Students Engaging Students to Improve Learning: Using Student-Led Focus Groups to Gather and Make Sense of Assessment Evidence

A Teagle Assessment Scholar workshop at the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College
November 4–6, 2016

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Have you ever puzzled over how students interpreted questions on a survey? Would you like to know what students think of recent curricular changes? Would it help you to understand how students are approaching key assignments that you are using to assess general education outcomes?

When we try and make sense of assessment evidence, we often overlook a critical source of information—our students. Conversations with students in focus groups can aid our efforts to understand our assessment evidence. Focus groups allow us to dig into the mechanisms behind the patterns we see in quantitative assessment data. They get at the "why" and "how" behind our data. Focus groups can also help us gather new evidence and answer questions with more detail and nuance than we might get from a survey.

Engaging our students to lead focus group conversations can make the conversations even more useful. There are several advantages to using student-led focus groups to help gather and make sense of assessment data:

  1. Students are more likely to talk openly about sensitive issues with their peers than with faculty or staff.
  2. Student focus group leaders may have a better sense of the student culture on campus than faculty or staff and have a better idea of where they should probe with questions.
  3. Student focus group leaders may better understand when focus groups conversations are authentic and how to push harder if they are not.

On November 4–6, 2016, the Center of Inquiry will host a workshop to help assessment leaders, faculty, staff, and institutional researchers create and implement student-led focus groups to address institutional assessment questions. This workshop is designed to:

  1. Begin to train students to conduct focus groups with their peers and get them ready to train additional students to support their work when they return to campus.
  2. Help institutional teams develop a plan for conducting student focus groups to gather and make sense of assessment evidence.


Our participation in the workshop on student-led focus groups marked a giant step forward on our campus regarding the perception of assessment and the investment of the whole community in improvement. Not only did our students develop the skills and the confidence to lead focus groups on campus, but the administrators that saw the students’ subsequent work were really struck by the multiple ways that student-led focus groups reduced the potential for sanitized qualitative data and gave us compelling and authentic information. Furthermore, participation in this workshop galvanized students to engage themselves in the assessment process as real contributors to the improvement of the college.

Mark Salisbury
Assistant Dean and Director of Institutional Research & Assessment
Augustana College

Since 2008, the Center of Inquiry has held five workshops to train students to conduct focus groups with their peers and helped teams from 35 institutions develop student-led focus group projects to dig into, or gather new, assessment evidence. Past workshop participants who have created ongoing student focus group programs at their institutions will help us facilitate the November workshop, sharing their experiences and lessons learned from this work.

Learning how to conduct focus groups, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting the results to stakeholders on campus can be a powerful educational experience for student focus group leaders. Faculty and their student focus group leaders often treat the work as a form of undergraduate research. Some student focus group leaders also report being more invested in their education as a result of this experience. Finally, students who participate in focus groups as interviewees frequently say they appreciate the opportunity to share their thoughts and reflect on their educational experience.


Institutions should send four-person teams comprising two faculty and/or staff and two students, all of whom will lead this project on campus. We recommend that the students not be seniors so that you can work with them next year too.

Teams should also identify the issue that they want their focus group project to address prior to the workshop.

This workshop was critical in helping us launch a series of student-led student focus group projects on our campus. These projects have been very well received by students, faculty, and staff, and have led to substantive institutional change that has improved the student experience.

Anne Dueweke
Director of Faculty Grants & Institutional Research
Kalamazoo College


We design our workshops to serve as a retreat, a time and space for people to step back from the get-it-done-now pace of everyday work and reflect on, think about, and create plans in the company of supportive colleagues. We provide planning templates that are based on our experience with successful, and unsuccessful, focus group and assessment projects at colleges and universities across the country. Teagle Assessment Scholars and Center of Inquiry staff will provide support and guidance throughout the workshop, working directly with participants to help them develop and sharpen their focus group plans, including how they will share data from the focus groups with relevant people and groups on campus so that the data can be used to improve student learning and experience. We’ll also have opportunities for participants to share their plans and get feedback from one another.

To ensure that we can provide effective support to workshop participants, we keep our workshops small. We have room for 12 four-person teams at this workshop (2 faculty/staff and 2 students per team). We'll accept registrations on a first-come, first-served basis until October 21 or until we reach capacity. If you have any questions about the workshop, please contact Kathy Wise.

Lasell College places a high priority on undergraduate student research, so we were eager to participate in the Center’s workshop on student-led focus groups. Two juniors joined our team, and we agreed that our focus groups would explore how our students understood academic challenge and rigor. During our time at the Center, these two students outlined the problem, protocol, and process, and they had the chance to observe other student-led focus groups in action, and to role-play in mock focus groups themselves. We headed home with a definite idea of our next steps, fueled by the students’ emerging confidence and enthusiasm. Our students were well prepared for their leadership roles, including the challenges of encouraging participation and clarifying responses. Tabulating, analyzing, organizing, and presenting their results on campus and at regional conferences sharpened their analytic and public speaking skills, as well as their ability to adapt their message to specific audiences. The extended time with our team, the Center staff, and colleagues/student peers from other colleges was essential to completing our project successfully. As always, we appreciate the thoughtfulness, organization, and hospitality the Wabash staff provided and modeled.

Cathy Zeek
Professor of Education; Director of RoseMary B. Fuss Teaching and Learning Center
Steve Bloom
Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs; Dean of Undergraduate Education; Professor of English
Lasell College


The product of the workshop will be a detailed plan that people can share with institutional leaders and other critical constituencies at their institution and use to guide their work to implement their focus group projects.

After the Workshop

We’ll follow up with participants in the months after the workshop to see how things are going and help them implement, troubleshoot, and revise their focus group plans.

We see these workshops as a way to build a community of assessment practitioners and institutional change leaders—people who will continue to be resources for each other after the workshops end. We're committed to developing ways to help support this extended community beyond the workshop. Even though our institutions are different, we share the same goals, and we can learn from and adapt the good work of colleagues.


Cost per faculty/staff participant:

$650 registration fee
$350 for food, lodging, and local transporation, includes:

  • Breakfast (2), lunch (2), dinner (2), a reception, snacks, wine and beer
  • 2 nights of hotel accommodations in the campus hotel or a hotel in town
  • Shuttles to and from the Indianapolis airport, shuttles from the local hotel to campus

$1,000 total cost per participant

Cost per student participant

$350 for food, lodging, and local transporation, includes:

  • Breakfast (2), lunch (2), dinner (2), a reception, snacks
  • 2 nights of hotel accommodations in the campus hotel or a hotel in town
  • Shuttles to and from the Indianapolis airport, shuttles from the local hotel to campus

$350 total cost per student participant

Students were thrilled to be part of a campus initiative and learned incredibly useful focus group and facilitation skills. We had rich discussions at the workshop and each campus group was able to share challenges and work through solutions. Spending time with students away from campus helped me understand their perspective on the work we do and, as a result, I incorporated changes to campus assessment activities that benefited everyone.

Shannon LaCount
Director of Campus Success
Campus Labs


November 4, 2016

Friday Afternoon

  • The workshop begins at 3:00 p.m.
  • Introduction to the workshop
  • Opening session on the benefits of student-led focus group projects and lessons learned from this work

Friday Evening

  • Reception
  • Dinner

November 5, 2016

Saturday Morning and Afternoon

  • Breakfast
  • Training sessions about developing and running student-led student focus groups
    • Topics will include: IRB approval, confidentiality and record keeping, recruiting participants and incentives, the role of faculty/staff leaders, the role of student researchers, forming and training student focus group teams, guidelines for writing questions and taking notes, tips for moderating focus groups, etc.
  • Lunch
  • Mock focus group training sessions
  • Work time for teams to develop their focus group plans
    • During work times, Teagle Assessment Scholars and Center of Inquiry staff will assist participants, offering advice and serving as a sounding board for the emerging plans

Saturday Evening

  • Dinner
  • Work time for teams to finish their focus group plans and develop informal project presentations

November 6, 2016

Sunday Morning

  • Breakfast
  • Teams give informal presentations on the highlights of their focus group plans
  • Final session on working through common focus group project roadblocks
  • Teams schedule post-workshop follow-up conversations with Center of Inquiry staff and Teagle Assessment Scholars
  • Box lunches
  • The workshop ends at 12:30 p.m.



Register here