Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Using Participatory Focus Groups of Graduate Students to Improve Academic Departments: A Case Example

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Using Participatory Focus Groups of Graduate Students to Improve Academic Departments: A Case Example

Article excerpt

The authors report on a participatory focus group evaluation of an academic department. The 20 participants, and the majority of the evaluators, were graduate students in that department. The authors report on their methods, their reflections, ethical issues they encountered and what they did about them, and how they used the results. Key words: Program Evaluation, Focus Groups, Graduate Students, and Academic Department

Introduction

We recently used participatory focus groups of graduate students to evaluate our department. In this paper we will report on what we did and how we did it, the ethical challenges we faced, and our reflections on the process. We hope that our experience might help others who wish to use participatory focus groups to evaluate their own department or program.

Participatory action research was originally used to empower oppressed groups in Third World countries, but researchers increasingly are using it in developed countries (Reason, 1994). In participatory research, one seeks to learn about the needs of participants and to translate this information into constructive action (Piercy & Thomas, 1998). Participatory action research differs from other qualitative methods in the collaboration the researcher fosters with the participants. Often, the researcher trains participants to be co-researchers themselves, and involves them in the research process. The methods are collaborative, self-reflective, empowering, and support action.

In traditional evaluation, the evaluator, typically an expert, uses surveys and other quantitative methods to extract knowledge from his or her participants that may or may not be shared with the participants themselves. If knowledge is power (Foucault, 1980), then traditional evaluators, the exclusive gatherers, analyzers, and possessors of the knowledge, are indeed in a hierarchical, more powerful position than their research participants. Participatory evaluators, on the other hand, attempt to flatten the hierarchy by involving knowledgeable research participants as active co-researchers (Bishop, 1989; Scriven, 1993). Participatory evaluators invite participants to generate, own, use, and share their knowledge and expertise; typically, the participants are empowered in the process (DeSantis, 1994; Fetterman, Kaftavian, & Wandersman, 1996).

Our own use of participatory focus groups grew out of our interest in gaining a general sense of how graduate students in the Department of Human Development see various aspects of their department. We held the assumption that, for them, "perceived reality is reality." We hoped that our findings would support graduate student investment in the department and its improvement. We also hoped that our findings would help faculty and administrators better understand what they are doing well and what they might do differently. To this end, we used focus groups lead by graduate student facilitators and (to a lesser extent) e-mail interviews of graduate students to gather this information.

Method

Focus Groups

A focus group is a small group interview on a specific topic. Focus groups consist of about 6-10 participants and usually last from 1-3 hours (Patton, 2002). Educators can use focus groups to understand students' perceptions on different aspects of a program (Patton, 2002; Piercy & Nickerson, 1996). Focus groups also give students a forum to acknowledge strengths and air grievances, as well as to identify problems that faculty and administrators can address. Finally, the participatory nature of focus groups supports the participants' investment in the results, and may represent an important intervention in itself.

Focus groups have certain advantages that other participatory methods may not. Because the students give feedback in a group, they can build upon each other's answers (e.g., "Oh, yeah, that happened to me, but for me it was this way . …

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