Reflections on team-conducting focus groups and interviews: my experience of making them happen

During Spring 2019, the three postgraduate wrap team members: Shane, Wangi and myself (Katie), carried out 9 interviews and 4 focus groups with undergraduate students to help the wrap team better understand student experience and opinion of undergraduate research at Warwick.

Using a self-selecting sample of students recruited through sign ups from our online survey, and communications through departments and other campus channels, we were responsible for the allocation of students to interviews and focus groups, administration and communications, eg confirming appointments with students and booking suitable meeting spaces and structure of the meetings, as well as conducting the interviews and focus groups.

It can’t be underestimated how much work is involved in first of all getting people to the right place and ensuring an appropriate expectation is set. Due to our target number of interviews (10) and focus group participation (25) we had set fixed times for students to offer us their availability. We had a large number of students who completed the survey, and some others who contacted us directly, register interest to take part.

We decided the simplest way to co-ordinate allocation and confirmation was for one person to take the lead and delegate specific tasks (eg booking meeting rooms for specific times) to team members. It was a major task to juggle the most efficient way to allocate students – and we encountered issues such as some dates being over subscribed and others having no interest at all. This meant we could not accommodate all students who wanted to participate. We wanted the sample to have a balance of students who did have and did not have experience of the Undergraduate Research Support Scheme, which helped prioritise allocation, and then we ensured a fair split of sessions across the team (bearing in mind they were conducted with two team members).

We had agreed that we would try and avoid having more than 3 hours in a row of meetings, and in the end we were able to keep this to two meetings in a row which was a positive as conducting the focus groups and interviews was more draining than I had expected, and it was useful to debrief and reflect on the session with the co-interviewer immediately after the session to ensure a shared sense of understanding of the data collected and raise any issues for clarification. Handwritten notes were taken in the focus groups and interviews as well as audio recordings, and these were typed up later on a proforma for group analysis.

Finding rooms for the interviews and focus groups that were both big enough and that we could all access was also problematic – highlighting and infrastructure barrier for collaborating across year groups. Because we were a PGR and PGTs interviewing undergraduates, we struggled to find spaces we were allowed to book/use that all three groups could enter, and we had to get a bit creative in spaces we used. This was made harder by the fact some spaces are only bookable to a limited amount of time by one student, and all spaces are checked routinely by staff.

However, we were successful in carrying out our interviews and focus groups and had very little attrition. We had positive feedback from the participants that they enjoyed the conversations and learned something, and it was important to us that although we were collecting data, our participants had a positive experience. (We gave opportunities to feedback both in the session or via email afterwards, as well as having a clear complaints process). It was fun and very interesting, and so exciting to hear valuable insights that will help us with our research aims. I learned so much about the scope of co-ordination required as well as the practice of conducting interviews and focus groups as well. More reflection on that to come…

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