I’m teaching my teammate about the ins and outs of planning, conducting, and sharing results from focus groups with youth. Today’s lesson was about 1) collaborating with program staff and/or funders to figure out what type of information they’re most interested in and 2) turning those interests into focus group questions (i.e. operationalizing). Here’s my bank of questions that I often use during focus groups with youth.
Start with an icebreaker. Make sure it’s developmentally appropriate. You’re not going to ask teenagers to share something that makes them feel like children.
- Example from a college prep program: You might ask about their educational background, like whether they’ve taken any college courses before.
- Example from a prenatal education program for teen parents: What are you most looking forward to about being a parent?
- How long have you been in the XYZ program?
To learn more about this program’s role within the larger organization:
- Have you participated in other afterschool or summer programs here? If so, which ones, and when?
To learn more whether the outreach and recruitment strategies were effective:
- How did you find out about the program? (For example, through a teacher, another student, or another staff person?)
- Complete this sentence: “The biggest challenge I’ve had this year was…….” (If the program is supposed to serve at-risk, gang-involved youth, and the biggest challenge this year was that they didn’t like their teacher, then they either don’t trust you enough to be totally honest with you (duh, you’re a stranger…) or the program didn’t recruit the at-risk, gang-involved youth it was originally aiming to serve.)
To learn more about their expectations:
- What were your expectations about the program? Do you feel that they were met? In what ways?
- What were the aspects of the classes that you didn’t anticipate? Did anything surprise you?
- Example from a college prep program: Before the program started, what did you expect a college course to be like? How has your opinion of college courses changed over the past year?
- What had you heard about the program? (For example, that you’d get to play soccer, do art, or participate a specific curriculum?)
- Why did you want to sign up for this program?
Basic consumer satisfaction questions (this information will be very useful for instructors, so don’t skip it!):
- What was your favorite thing about the program?
- What’s your best memory from the program? (For example, was there a particular field trip, activity, etc. that you really liked? If the participants pause a long time before answering, make sure to record that in the notes…)
- What did you think about the classes?
- What was your favorite class and why?
- What class did you like the least and why?
- Some of you have taken xyz classes or programs before. Were there any topics covered in the classes that you’d already learned someplace else?
- In which class did you feel you learned the most?
- College prep program example: What did you think about the assignments and homework?
Consumer satisfaction with specific staff members:
- What did you think about each of the instructors?
- How well did the instructors explain information to you?
- Were the instructors easy to understand? (This is an important consideration in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual organization like ours.)
- Were the instructors creative? (Youth despise lectures and love interactive activities.)
- Were the instructors ready to teach when you arrived?
- How can the instructors improve the way they teach?
To learn about the extent to which Positive Youth Development principles are thriving (or not) in this program:
- How well could you generally relate or connect to the instructor?
- How well did the instructor relate or connect to you?
- How do you think the instructor perceived you?
- What kinds of support did you get from the instructor? (For example: snacks, organizing study groups, college counseling advice, spending extra time with you, helping you work through a personal problem, etc. You want to know whether the support provided was adequate and whether they provided the “right” type of support. In other words, a GED instructor shouldn’t be providing mental health counseling; the GED instructor should listen to the youth’s initial problems and refer the youth to a professional.)
- Were the instructors available when you needed help? (This is an especially helpful question in human services organizations where most clients receive case management. The participants need to feel that all staff in the organization are available to help.)
- Complete this sentence: “An accomplishment I’m proud of is……..”
- HIV prevention program example: Your group planned a few health fairs this year. Tell me about your involvement in these health fairs. (To see how much ownership they felt while planning the events.)
To find out whether participants might apply the information they learned to their real life:
- Parenting program example: Did you change the way you interact with your child as a result of these classes?
- Domestic violence prevention program example: Has your communication with your partner, parents, and other people changed as a result of any of these classes?
- What do you see as potential barriers or limitations in applying what you learned? (This seems silly, but don’t skip it! A participating in our prenatal program told me she couldn’t use the smoke detector that she received free during our workshops because she didn’t have any batteries. Now our instructors give out batteries with every smoke detector. Small barrier, easy fix, win-win situation for everyone.)
- College prep program example: What are your future educational plans? How many students are planning to enroll in additional college courses, what type, and where?
- College prep program example: How well did this program prepare you for future college courses?
- Peer health education program example: Since the program ended, do you plan to continue working/volunteering as a peer health educator?
To get feedback about program logistics: (This should not be the central purpose of your focus group. You can learn so much more than whether the participants enjoyed the snacks…)
- Were the meeting times convenient? Why or why not? What times would you recommend in the future?
- College prep program example: Would you attend structured study groups if the instructor planned them? How helpful would study groups be?
- How did you feel about the class size? Would you have more students? Fewer students? Why?
- As you know, Jane Doe is leaving for grad school and won’t be an instructor here next year. What would an ideal instructor be like? What’s on your wish list?
To learn about potential reasons for attrition:
- How do you think we could keep more teens in the program for the entire year?
- What were your reasons for staying in this program all year?
- What kept you coming back?
To plan recruitment strategies for next year:
- Where do you suggest we find other people who would benefit from or be interested in this program?
If the program didn’t go so well….
- What could help you be even more successful in this program? (For example: metro fare cards, child care, dinner, etc.)
- College prep program example: Describe an ideal college student. What types of skills, personality traits, previous experience, etc. does someone need before starting these classes?
To learn about the potential influence of the program on family members (assuming this is one of the goals of the program):
- Did your parents come to any events at our youth center this year?
- Are your brothers, sisters, or cousins involved with any of the other programs at our youth center?
To learn about overall influence of the program:
- What were the most important skills you learned through this program? (For example, time management, study skills, setting appointments, more self-sufficient, more independent, etc. Get specific examples. This is extremely valuable for the instructors.)
- College prep program example: For those of you who’ve taken other college courses – How would you compare this experience to other college courses? In what ways was it similar, different, etc.?
- Would you recommend this program to a friend or someone else? (Get a show of hands or find some sort of quantitative way to measure.)
- On a scale from A to F, how would you grade this program?
- Complete this sentence: “If I didn’t come to XYZ program after school, I would probably be doing…” (If it’s a gang prevention program, you’re guessing they’ll say something like, “I’d be hanging out with the wrong crowd.” One “gang-involved” girl told me she was in several afterschool programs, like volunteering, tutoring, dance, and painting. If she didn’t come to our gang prevention program, she would’ve just been at another great program. Although this isn’t what I was expecting to hear, and it’s not what the program staff wanted to hear, it’s very useful information to have.)
- Complete this sentence: “Before I started the XYZ program, I would describe my personality as……..”
- Complete this sentence: “After I finished the XYZ program, I would describe my personality as……..”
- How would you describe this program to a friend? To your mom? To your sister or brother?
- What have you already told your friends about this program?
- What did you learn about yourself by participating in this program?
And always end with this:
- “Do you have many other thoughts or comments you want to share today?” (There are always more comments, so be patient and way for them to speak. If no one speaks, stay silent for 5 seconds and look around the room, making eye contact with each participant until someone speaks up, then thank them for sharing. Then, do it again – be quiet for 5 seconds and look around the room until someone speaks, and thank them for sharing. Do this 5 or 6 times until people are really, truly out of feedback.)
- I do not ask the questions in this order or in these exact words. As with all qualitative research, I have a few questions in mind before I start, but mostly I just relax and go with the flow of the conversation.
- Try to make the discussion interactive. All focus group participants — children, teens, and adults — will get bored sitting around a table for an hour. Get some ideas here.
Enjoy! And please share your own favorite focus group questions below.