Qualitative Methods in Monitoring and Evaluation: Using Focus Groups

Evaluators use focus groups in every step of a monitoring & evaluation project’s lifecycle, from planning through to impact evaluation. Usually, a project planner, manager, or evaluator will flesh out data needs through the creation of a Logical Framework (LogFrame) or Evaluation Statement of Work (Evaluation SOW). Once data needs are pinpointed, the project planner, manager, or evaluator will decide if a focus group is the best way to collect data relating to the evaluation questions or indicators. Budgets and time also play a role here too: Focus groups tend to be cheaper than multiple individual interviews, and less time consuming. Going back to Bamberger, Rugh, and Mabry’s (2012) constraints, some evaluators see focus groups as a preferred method for projects with budgetary or time constraints.

Krueger and Casey (2010, pp. 378-380) note that project planners, managers, and evaluators use focus groups to:

  • Assess needs: A focus group might be a good way to gather a particular interest group together to discuss needs in the community. For example, perhaps a project planner would convene a group of women farmers to talk about their needs getting their produce to the market.
  • Design an intervention: Focus groups can be useful to help design an intervention, especially when we are already knowledgeable about the development problem and we have fleshed out a theory of change. Holding a focus group can be a useful way to devise an intervention strategy, and to identify the potential micropolitics issues around it.
  • Evaluate project options: Project planners sometimes use focus groups to evaluate several project or even larger policy options. For example, perhaps a project planner needs to weigh up different policy options for providing extension services to female farmers. Different policy options could be discussed in a focus group, perhaps using a participatory tool to flesh out ideas and facilitate conversation.
  • Pilot test data collection tools or instruments: Sometimes project managers and evaluators might use a focus group to pilot test a data collection tool. For example, an evaluator might use a focus group to pilot test a questionnaire. In this case, the evaluator would give the questionnaire to the participants, and then have a discussion about the questionnaire, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it might be improved.
  • Understand findings: Focus groups can help a project manager or evaluator to understand preliminary or even unexpected findings, or to flesh out causes and processes. After a project manager or evaluator has conducted other research and triangulated data, he or she might moderate a focus group to discuss findings, causes, and processes. Focus groups can shed light on quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method data and findings.
  • Monitor and evaluate operations: Project managers in particular might use focus groups as a “health check” on a project, to collect data on indicators and investigate progress towards objectives. In this way, a manager can flesh out what is going well in a project, and what is not working. Likewise, carrying out focus groups after the end of a project can help us to gather data to evaluate and show a project’s impact.

In my monitoring and evaluation work, I usually conduct a focus group after I have engaged in extensive participant observation and/or interviews and I have a feeling for the topic and the emic characteristics around it. I know that to ask, what is important, and I can devise follow up questions naturally, as a result of my previous research. I tend to miss fewer opportunities for follow up questions if I know something about the topic before moderating a focus group.

Given an appropriate topic or project and a good moderator, a focus group can be an effective way for a project planner, manager, or evaluator to collect data. Learn about other qualitative methods.

Bamberger, Michael, Jim Rugh, and Linda Mabry. Real World Evaluation: Working under Budget, Time, Data, and Political Constraints. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2012.
Krueger and Mary Anne Casey. “Focus Group Interviewing,” in Handbook of Practical Program Evaluation, 3rd ed., Joseph Wholey, Harry Hatry and Kathryn Newcomer, eds., San Francisco: Wiley, 2010, pp. 378-403.
Krueger, Richard and Mary Anne Casey. Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2009.

About the Author
Dr. Beverly Peters has more than twenty years of experience teaching, conducting qualitative research, and managing community development, microcredit, infrastructure, and democratization projects in several countries in Africa. As a consultant, Dr. Peters worked on EU and USAID funded infrastructure, education, and microcredit projects in South Africa and Mozambique. She also conceptualized and developed the proposal for Darfur Peace and Development Organization’s women’s crisis center, a center that provides physical and economic assistance to women survivors of violence in the IDP camps in Darfur. Dr. Peters has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Dr. Peters.

To learn more about American University’s online MS in Measurement & Evaluation or Graduate Certificate in Project Monitoring & Evaluation request more information or call us toll free at 855-725-7614.