5.5 Interviews and focus groups

Different types of interview

Interviews are a traditional feature of practitioner research and range from structured to unstructured.

Structured interviews are in many respects similar to a questionnaire. The researcher has a set of often quite closed questions which they then ask the respondent. This is often the form of questioning used in market research.

Semi-structured interviews are probably the most common form of intereview in practitoner research. There are usually a set of fairly open questions which the participant is allowed to respond to freely.

Unstructured interviews are similar to life histories and the respopndent is allowed to talk freely about the general with as little prompting as possible from the researcher.

Choosing which particular type of interview to use will depend very much on the purpose of the research and the level of control you wish to have as a researcher on the data you obtain from participants.

Focus groups

Focus groups have been included here because in many respects they represent a form of group interview. However, focus groups are based on notion that when people gather to talk about something, their contributions and understandings will be enriched by the group dynamic (Cousin, 2009). As such, participants will be able to share and compare their experiences, rather than just being a single voice. However, the nature of group dynamics also means that the researcher has to be particularly careful to manage the situation so that no one participant is able to dominate or that the discussion is allowed to go completely off topic.

It is suggested that focus groups work best with between four and twelve participants and lasting between one and four hours (with a break, of course!). 

Benefits of using interviews and focus groups

Structured interviews allow the researcher to gather a fixed set of data but, unlike questionnaires where the response cannot be instantly checked, it allows the researcher to clarify responses as they are given.

Semi-structured and unstructured interviews give the participant much more opportunity to respond in their own words and in their own way. As such it takes some of the power away from the researcher and provides more in-depth data than more structured forms of data collection.

Disadvantages of using interviews anf focus groups

Interviews and focus groups can provide a huge amount of data and one of the first problems facing the researcher is what to do with that data. In particular, it cannot be easily analysed in its raw state and so needs to be transribed into a written format. Transcription is dealt with in more detail in the analysis section, but the key decisions facing the researcher are:

  • how to transcribe the raw data into a format suitable for analysis - yourself or a professional transcriber?
  • should all the data be transcribed or just part of it?
  • how much detail should the transcription have (just whole words or abbreviated words, ums and ahs, and pauses)?
  • how should the transcribed data be analysed (manuually or using analysis software

Guidance on using interviews and focus groups as a research method

The Research in Education (RESINED) website at the Plymouth University (http://www.edu.plymouth.ac.uk/resined/resedhme.htm)has an excellent section on interviews, including some quite funny advice on what to avoid.

It also has links within the site to interview and focus group schedules and sections on transcription and analysis: 

Linked from the section on interviews is the site of the Free Management Library, which has a section on conducting focus groups.http://managementhelp.org/businessresearch/focus-groups.htm

Interview schedules
Ohio University has produced an extensive range of interview schedules, as part of an initiative to support the professional learning of school teachers. This link will take you to the section on Observing and then you just have to scroll down.

Examples of research which has used interviews and focus groups

Wendy Fisher, a COLMSCT Fellow, did a research project on provision of tutor feedback using tablet PCs. The project used both interviews and focus groups as triangulated methods and is disseminated here as a final project report, Do we engage the student in e-assessment by personalising lecturers’ feedback interventions? 

 Use of interviews and focus groups in research

Last modified: Tuesday, 4 Mar 2014, 16:36