Case study: The role of the moderators in focus group interviews: Practical considerations

Authors: Angela Pickering and Catherine Watts


Focus group interviews are an increasingly popular, albeit poorly documented, tool in education research. This case study details the authors first experiences of using a focus group interview in a small-scale qualitative inquiry and documents some of the practical issues surrounding the responsibilities of focus group moderators. A redefinition of the facilitative, recording, checking and analytical roles of the Moderator and Assistant Moderator is considered.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

The case described here formed part of a wider study (Watts 2003a) which sought to explore some of the reasons behind the declining numbers of students wishing to study modern foreign languages at degree-level in the UK. This was a small-scale qualitative study which used a series of focus group interviews among other methods,such as a questionnaire and semi-structured individual interviews, to elicit perspectives from the student participants. Data for the study were collected in 2001, designated the European Year of Languages.

The project leader was Catherine Watts. She worked closely with Angela Pickering who acted throughout the study as Catherine's "critical friend" (Bassey 1995). Whilst Catherine was the main Moderator in the focus group presented in this case study, Angela undertook the role of Assistant Moderator. Neither researcher was experienced in using this particular data-collection method. Both researchers are employed at The University of Brighton in the School of Languages, which partially funded the study, as did the Anglo-German Foundation in London which also commissioned the main study.

2. The case

The following working definition of the focus group interview underpinned the research. It should be

a small (6-12 member), relatively homogeneous group that meets with a trained moderator who facilitates a 90- to 120-minute discussion in a non-threatening, relaxed environment about a selected topic (Bers 1989: 261).

Focus group interviews were used as they seemed to offer a time-efficient means of collecting a reasonably wide range of student opinions which could be used to inform and validate the design and development of a questionnaire. With their origins in market research (Wilson 1997) and the social sciences (Morgan 1993) the use of focus groups has become an increasingly popular data-collection tool in the qualitative research setting. Rather than generating quantitative data and producing results which are representative of, or generalisable to, a population group as a whole, focus groups enable a range of perceptions, feelings and attitudes from respondents across a range of subject areas to be explored (Keegan & Powney 1987). Focus groups therefore allow relatively in-depth discussions to be conducted with a small group of people from the target population on issues important to a particular study (Kahn & Manderson 1992) and have the potential to allow a wide range of responses to be collected (Watts & Ebbutt 1987). As well as being a useful research tool in their own right, data generated from focus groups can also be used to validate possible questions planned for a subsequent questionnaire (ibid.), or as a means of exploring questionnaire responses in greater depth with a representative sample from the target population (Mullings 1985).

Several considerations emerged at the start of the project. The main one concerned the issue of training. As Stewart & Shamdasani (1990: 100) note:

conducting a focus group is an art that requires considerable experience and training. The quality of the data obtained from a focus group discussion is the direct result of how well the moderator carries out the interview.

Finding some form of appropriate training for how to manage and conduct focus groups proved problematic. Much of the available literature did not describe the actual conduct of group interviews in the field (Watts & Ebbutt 1987), although four accounts of focus group discussions used in education research proved particularly helpful (Keegan & Powney 1987; Watts & Ebbutt 1987; Denscombe 1995; Wilson 1997) as they did provide details about the actual management of the discussion. In addition, a practical guide for the conduct of focus group interviews (Krueger 1994) informed initial planning, in particular the definition of the roles and responsibilities of the Moderators.

This case study documents the practical management of the first focus group organized and conducted by the two researchers. It aims to make a contribution to the practice of focus group research in the broad field of education by providing a detailed account of the focus group process, as experienced by the researchers/authors. Lessons learned are highlighted and recommendations are made for the management of subsequent focus group interviews in education research, particularly with regard to the roles of the Moderator and Assistant Moderator.

3. Preparing for the focus group interview

Participants were recruited to take part in the first focus group interview documented here from the University of Brighton. First-year undergraduate students were targeted from across the university who could have theoretically studied a degree in modern languages given their A-level results but had chosen not to. Each individual contacted had obtained a grade D or above in a modern foreign language at A-level between 1998 and 2000 and was also registered for the first year of the Diploma in Modern Languages programme (a post A-level qualification) at the University of Brighton. Only twenty-three students matched these criteria, of whom six volunteered to take part in the first focus group interview and gave individual permission for the discussion to be recorded.

The Moderator took responsibility for organizing the interview. This included booking all equipment and the room, obtaining refreshments and preparing honorariums. Regarding the latter, each student was paid £5 for their time, although this was an uneasy decision to make (see Watts 2003b for further discussion).The interview was recorded usingboth audio and video tape with external, multi-dimensional microphones. The video was used with the aim of providing an extra dimension to the subsequent transcript through evidence of paralinguistic clues such as nods of dis/agreement.

Before the interview the Assistant Moderator was sent a briefing letter by the Moderator, which outlined her responsibilities. The briefing letter was based around the rules for Assistant Moderators set out by Krueger (1994: 124-5) being the only detailed description of the role available. The Assistant Moderator was thus asked to: help with the setting up of the interview room rather than to take responsibility for it; deal with late-comers; take notes throughout the discussion; monitor recording equipment; ask questions if invited; be prepared to give an oral summary at the end of the discussion; debrief the session with the Moderator; read and comment on the subsequent data analysis.

4. In the field

Shortly before the interview started both Moderators organized the room. Classroom chairs were arranged in a circle. As participants arrived, they were welcomed, given a name badge and their fee in order to deal with the remuneration at an early stage (Keegan & Powney 1987) and asked to seat themselves. First names only were written on the lapel badges to promote communication within the group (Ebbutt 1987). Participants were invited to help themselves to refreshments for the same reason (Krueger 1994). The audio recording equipment had been placed in the centre of the circle of participants and the video to one side of the circle. The subject of the discussion had also been written on the classroom board and read: "factors which contributed to your decisions not to do a degree in modern foreign languages".

At the appointed time, the Moderator switched on the recording equipment, introduced the discussion by briefly outlining its purpose, reassuring participants of the confidentiality of the proceedings and requesting students not to interrupt each other or talk at the same time if possible in order to promote the clarity of the recordings. Participants were then asked to complete a preliminary task, in order to trigger the discussion. Each person was asked to write down two initial thoughts relating to the subject on the board on small record cards (Kent 1996) and to read out their cards in turn. As the discussion ensued, some of the points were duplicated, but going back to the cards periodically enabled the issues arising to be re-considered in some depth and promoted the exchange of further ideas. The original statements also had the advantage that they could be taken to represent 'uncontaminated opinions', that is, ones which had not been influenced by the ensuing discussion (Morgan 1993).

There were no latecomers and the Assistant Moderator was not called upon to do anything in the interview other than watch, take notes and monitor recording equipment, acting as both a listener and observer during the discussion and endeavoring to reach a balance between writing notes and watching, listening and experiencing (Munn & Drever 1995). At the end of the discussion, participants were thanked for their time and asked for anonymous feedback by completing a 'reactions questionnaire' in order to help the planning of subsequent group interviews.

During the time in which the participants were leaving the room the Assistant Moderator was able to look through her notes, identifying the main points gleaned from the discussion. After the participants had left, an informal debriefing session was held between the two Moderators regarding the process of the session, the questionnaires and the interview content. It emerged that the audio tape had not been turned over during the discussion, but, on reflection, this action would have been very intrusive. In subsequent interviews a longer audio tape was used. The video recording of this first interview thus proved invaluable, as otherwise the recording of this discussion would have been incomplete.

The interview data were transcribed soon after the discussion in order to establish a permanent written record of the interview and to serve as a basis for further analysis (Stewart & Shamdasani 1990). The transcript produced was based on the model suggested by Powney & Watts (1987) which focuses on the substance of the discussion rather than on fine linguistic detail. The data were subsequently coded using an 'open coding' approach (Strauss & Corbin 1990) by giving the 'chunks' of data a descriptive label (Birley & Moreland 1998) with the aim of discovering emergent concepts. The 'thought cards' which had been used at the start of the discussion were at this point invaluable. Following the discussion, an initial analysis of its content was returned to each participant for their verification regarding the trustworthiness of the interpretation and for any further comments (Watts & Ebbutt 1987). Both Moderators subsequently took part in an iterative process, which lasted several weeks, of reflection, reading and examination of the transcript until final conclusions were drawn.

5. Lessons learned

On the basis of the experience of managing and conducting a focus group interview and subsequent reflective conversations between the researchers, a number of lessons were learned. In addition, responses to the participant 'reactions questionnaire' distributed after the focus group interview were considered. These confirmed that the experience had been positive and participants had particularly liked the fact that the Moderator summed up the main issues raised at the end with the agreement of the participants.

The discussion which follows, however, focuses on insights gained from reflection by the Moderators on the process of the interview and relates in particular to the responsibilities of the Moderators, specifically the facilitative, recording, checking and analytical roles. These are evaluated in relation to the rules of Krueger (1994: 124-5) as outlined previously and which had informed the interview planning process and had been referred to in the briefing letter sent by the Moderator to the Assistant Moderator.

5.1. The facilitative role

The notion of conducting a focus group interview effectively includes an assumption that the interview will be facilitated. The Moderator had assumed most of the practical roles concerned with the planning of the physical environment of the interview room and the organization of equipment and refreshments. The Moderator also took responsibility for the welcoming of participants on the day and therefore began the process of setting participants at their ease and opening up channels of communication.

The seating of the Assistant Moderator had been considered by both Moderators on the day of the interview. Existing norms of practice (Krueger 1994: 124-5) indicated that the Assistant Moderator should deal with the monitoring of equipment and other practical issues, whilst also being able to observe, engage with, record and participate in (if asked) the focus group discussion. In the light of this, it was recommended (ibid.) that the Assistant Moderator should sit opposite the Moderator. However, 'on the day', the decision was taken to seat the Assistant Moderator outside the interview circle to enable her to record the interaction whilst still being able to deal unobtrusively with equipment and latecomers or interruptions. The Moderator also took the decision not to ask the Assistant Moderator to take part in the discussion.

These decisions appear to have been well-advised. The assumption by the main Moderator of responsibility for planning and for facilitating the interview meant that she could feel comfortable with the interview environment and build a productive and trusting relationship with the participants, whilst the Assistant Moderator offered flexible support 'on the day', helping as needed. Experience also suggested that requests for the Assistant Moderator to contribute to questioning at the end of the discussion would and should be rare, given the importance of his/her recording and debriefing role (see below).

5.2. The recording and checking role

The recording and checking role of the Assistant Moderator is one which is traditionally designed to supplement the mechanical recording of data, to aid subsequent interpretation of the data and also to act as a 'fail-safe' for the Moderator within the interview itself. According to Krueger, the Assistant Moderator should help the process of the interview by ensuring coverage of main and important topics through the asking of supplementary questions (when invited). S/he should also provide an oral summary of the interview at the end of the interview which gives a sense of the main issues and key findings and then subsequently help in the debriefing process.

Experience suggested, however, that if the Assistant Moderator were to fulfill the recording role efficiently enough to support subsequent debriefing, then it was problematic to also ask her/him to offer ongoing questions or provide an on-the-spot oral summary of the main points which had emerged from the discussion. Both Moderators felt that the Assistant Moderator should not be called upon to act as a 'second' interviewer by asking supplementary questions or providing clarification or an on-the-spot summary of the main points, but rather to engage 'at a distance' with the interview discourse, taking notes which would not duplicate mechanical recordings but would help in the debriefing process. These could involve documentation of the main points of the interview or verbatim phrases, but could also focus on interactional details, highlighting a particularly dominant participant, or a particularly silent one, or paralinguistic clues that may not have been noticed by the Moderator.

The nature of the note-taking undertaken by the Assistant Moderator is relevant here. It was recommended (Krueger 1994: 124-5) that the Assistant Moderator should take notes which captured word-for-word what participants said. In addition, they should record their own thoughts and questions and record non-verbal activity whilst also sketching seating and other relevant contextual details. Taken as a whole, this seemed 'a tall order' for one person to complete efficiently, particularly if monitoring recording equipment and giving an oral summary had also to be taken into account. There is an obvious tension between the 'insider' and 'outsider' status of the Assistant Moderator. Admittedly all of those involved in information gathering (including the main Moderator) are called upon to engage with the process of information exchange whilst at the same time being detached in order to judge the quality of data. However, the act of recording events in writing militates against an effective participatory oral role.

In the light of experience therefore, the role of the Assistant Moderator is seen as most effective when non-interventionist, or rather to be seen as an observer-participant who is in the action but apart from it; 'inside' in the sense of being engaged with the meaning of what is being said and able to make notes of sufficient depth and detail to contribute to a dialogue in which they contribute their own 'version of events', so aiding reflexivity. This would make sense as it would allow the Assistant Moderator to fulfill the role of recorder and de-briefer but not interfere (unless absolutely required) with the Moderator's relationship with the participants.

5.3. The analytical role

In terms of the type of data to emerge from this focus group discussion, it was evident that a comparatively in-depth discussion had taken place and that the researchers were, at the end, better able to understand and explore some of the key issues to emerge from the perspective of the participants. This would not have been the case had a questionnaire alone been used, as details would not have emerged in such depth. This can be illustrated, for example, by one point in the focus group discussion when the participants were asked who had helped them make the decision to give up the notion of degree-level modern foreign language study. Several people mentioned that they had received such advice from their school teachers and the reasons behind this could be explored in some detail (notions such as individuals 'not being good enough' to study foreign languages at degree level emerged here, as well as complaints regarding the nature of the A-level curriculum which was deemed 'difficult' and 'stressful' and consequently offputting). In comparison to the richness of this data and the ensuing discussion, the similar question on the subsequent questionnaire elicited the single answer 'school teacher' or 'careers advisor' and did not allow for any further explanation or discussion (although, of course, the questionnaire data could be 'generalised' to a whole population whereas this is not the case with focus group interviews). A further consideration regarding the use of focus group discussions to inform a subsequent questionnaire is that the actual words/phrases used by the participants in the former can be woven into the questions in the questionnaire, thereby producing a more 'user-friendly' data-collection tool.

The analytical role as defined by Krueger (1994: 124-5) required the Assistant Moderator to be prepared to give an on-the-spot oral summary of interview content, debrief the session with the Moderator and read and provide feedback on the subsequent analysis. As noted above, there had been some concern that the tension between facilitative and recording and checking roles might impact on the degree to which it would be possible to fulfill all of these responsibilities. However, the interview was nevertheless an event in which the Assistant Moderator had participated, albeit silently. This shared experience formed the basis for a dialogue between the Moderator and Assistant Moderator which was enhanced in this particular case by the fact that the Assistant Moderator was also an educationalist who was familiar with the nature and purpose of the research. This dialogue took place over several weeks following the first interview and enabled a more solid triangulation for interpretations to be established.

6. Recommendations

On the basis of our experience both in the field and outside of it, a number of recommendations for the conduct of focus group interviews in education research are proposed. These, we would argue, offer the potential to increase the quality of the support offered to the Moderator by the Assistant Moderator, whose responsibilities are summarised in Figure 1 below.

Fig. 1 Responsibilities of the two Moderators
Moderator Assistant Moderator
Sets up equipment, arranges refreshments and organizes the interview room. Welcomes the participants as they arrive and hands out honorariums. Supports the Moderator in setting up equipment and organizing the interview room.
Oversees data gathering, negotiating with the Assistant Moderator the level of detail of note-taking (to supplement and not replace mechanically-recorded data). Facilitates the discussion. During the interview monitors equipment, welcomes late-comers and resolves interruptions. Takes notes throughout the discussion for the purpose of debriefing (as negotiated with the Moderator). Does not take part in the discussion unless exceptionally requested
Thanks participants. Looks through notes and summarises key points/issues.
Debriefs the session with the Assistant Moderator immediately after the interview. Transcribes and analyses interview data. Contributes to debriefing immediately after the interview. Supports ongoing data analysis process.

7. End word

This case study has documented two researchers' first experience of using a focus group interview to elicit participants' perspectives in the broad field of education research. More specifically, the interview formed a small part of a wider study to explore some of the reasons behind the decline in the uptake of modern foreign languages at degree level (Watts, 2003a). The case study details the practical management of the focus group interview from the perspectives of the two researchers, who were novices in using this data-collection tool, and aims to add an account of practice which is important given the dearth of other literature surrounding this issue.

The case study outlines the preparations that were made before the interview, details experiences in the field and summarises lessons learned with particular reference to the roles of the two Moderators. It concludes by proposing a workable and practical framework for the management and conduct of focus group interviews in the broad field of education research which is relevant to other researchers and teachers working in this area.


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