Hello again! I am Beverly Peters, assistant professor of Measurement and Evaluation at American University. This is the fourth article in a 6-part series on Using Focus Groups for Monitoring and Evaluation. The third article discussed populating a focus group—a very important yet challenging aspect of focus groups. This article will discuss an equally challenging and important part of focus groups—developing focus group questions and a questioning route.
Let’s go back to the purpose of a focus group: To facilitate the cascading of conversation amongst participants. As you plan your focus group, you should consider both the kinds of questions that will facilitate conversation, in addition to the order to ask them—or what researchers call the “questioning route.” Always pilot your questions and questioning route with colleagues or others who are knowledgeable about the project and its local or organizational culture.
A first step is to devise questions that are easy for participants to understand. Make sure that your questions are not leading or judgmental, confusing or double barreled. Your questions should also reflect emic interpretations of language and culture.
A good interview question is not always a good focus group question, however. Kruger and Casey tell us that we should write focus group questions so they are conversational, open ended, and facilitate thought amongst participants. Try to avoid questions that will result in individual answers—remember that the purpose of your focus group is not to collect information from individual participants, but rather, to facilitate conversation amongst them. Ask questions that are conversational in nature and get people talking to each other—perhaps to flesh out a puzzling issue around the project—instead of just talking to the moderator.
I like starting with a grand tour question such as “Tell me about….(insert something around the project.)” With this type of open ended question, I can gauge the tone of the room upfront, identify strengths or issues related to the project, and very importantly, tailor subsequent questions to reflect these as needed.
I also like to ask questions that require the group to discuss and rank issues—for example, asking the group to identify and then rank the challenges the organization faces implementing a project. I also like using ideal scenario questions and participatory tools such as decision trees to help facilitate conversation. For a 90 minute focus group, I usually craft 8-12 conversational questions—if your questions are truly conversational you should not need more than this.
After you have well thought out questions, you should consider their order. Your questioning route should be logical and flow like a natural conversation. You should sequence your questions so they focus more and more specifically on the topic of study over time. I usually start out general and open ended, and over time focus in on the topic and even the controversial aspects of it. This helps participants feel comfortable with the discussion, and open up to share opinions and controversies around it.
Look for Parts 5-6 in the coming months!
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