Curricular Innovations: Engaging Students as Focus Group Facilitators

By Daisy Rooks, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology.

As an enthusiast of community-engaged scholarship, I incorporate applied projects into as many of my courses as possible. After using an applied ethnographic research assignment in my graduate Qualitative Methods course for several years, I was ready for something new. In the fall of 2014 I learned that the Provost’s Office was offering a workshop about focus group methodology for student affairs units on campus. I attended the training, and announced that I was looking for ways to partner with student affairs. Units that collaborated with students in my graduate course, I explained, would receive a focus group on a topic of their choosing and a detailed report summarizing the focus group. Ten units signed up to collaborate with me.

Although I was excited about the initiative, it was challenging because I was not an expert on focus group methodology. To prepare, I read several books, met with those who had more expertise, and conducted a focus group for the Faculty Development Office.

At the start of the spring 2015 semester, when I previewed the applied project to students in my Qualitative Methods course, the students responded enthusiastically. To prepare them, I assigned several articles and gave several lectures about conducting and reporting on focus groups. I then invited 12 student affairs units to attend class, describe their unit’s mission and the populations they work with, and pitch their focus group ideas. Over the next few weeks, I reviewed drafts of focus group questions, trouble-shot communication and expectation issues between students and units as necessary, and read drafts of focus group reports.

The curricular innovation was quite successful. My students enjoyed the assignment, reporting that they appreciated that it was hands-on, provided them with consulting experience, and helped them develop skills in high demand in the public and private sectors. Student affairs units were also pleased. Many integrated students’ findings into their annual assessment reports and asked to collaborate with my class in coming years. I also developed new skills, and was pushed outside of my comfort zone, which I believe is critical for good instruction.

After repeating the exercise the next year, I have now supervised 20 focus groups for 18 student affairs units on campus, and have conducted three focus groups myself. Because of the benefits to students, myself, and the many units involved, I plan to continue this effort for years to come.

The UM Faculty Development Office will host a session on "Using focus groups to improve your work" with Associate Provost Nathan Lindsay on October 26. Sign up for this session on the Faculty Development Office website.

Associate Professor Daisy Rooks.

Daisy Rooks’ field of study is labor and labor movements, social movements and collective action, sociology of education and sociology of work. She holds a self-designed B.A. from Smith College in Urban Studies, and an MA and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California – Los Angeles. She joined UM in 2009.