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Using focus groups beyond surveys for school district insights

Gain a better understanding of your school community’s perspectives, experiences and needs with qualitative research — and three ways to do so.

When we talk about gathering community input, surveys often come to mind. They are a great method for gathering quantitative data — and sometimes open-ended feedback on key topics — but they aren’t the only method for understanding your community’s perceptions, experiences, and needs. 

Qualitative research methods — such as focus groups or listening sessions — can help contextualize community feedback, add meaningful color to complex or sensitive topics, and engage otherwise hard-to-reach members of the community. 

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Research-based focus groups play an important role when it comes to gathering meaningful qualitative data and are a popular choice with the school districts my team and I partner with because of how versatile they are. 

A well-run focus group can help your district dive deeper into your stakeholders’ perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes about complex topics. And because participants are surrounded by others who understand them and have similar concerns, you can build a strong rapport that drives authentic dialogues — leading to new perspectives and creative solutions to the issues at hand. 

Below, I’ve shared three key ways to leverage focus groups to build trust and gather meaningful qualitative data.

1. Inform survey design 

Before crafting your survey, connect with the stakeholder groups you’re interested in collecting survey data from using focus groups. Meeting with stakeholders ahead of time will help you make decisions about who to send the survey to and what types of questions to ask. You’ll also discover what topics you’ll need to ask more questions about and which ones might not be necessary.

2. Dig deeper into survey data 

You’ve administered your school survey and analyzed the results — and in some cases you may find you have more questions and want to dive deeper into the “why” behind the survey data. This can be particularly helpful if your survey has revealed new concerns or differences in perception across stakeholder groups. Focus groups can also be a great opportunity to simply ask more questions and really drill down on critical topics.  

3. Prioritize qualitative data 

Focus groups don’t have to be attached to a survey to be effective. In fact, there are instances where it makes sense to have focus groups serve as the primary research method — such as when you’re already aware of a problem in your district or at a specific school and want to better understand the experiences of impacted stakeholder groups. 

A prime example might be if you’re aware of a bullying problem at certain schools. Another would be if you’re seeing an uptick in families or employees leaving the district. In these cases, it can be useful to hear more about stakeholder experiences and gather targeted feedback and recommendations. 

Alternatively, you may be looking for open feedback and suggestions around key topics, such as staff interest and need for professional development. 

“Some districts will do focus groups first and then use that data to develop a survey to see if the greater community has similar feedback. Another option is to collect the survey data, and then use the focus groups to dive deeper into the ‘why’ behind certain responses.” — Dr. Amy Boehl, senior director of research 

Do focus groups need to be in-person? 

As we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual meetings are an effective alternative to in-person focus groups — and sometimes more ideal for stakeholders who have busy schedules.

You also can give attendees both in-person and virtual options, which gives them the freedom to decide what is best for them.

Whether in-person or virtual, focus groups will give you a deeper understanding of what your stakeholders want from your district and help develop meaningful action plans. By giving your community the time and space to voice their opinions you will build trust and help strengthen relationships.

Start planning your 2021-22 focus groups and research projects with the help of K12 Insight’s expert research team. Request a free consultation today.

By Jennifer Coisson, Ph.D.
Originally published September 3, 2021 Last updated May 29, 2024