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Conducting Focus Groups: A Beginner's Guide

Focus groups can be an important form of assessment through the systematic collection of student narratives. They allow for a rich discussion in which multiple voices are invited to share similar and/or different ideas and experiences. Given that interfaith cooperation requires inclusion of multiple voices and engagement across different worldviews, focus groups are an ideal tool to understand this rich tapestry of perspectives. By using them, campus leaders are able bring together diverse groups of individuals and learn their various experiences. Also, focus groups are flexible and can be used after an interfaith event on campus or used to further explore findings from a large campus-wide survey. This resource provides a quick introduction to preparing and conducting focus groups.

Overview of this Resource

This resource provides tips on how to prepare for and conduct a focus group. We begin with a brief rundown on what you will need to prepare for the focus group. Then we break down conducting a focus group into four parts: the orientation, opening question, group facilitation, and the follow up. Finally, we close the resource with an appendix that provides an example of a focus group protocol, which illustrates the focus group strategies discussed earlier in the resource.


Preparing for Focus Groups

Great focus groups are a product of preparation. Here are a few suggestions that will help you organize an effective and efficient focus group.

  • Select questions or themes that you want to explore during the focus group—we suggest no more than two or three.
  • Create a semi-structured focus group protocol with 5-10 questions.
  • Create potential follow-up questions to clarify or add depth to the conversation.
  • Recruit participants based on the population you want to know more about. Each focus group should have between 6-11 participants.
  • [Optional] Recruit a focus group partner that can either facilitate the focus group dialogue or run the audio equipment and take notes.

Conducting Focus Groups

The focus group can be broken down into four parts:

1. Orientation:

To capture high quality information, it is important to properly orient your participants to the purpose of the focus group. To do so, we suggest the following:

  • Greet participants and express your appreciation for their participation.
  • Provide a concise explanation of what you are doing.
  • Establish ground rules for the conversation.
  • Give an overview of the session including the topics that you will discuss and the order in which you will discuss them.
  • [Optional] Explain / Ask permission to use a recording device.

2. Opening Question:

The first question asked by the focus group facilitator (the opening question) is important because it sets the tone for rest of the session. Therefore, we suggest choosing an opening that get participants talking and primes them for the larger discussion. Good opening questions have the following characteristics:

  • Simple: Questions should not include any jargon or contain multiple, complex questions.
  • Accessible: They should be within the realm of experiences for all focus group participants. For example, asking students to share their religious conversion story assumes something that might not be true of all participants
  • Light: Questions should ease participants into the discussion. Casual conversations and free flowing conversations are necessary even when the topic is serious, because it gives participants a safe way to get to know each other and build rapport.
  • Not hierarchal or judgmental in nature: In focus group settings, it can be easy to establish a pecking order. For example, asking participants to share whether they are a leader of an interfaith group/ program can possibly create a hierarchy of “interfaith experts” in the group. By beginning with a more open, question it delays or potentially avoids group stratification.

3. Group Facilitation:

The quality of data you are able to collect depends largely on the facilitator. To help in the process, we suggest focus group facilitators implement the following:

  • Don’t talk too long: Don’t allow one participant to monopolize the time. Also as a facilitator, interject sparingly leave space for your participants to talk. Additionally, the focus group shouldn’t last too long; 45 – 90 minutes is an appropriate amount of time. Anything longer and you risk losing participants’ interest and focus.
  • Move from concrete to abstract: By beginning with the concrete, you are much more likely to get a more accurate understanding of how participants make sense or meaning of abstract ideas such as interfaith leadership.
    • First, begin the focus group with asking specific questions about a particular event, day, personal feeling, etc. in some detail (e.g., “Can you think of an interfaith leader that inspires you?”).
    • Next, after each theme has been fully explored, summarize, list, and ask if there is anything else (e.g., “So as an interfaith leader, Eboo articulated his faith story, worked with others, and was knowledgeable about different world religions. Is there anything else?”).
    •  Finally, ask whether those things are typical, general, or frequent (e.g., “In general, does Eboo fit the description of an interfaith leader?”).  
  • Use paraphrasing and follow-up questions regularly: They help clarify participant statements and help you make larger meaning of what participants are sharing. Be careful not to paraphrase too much as it can be interpreted as disingenuous.
  • Move from low risk questions to high risk questions: Don’t begin the focus group by asking potentially volatile questions. For example, instead of immediately asking about religious discrimination in interfaith cooperation, you might first ask the group to discuss their interfaith experiences on campus broadly. Then, as rapport increases, ask the group more challenging questions.
  • Create covert categories to unpack controversial issues: Creating covert categories is the intentional use of coded language to capture information about sensitive topics (e.g., using the word “discrimination” instead of “racism”, “Islamophobia”, “sexism” or “homophobia”).
  • End the focus group with a summary: Give participants one final opportunity to comment on themes the group discussed and a chance to share their closing thoughts.

4. Follow-Up:

Following-up is an important, but often forgotten, part of the work. When closing the loop with participants, we encourage that you dedicate time to do the following:

  • Send thank you notes: Thank participants for sharing their time and important stories with you.
  • Look for themes in the stories: To create themes, we encourage you to review your notes and/or recordings. Highlight short statements that encapsulate or represent important ideas. This process is known as coding. After breaking the data into codes, combine similar codes and together the group of codes create larger themes. Synthesizing the codes together creates a potentially new and more nuanced story of the group you are assessing.
  • Share your findings: It is important to share the information you learn with stakeholders and the larger community.

This resource provides a basic introduction to conducting focus groups. Narratives are central to interfaith work; they create space for interfaith leaders to connect to each other and to their own work. Focus groups are systematic collections of student narratives and should be considered trustworthy forms of assessment. We encourage you to take what you have learned here and put it into practice. The more practice you have conducting focus group, the better your focus group assessments will become. Ultimately, better assessment can lead to better programming and interventions for your students.



Example Semi-Structured Focus Group Protocol

Below is a fictional focus group protocol. It provides examples of ideas and concepts discussed in this resource. The italicized text serves to explain and emphasize the critical elements embedded in the construction of this protocol.

Interfaith Leadership Program
Facilitator: Dorothy D.
Assistant Facilitator & Note taker: Marty K.

[This section contains the essential elements: a greeting/thanks, overview of focus groups, ground rules, and informed consent about recording.]​

(To be read) Thank you all for choosing to be a part of the focus group about our interfaith leadership program. My name is Dorthy D. I will be facilitating this focus group. I am assisted by Marty K.; he will operate the recording and take notes during our conversation. Before we begin our time together, I ask that you all be respectful of each other. During the course of our conversation, we may discuss topics about which you all have a variety of opinions. I ask that you not interrupt each other and allow each person to share their thoughts and opinions. If in our time together you are unable to fully share your thoughts or want a comment stricken from the record, feel free to follow up with me and I will make the necessary alterations. We anticipate the focus group will last no longer than an hour. We will begin by discussing your thoughts on leadership, transition to a discussion of your interfaith leadership experiences, and end with a brief discussion on interfaith leadership and diversity. Are there any questions?

Opening Question
[Remember the question should be simple, accessible, light, and non-hierarchal or judgmental.]

Everyone share the following information:

  • Name
  • Major
  • Favorite interfaith leader and a quality that you admire about this individual

Focus Group Themes
[Note the protocol is short: three themes, three scripted questions, several clarifying probes and possible follow up questions.]

Theme #1: Defining Leadership:

  • Lead-off Question: Describe a previous leadership position you held within an organization.
  • Clarifying Probes (if necessary): What was the position? What were your responsibilities? Who (if anybody) did you report to? [The leadoff question provides structure to the focus group as well as a measure of uniformity as they will be asked to all participants across multiple focus groups.]
  • Possible follow-up questions with probes [Semi-structured protocol doesn’t force you to ask follow up questions, but it is good to have them handy to help further unpack themes and keep the conversation flowing.]
    • Discuss an accomplishment you are proud of as a leader within that organization.
    • What did you do to achieve that accomplishment? (Probe: Discuss how those actions align with or are in opposition to good leadership?)
    • What are some leadership attributes that you possess? (Probe: Do you believe those are typical leadership traits?)
    • How do you define leadership?

[Notice how the follow up questions move from concrete examples (e.g., discussing accomplishments) to abstract ideas (e.g., defining leadership).]

Theme #2: Interfaith Leadership Experience

  • Lead-off Question: Discuss how this interfaith leadership program parallel or diverges from your previous leadership experiences.
  • Clarifying Probes (if necessary): What did you do differently as a leader in this program? What were the similar things you did as a leader in this program?
  • Possible follow-up questions:
    • Discuss the highlights of participating in the interfaith leadership program.
    • What were the challenges of participating in this program? Z What did you learn?

Theme #3: Interfaith and Diversity

[Diversity is a covert category. We use the language of difference to explore student awareness of diversity in leadership. Remember covert categories are helpful in gathering sensitive information about potentially volatile topics]

  • Lead-off Question: Discuss the different religious and non-religious perspectives represented in the leadership program.
  • Clarifying Probes (if necessary): What differences if any did you notice in the interfaith leadership team?)
  • Possible follow-up questions with probes:
    • Give an example of a time when you factored a fellow interfaith leader’s religious or philosophical tradition in making an organizational decision. (Probe: What prompted you to consider it?)
    • Discuss the importance of religious diversity in interfaith leadership.

[Because diversity can be controversial, it is the last topic discussed. This gives facilitators opportunity to build rapport before tackling difficult subjects. Controversial topics don’t have to come last, but you should be thoughtful about their placement in the protocol.]