Using Student Focus Groups to Improve Instruction

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Teachers will be able to collaborate in structured conversations to improve classroom practice and student learning experiences.

Big Idea

Explore how can you use student knowledge and perspectives to shift classroom culture and instructional practices for better learning experiences!

Notes for the Teacher

Enjoy my short video outlining my two biggest tips for successful student focus group outcomes and my rationale for starting this new classroom tradition.  They are pretty simple but really important: have an explicit focus and then get out of the way!   

 For further support, check out these additional resources:

Fontana, Andrea and James Frey.  1994.  "The Art of Science." pp. 361-76 in The Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Y.L. Denzin.  Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Kattner, Therese. 2012. "Using Focus Groups to Assess Students' Perceptions and Growth."  published on the National Center for Student Leadership website from SA Matters.

Introducing the Project to Students

1.  Choose students from your class that you think would be a good fit for your project focus. 

  • Note:  For me, this was a very intuitive process; I chose students who seemed to 'spark' in the classroom, whether because they liked the subject, felt connected to me or to others, or were involved students.  I also looked for quiet kids who might really blossom knowing that they were invited into a special group.  For each class, it worked out to be 8-10 students and just by chance, they were evenly grouped by grade level, letter grade performance, and gender.  The major point is to be small enough to be organized and large enough to facilitate a deep conversation with multiple points of view.


2.  Invite your group to meet outside the classroom during a quiet moment in order to briefly outline your idea for the focus group.  Follow up with a group email the next day asking for students to reply if they are interested in participating.  This allows students to think about the idea, talk to each other, and invite other students they know would be interested in participating but perhaps you had missed in the initial invitation list.  You could also canvas your counseling department partners for additional member suggestions.

Major highlights to share with the students during this invitation meeting:

philosophy/vision:  my goals and hopes for the group experience

takeaway:  what they would get out of the experience

logistics:  location and frequency of meetings.  

  • Note: In our case, I ran these sessions during a quiet class period once a quarter.  This year, depending upon the group dynamic, I would like to have the group meet after each unit.

Student Focus Group Work Session

35 minutes

For each focus group session consider doing the following:

1.  Before the session, reflect upon your major goals and questions for the group and create a set of optional prompts that focus in on something you are looking to get feedback on and suggestions for next steps from the group.  

  • Note:  All three of the unit prompts refer to lessons you can find on the Better Lesson site!  Our climate change work is found in Unit 3, our Foods Project in Unit 4, and the Cancerquest project in Unit 6.  


2.  Find a comfortable semi-private area for students to meet.  Present the prompts with a brief rationale for your focus for the day.  Remind students that they can choose to let the conversation go in different directions than the ones you have initially chosen as the priority.

3.  Let the students work on their own while you monitor your classroom setting.

  • Note:  For some sessions, I left a voice recorder and for others, I simply came back in at the end of the session in order to hear major highlights and recommendations from the group's discussion.  In other cases, students would come in and get me to discuss specific topics or ask for clarification before getting back to work on their own.  Because I share office, back room, and classroom space with teacher partners, all students were within earshot of a teacher at all times.  You may need to adjust your focus group meeting place/time/protocols to fit your specific school site and supervision needs.

Student Focus Group Work: Sharing Insights

15 minutes

1.  During the last 15 minutes of the focus group session, come back in and ask if the group is ready to share out their major takeaways.  Model active listening strategies and allow the conversation to naturally turn to brainstorming potential next steps.  

2.  At the end of each session, always remind students that you are happy and grateful for their input into the collective class experience!

  • Note:  After each session, I emailed the group my thanks as a follow up, along with an invitation to the students to continue their reflections and conversation and to email or talk to me whenever they felt they had something to share.  Many students responded to this request throughout the year and not only did it add to my understanding and personal teaching reflection moments, but it also added to the bond and relationship we had as classroom collaborators and learners.  Check out some examples of the types of focus group email responses I would receive from students after our sessions.  On the document, you will also find a sample email I sent to students this year after our initial invitation and introduction meeting.  

After the Session: Following Up, Following Through

I found that checking in with my focus groups kids through group emails elicited more feedback both in writing and in person.  I also observed that student focus group members took their roles in group work more seriously, showed increased engagement in classroom activities and discussions, and in general acted as informal class leaders throughout the year.  I also asked for summative, end of the year feedback which students completed individually by email.  

What students shared with me through this assignment and through more spontaneous email and lunchtime conversations is that this was a powerful connecting activity.  Students said they saw themselves as learners and directors of their own experiences at school and that they better understood and appreciated my role as a planner, thinker, and responder to student learning needs.  This is the first year in my life as a teacher where individual students would come by after school on a Friday to thank me for a lesson plan!  These are words students don't typically use or even think of and here they were, analyzing classroom activities in a new light.  You can read a little bit more on this subject in the newspaper article one of my students wrote for our school newspaper.

As this process evolves for me and my classes, I could envision utilizing Google hangouts or setting up a Google plus community or using other media tools as a way of connecting with students outside of class time.  

I really hope you feel inspired to try out this method for student feedback and evidence of learning.  Within our group, we saw a shift in responsibility for learning, an increased appreciation for the art of classroom teaching and learning, and a chance to explore personal preferences and concerns within the context of a trusting group of collaborators and colleagues.  Check out my video reflection for more tips and ideas.  I can't wait to hear your feedback!