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  • 00:11

    THERESA THORKILDSEN: Hello.I'm Dr. Theresa Thorkildsen, formally.Informally, most people call me Terry or T squared.Today, we're going to talk about focus groups with adolescents.The projects that I have today are two case studiesshowing how we've conducted focus groups with youth in two

  • 00:35

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: different kinds of settings.I'm going to compare and contrast two different projectsjust so you can see some of the different ways in which wemodify focus groups as we're working with youth so that weget their full participation.Important-- essential for a strong focus group

  • 00:56

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: is starting with a clear purpose.So each of the two focus group conversationsthat I'm going to tell you about todayhave a clear purpose, a simple purpose,and a really distinct purpose.The first one is focusing on the concept of senioritis.We asked youth who are graduating seniors

  • 01:18

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: what that meant, what it was.And then the second one is focusingon the issue of inclusion of youth with disabilitiesinto regular classrooms.Starting with a clear purpose like that,we began with a writing task to warm up adolescents.They really need a chance to get introduced

  • 01:39

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: to a topic in a solitary way before theystart talking to each other.And so the senioritis project, we started with a short survey.We gave them some Likert scale itemsthat they could respond to.And then the inclusion project actuallystarted with a worksheet that asked

  • 02:02

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: you to talk about their stereotypes of youthwith disabilities.The shocking findings of those stereotypesreally served as a really nice catalyst for the conversationthat followed.For example, in one of these, the youthwere really talking about what do

  • 02:23

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: I think about when I think about somebody with disabilities.And they wrote things like stupid and dumb.Another put sad, uncomfortable-- all negative stereotypes.And so they use that to generate questions.

  • 02:44

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: After introducing themselves, the discussion leadersthen introduced some guiding questions, some really simpleones, around the idea of what is the concept to be discovered.So our senioritis group looked at thingslike how do you think about relationships.What kinds of agency and competence issues

  • 03:06

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: are you using in school.And they also focused on some probing questionsthat, every time we receive certain kinds of answers,we actually would probe for different kinds of things.So we were looking to see to what extent didstudents express confidence.Was there a sense of drive or commitment?

  • 03:29

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: And how well did they think about themselvesas academic learners and their performance?Did they work hard or not?And so within each kind of question,we were looking for these kinds of probes.So for the senioritis project, we actuallyasked people to play with confidence--

  • 03:50

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: how driven they were, whether their academic performancewas going on.In the disabilities study, or in the inclusion study--we have two different nicknames for that case study--we actually asked youth to talk about each of the stereotypesand to start thinking about ways to generate new narratives.

  • 04:17

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: Each of those kinds of focus groupsended with two different kinds of actions as well.So in the senioritis project, we actually asked peopleto do what I call a free write or an open-ended responsewhere we gave them a blank sheet of paperand we just said what other things did you have in mind.

  • 04:38

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: We also gave them a couple simple questions.One, we said to what extent do you experience senioritis,and then the other one-- so they answered yes or no to thatand wrote a little bit.And they also-- we asked them have you changed from freshmanyear to senior year.And that seemed to be the probing question

  • 04:59

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: that we generated some really nice little paragraphs.So these were afterthoughts that allowed each individualthen to express any thoughts that they had after the focusgroup conversation, whether they finished it or didn't finish.The inclusion project, on the other hand, ended with a callto action.

  • 05:19

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: So they spent a lot of time looking at those stereotypes,asking why was the narrative so negative,and then identifying some behaviorsthat they could all use in their classrooms to generatea more positive narrative.And so they twisted the language to focus from disabilities

  • 05:40

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: to focus more on abilities, and have spentthe rest of the year really buildingsome strong synergies around what doesit mean to be an abled learner.We also faced a bunch of dilemmas

  • 05:60

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: working with high school students in both cases.One of the things you have to realizeis that adolescents are pretty unpredictable in how ready theyare to talk.Some adolescents are afraid to talk about their ideas.Others assume that discussion leaders alreadyknow what they want to say, and so they have cryptic language.

  • 06:23

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: So we did a couple things to make these things easier.First of all, we used intact groups.We worked with kids who are in classrooms,and we used regular class period timesfor both of these kinds of focus groups.In the senioritis project, we actuallyhad high school students design the project.

  • 06:44

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: We were the mentors, my graduate students and I,and the high school students were the leaders.And so we asked them to service the discussion leadersin the group.The high school mentees who I had-- we call theminterns-- were from suburban schools,and they came to us within high schools that were in the city.

  • 07:08

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: And so they lead the discussion.And they really hammed up the factthat they didn't necessarily livein the same kind of environments,even though in some cases, they looked a little like each otherand stuff like that.So they hemmed up the difference between beingin an urban setting versus a suburban settingto generate more conversation and things like that.

  • 07:31

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: In that project, we also-- well, I'lljust also say that in the disabilities project,we had discussion leaders who were trusted volunteers,and they were actually the teachers of the school,and so the cool teachers as well.But students looked up to these teachers.They had a really strong reputation,

  • 07:53

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: and they were considered really well regarded,respectful of those students with disabilitiesin the school.We encouraged dissent as well as agreementby coming in with contrary ideas rather than agreeable ideas.And so my high school seniors, for example,

  • 08:14

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: came in with criticisms of their schoolsand then talked about the strengths and criticismsas well.In my senioritis project, we had this interesting opportunity,really, of having volunteers.My graduate students are from China and India,

  • 08:36

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: and they didn't know high school in the United States.And so they brought in their transnational experiences.They never heard of what a senior prom was.They didn't know what class rings were, yearbooks,any of the kinds of graduation ritualsthat go around the senior year of students in high schools.And so we explained that to the students

  • 08:58

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: and used that as a real key factorin encouraging high school studentsto be very articulate about their thinking.So we actually also thought about howto think about volunteers as individualsand then as members of the group.And so by asking people to write responses to prompts,

  • 09:23

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: such as you saw in the beginning and in the end, that'sa real nice way of helping each individualrealize that we care about their perspectives.We also labeled some of the reasons for our talks.We did that early in these focus group.Why do we want to know this information?What are we going to do with this information?

  • 09:44

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: How are we going to help you?And then we also spent a lot of timearguing with each other a little bitand disagreeing in a somewhat staged way,but really, it was a pretty authentic way.We came clean with wheres and ways in which we disagreed.The ways in which my high school students disagreed

  • 10:05

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: with me was something we used as a way of startingthe conversation so that the students hopefully sawa conflict that they could help us understand.And then my team members also did a nice jobof modeling some possible answersand things for how team members might thinkabout their own experience.

  • 10:26

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: And that was easier, obviously, among the high school students.But in the inclusion study, the teacher actuallywas somebody who was diagnosed with learning disabilitiesearly and really came clean with what was that processlike with his students.And so all of those kinds of things

  • 10:47

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: encouraged you to talk and to see the different perspectivesthat we might have added a little bit.Looking for the themes that we anticipated in finding,we also had done things like build codebooks ahead of time

  • 11:10

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: and then try and see, did some of those kindsof ideas come forth.We had a lot of audiotapes in the focus groupsin the senioritis project, partly because wehad these graduate students we wantedto show off a little bit.We had audiotape recorders in different parts of the room,but we also had their written responses, both to the survey

  • 11:34

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: and to the free response.We trained readers in the processof looking at each of those kinds of data independently,and then we spent a lot of time workingon interrater reliability.That obviously is a bit of a challengesometimes, especially when you have non-English speakers

  • 11:54

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: and English speakers.That put a nice pressure on us to builda very strong, clean, simple, straightforward codebook.And it becomes really easy for anybody nowto pick that codebook up and figure outhow to replicate our findings.We use descriptive and low-level inferential statistics

  • 12:16

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: to report our findings.For example, we have a table thatdescribes the percent of themes thatcame up in the focus group, and we divided that around the two.We did those focus groups in two different schools,and we did three focus groups in each kind of school,

  • 12:37

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: and the schools had a different theme.And so looking at students in a community-focused schoolversus students in a college prep school,and we could see how many focus group themes came up.And then we could use a very simple comparative thesis--or inferential statistics to be able to just say

  • 12:59

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: were there school differences.In that project, we didn't find school differences,but we did find that the myth of senioritisis really that-- that youth don't suddenly turn offtheir brain in their senior year,but that there is a lot of anxiety around the next steps,of course.

  • 13:19

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: Am I going to college?Am I going to end up where I am?And so the findings from that projectreally say that we need to take seriously the disaffection,but see it more as a stress management issuethan as something that is a disease, which the namesenioritis might convey.And then the inclusion study, actually,

  • 13:40

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: we used not as research in the formal publication sense,but we used it as a way of helpingus build a stronger community climate and a classroomclimate.So the youth spent time figuring outwhat is the common narrative that people say about us,and then what is the common narrative we would like

  • 14:01

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: to live with, and how do we make our narrative--the one we want to live with-- the dominant narrative.Together, we can see a lot of ways in which these focusgroups gave us a really good bout of new informationthat we would not have seen otherwise.

  • 14:21

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: OK.So together with that case study information,we spent some time reflecting on what kinds of questions couldwe have learned about doing focusgroups a little differently or a little more strongly.Some of these questions involve what

  • 14:42

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: did we do to allow ourselves to walk in the shoes of the focusgroup participants.So the students who are in the classeswhere we spent our time, what could wedo to make ourselves walk in their shoes a little bit morereadily?We also asked how are the potential focus group

  • 15:04

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: participants likely to understandtheir role as potential research informants.So students in a regular classroom are there to learn.When we switch tables on them and make that a researchactivity, we need to ask ourselveswhat do they think we're going to do with the informationthat they give us.

  • 15:24

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: So we asked ourselves what can wedo to minimize participants' natural nervousnessabout participating in focus groups.That's something that we all experience.What can we do to make the process a little bit morecomfortable for them?We also asked why are we targeting particular groups

  • 15:46

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: in our focus groups.So in one study, we targeted city kids,but two different kinds of city kids,kids from two different kinds of high schools.Why did we target that?What kinds of things can they tell usthat would help us understand the concepts that we'reinterested in?We can also ask ourselves how can you structure activities

  • 16:10

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: so that everyone, even the most introverted participant,has an opportunity to share their thoughts.By asking each person to write, both at the beginningand the end of our focus groups, we heard from everyonein the room.Again, another question we can askis how can we capitalize on the naturally-occurring

  • 16:32

    THERESA THORKILDSEN [continued]: environmental supports that occur when we'redetermining where to conduct our four focus group conversations.With these reflection questions in mind,we can really come together with a really strong,thoughtful, fun-to-do focus group.


Professor Theresa Thorkildsen discusses a case study on conducting focus groups with adolescent students. She outlines the practices she used during the study, highlighting her attempts to create a welcoming environment where adolescents would willingly engage in discussion.

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Conducting Focus Groups with Adolescents

Professor Theresa Thorkildsen discusses a case study on conducting focus groups with adolescent students. She outlines the practices she used during the study, highlighting her attempts to create a welcoming environment where adolescents would willingly engage in discussion.

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