Workshop on Using Student-Led Focus Groups to Gather and Make Sense of Assessment Evidence

Sponsored by the Center of Inquiry and the Center for Teaching and Learning at Southern New Hampshire University


October 6-7, 2018 | Southern New Hampshire University, Hooksett, NH

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

When we try to 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.

Having students lead and help analyze focus group conversations can make the conversations even more useful for several reasons. First, students are more likely to talk openly about sensitive issues with their peers than with faculty or staff. Student focus group leaders may also have a better sense of student culture than faculty or staff and have a better idea of how best to probe to ask useful questions. Finally, student focus group leaders may better understand when focus groups conversations are authentic and how to push harder if they are not.

On October 6-7, 2018, the Center of Inquiry and the Center for Teaching and Learning at Southern New Hampshire University will host a workshop to help assessment leaders, institutional researchers, faculty, staff, and students create and implement student-led focus groups to address institutional assessment questions. This workshop is designed to:

  1. 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.
  • Nicholas P. Truncale, Assessment Fellow and Director of the Provost Assessment Scholars at the University of Scranton
    The University of Scranton greatly benefited from implementing a Student Assessment Scholars program. Our program provides indirect evidence and qualitative assessment data to stakeholders on campus, which ultimately led to university-wide improvements. The data allows stakeholders to undergo reflection and discernment, both of which are integral to the Jesuit educational paradigm, and allows them to make informed decisions. This program also contributes to building a culture of evidence-driven improvement on our campus. Students are able to see their perspectives being incorporated into the university decision-making process. Our student scholars credit the program with improvements in their report writing, project and time management, critical thinking, teamwork, leadership skills, and adding something unique to their skill sets.
    Nicholas P. Truncale, Assessment Fellow and Director of the Provost Assessment Scholars at the University of Scranton


Since 2008, the Center of Inquiry has held seven workshops to train students to conduct focus groups with their peers. We have helped teams from over 40 institutions train students to conduct focus groups with their peers to dig into, or gather new, assessment evidence. Students from the Inquiry Scholars Collaborative at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and Franklin Pierce University will help lead the workshop on October 6-7. The Inquiry Scholars have taken up a number of research projects aimed at improving student learning on their campuses. At SNHU, the Inquiry Scholars analyze institutional data (like NSSE results), run focus groups, and report findings to stakeholders. At Franklin Pierce University Inquiry Scholars calibrate and assess student work, communicating findings to stakeholders.

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, many students who participate in focus groups as interviewees say they appreciate the opportunity to share their thoughts and reflect on their educational experience.



We suggest that institutions send four-person teams comprising two faculty and/or staff and two students, all of whom will lead this project on campus. You can bring more than two students if you wish. At minimum, institutional teams require one staff or faculty member and two students. At least two of the students on your team should be two or more years from graduating so that the lessons they learn this year will support your work next year.

We also ask that teams identify the issue that they want their focus group project to address prior to the workshop.



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 will help your team work through a planning template that we created based on our experience with successful, and unsuccessful, focus group and assessment projects at colleges and universities across the country. We will work 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 September 30, 2018 or until we reach capacity. If you have any questions about the workshop, please contact Kathy Wise at

  • Anne Dueweke, Director of Grants, Fellowships, and Research at Kalamazoo College
    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 Grants, Fellowships, and Research at Kalamazoo College

Agenda in Brief

The workshop begins at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 6th and ends at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 7th.

Workshop sessions will include:

  • Informal presentations by each team about their institution and the goals of their focus group project.
  • Training session on developing and running student-led 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.
  • Mock focus group training sessions.
  • Time for teams to develop their focus group plans.
  • Poster session in which teams present the final versions of their focus group plans.
  • Concluding session on working through common challenges in focus group projects.



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.

  • Cathy Zeek, Dean of Curricular and Faculty Innovation, and Steve Bloom, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs at Lasell College
    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 workshop, 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 Center staff provided and modeled.
    Cathy Zeek, Dean of Curricular and Faculty Innovation, and Steve Bloom, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs at Lasell College

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.



The registration fee is $200 per person. This will include continental breakfast and lunch on Saturday and Sunday, dinner on Saturday, as well as coffee and beverages throughout each day.


Lodging and Transportation

Please make your own lodging and travel arrangements, including transportation from the hotel to campus and back.

We have a block of rooms reserved at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Hooksett, NH. There is a two-night minimum for reservations. The rate is $159 for rooms with one king bed or $169 for rooms with two queen beds. Reservations must be made by September 15, 2018 to secure this rate. To receive the discounted rate, simply call the hotel directly at (603) 606-5485 and ask for the “Center of Inquiry/SNHU Workshop” room block. Please note this is a very busy time in the area and hotel rooms will be scarce. We recommend that you make a reservation as soon as possible.

Register today.

We need 5 institutions to register in order to run this workshop. Please register as soon as possible to reserve your place. We will not invoice you until we receive registration forms from 5 teams.