groups and recommendations for their use, by using comments gathered from graduate students who oversaw focus group research, I will report their reactions and their experiences. Finally, I will share what my students learned about conducting focus groups at middle schools and suggestions for their use at middle schools.

Focus Group Research

Focus group research is a "focused" group discussion, based upon a chosen topic or topics (Morgan, 1998). Interviewers usually ask focus group participants to consider and answer questions, and then to make additional comments after listening to the responses of others (Patton, 1990). According to Morgan (1998a), "Focus groups are first and foremost a method for gathering research data"(p. 29). Whereas individual interviews may provide an individual's thinking about a specified topic, the interaction of focus group participants as they compare their perspectives, opinions, and experiences, provides researchers with a broader view than that obtained through individual interviews (Morgan, 1998a). Found for years in marketing research, focus group use in the social sciences is a rather new but quickly increasing endeavor.

Focus groups are a way of listening to and learning from people (Morgan, 1998a), a way of gathering data about the "meanings" of an issue to a particular group (Bloor, Frankland, Thomas, and Robson, 2001). They are especially useful when a researcher needs more generalized, group data rather than an "individual account" (Morgan, 1997, 1998a). Focus groups tend to be a more qualitative than quantitative form of research (Edmunds, 1999). They are increasingly viewed as a valid research method, especially when a researcher is interested in "filling in between the lines", thereby gaining a deeper understanding of issues.

Social scientists have easily adapted marketing's previously developed focus group techniques to their own research (Morgan, 1997, 1998a). The guidelines for conducting focus groups intersect with the guidelines for conducting interviews and qualitative research. Focus groups use similar methodology as interviews; however, they are interactive group interviews (Morgan, 1998a) on a focused topic. Six to ten persons constitute the traditional size of a focus group. Most researchers use more than one focus group per study often amounting to three to five groups (Morgan, 1997, 1998b). Topics of discussion are predetermined; a moderator or facilitator will be highly involved in the discussion (Simon, 1999). The questions are very important (Kruegar, 1998b; Morgan, 1998) and should be planned in advance in a discussion guide (Edmunds, 1999). …

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