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Lessons Learned Moderating Virtual Focus Groups During a Pandemic by Jacob Schreiber by Cha-Chi Fung

Hello! I’m Jacob Schreiber, Instructor of Clinical Medical Education and I’m Cha-Chi Fung, Assistant Dean of Medical Education at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. We frequently employ focus groups in evaluation and institutional research to collect valuable insights about our medical students’ classroom and clinical activities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made it impossible to conduct in-person focus groups where 6-12 participants gather around a conference table for an intimate 90+ minute conversation. 

Though virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams have created a space for us to keep in touch with colleagues, many have struggled with issues such as poor internet connections, difficulty sharing screens, disruptions from around the home “office,” trying to speak when muted, or not muting themselves having off-screen conversations. 

These issues can stall conversation in meetings and are a nightmare scenario for a focus group moderator who relies on the swift back-and-forth of face-to-face conversation. Over the last year, through many trial and errors, we have developed best practices to make virtual focus groups as smooth as possible in order to continue collecting the valuable data they yield.

Lessons Learned:

  • Reduce the average size of your focus groups. If you would typically recruit 8-12 participants for an in-person focus group, consider inviting only 6 or 7 so that the screen won’t be as cluttered and audio issues will be easier to manage.
  • Ensure your participants have a working webcam prior to the group beginning and encourage them to keep it on for the duration of the conversation.
  • Disable text chatting and discourage use of hand raising functions so participants are more likely to speak up.
  • Encourage all participants to utilize the gallery viewing option. This will most closely recreate the experience of being in a room together.
  • Ask that all participants keep their microphones open. The process of continuously muting and unmuting yourself pauses conversation briefly. But it can completely shut down a fast-paced exchange of ideas.
  • Consider technological aspects of your role as the moderator. Let your participants know you may use the host capabilities to mute people with a bad connection or in a loud environment so that everyone is able to hear each other.
  • Plan an extra 15-20 minutes into the focus group to account for troubleshooting with participants in the virtual environment.
  • Plug in! As the moderator, you want to ensure you have the best connection possible, so you don’t miss any information. We strongly encourage you use an ethernet connection rather than Wi-Fi. It is also helpful to suggest this to participants in the group invitation so they can plan to be plugged in if the option is available to them.

Rad Resources: For more information about the value of focus groups check out aea365 curator Sheila B. Robinson’s post. https://aea365.org/blog/focus-groups-by-sheila-b-robinson/

Richard A. Krueger offers a wealth of resources about best practices for moderating focus groups on his website. https://richardakrueger.com/focus-group-interviewing/

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “Lessons Learned Moderating Virtual Focus Groups During a Pandemic by Jacob Schreiber by Cha-Chi Fung”

  1. Meaghan Jefferson

    Hi Jacob and Cha-Chi,
    Thank you so much for your insight here on virtual focus groups, I teach post-secondary students entering the medical field (in diagnostic imaging) and have been a part of all of the struggles with technology that you describe during my online classes! I am currently also studying evaluation as part of a Professional Master of Education program and am investigating strategies for gathering data, and considering the value of the focus group as an important tool that can help uncover issues and get more detailed information than surveys or blast emails. I have truly appreciated the wealth of information I’ve uncovered through your “Rad Resources”, and reading Sheila’s post on AEA365 and also her contributions to the Frontline Research and Learning Institute regarding focus groups.

    A question for you is how do you think the virtual format for focus groups has affected the level of input from different members of the group? Do you find the interaction or responses from students have changed since moving from in-person to virtual formats? I ask because I’ve found it very challenging to engage some students in online or virtual discussions (when it was much easier in person), and I’m wondering how this would also affect the use of virtual focus groups for conducting evaluations. I’ve read some of Richard A. Krueger’s strategies (another Rad Resource, thank you!) for conducting successful focus groups but I’m wondering how easily they would translate for virtual meetings (i.e. group tasks or sorting, eye contact), and also limits the amount of time which can be allotted for these discussions. Two hours in-person discussions are likely more engaging and productive, whereas two hours online can feel exhausting for some reason – especially for my students I find. Please let me know if you know of useful programs/platforms/software that have been helpful for collaborative discussions or focus groups for you.
    Kindest regards, and thank you for your insights – I will be sure to try limiting the size of my discussion groups as my first approach to increasing student engagement and interaction!

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