Tag Archives: Focus groups

Involving students in curriculum development: Get more out of focus groups by trying this combined approach.

Tünde Varga-Atkins, Jaye McIsaac and Ian Willis from the Educational Development Division present their findings from trying a new approach to focus groups.

If you want to involve students in curriculum development then here is a method that seems to work for us. We have explored combining a focus group with Nominal Group Technique (a process for problem identification and group decision making) in one student evaluation session. We named our approach the ‘Nominal Focus Group’.

This combination gives the benefits of both: the in-depth discussion of a Focus Group and the prioritising of results of Nominal Group Technique. In our work as Educational Developers working with academic staff on curriculum enhancements, results from a Nominal Focus Group provided us with rich data and actionable outcomes that were used to make informed curriculum enhancements for the programme teams. The process also increased students’ feelings of ownership. In a Higher Education era focused on the student voice, these benefits seem particularly appealing.

A bit about focus groups
Figure 1. A traditional focus group process: resulting in a transcript and report.
Figure 1. A traditional focus group process: resulting in a transcript and report.

Sometimes, certain focus group members can dominate the discussion and this may skew the recommendations made by students. This is the sort of bias that the process of the Nominal Group Technique is meant to design out.

  • Advantages: ability to cover a number of questions in the session (up to 5-6 main topics), peer suggestions can help jog memory of others;
  • Disadvantages: potential bias of vocal members, facilitator makes judgement about importance of responses and suggestions.
A bit about the Nominal Group Technique
Figure 2. Nominal Group Technique process: resulting in a prioritised list of items.
Figure 2. Nominal Group Technique process: resulting in a prioritised list of items.

The Nominal Group Technique has been developed by Delbecq and Van de Ven (1971). In a Nominal Group Technique session used for curriculum enhancement, students are usually asked one or two questions. For instance, “How could we improve this module?” Every participant is asked to write down their response individually on a post-it note (see Figure 2, stage 1). Then they read it out aloud and all the responses are placed on a board for all to see.

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