Hmmm, so many research methods...so little time!

This week I started with Lunt and Livingstone’s (L&L) article first and then delved into Knight. After finishing Knight, I wish I had read them in reverse order. I found Knight’s chapter on face-to-face inquiry methods to be a really nice primer to these types of research methods; however, L&L’s article was maybe a little too intense for me since I wasn’t able to place focus groups within the grand scheme of other types of face-to-face research methods until reading Knight.

I remember reading L&L’s article and thinking that the focus group would be a really good fit for the type of research study I’m interested in. After doing a quick literature search last week, I finally narrowed down my research question to: “What are the academic information seeking habits of first-generation undergraduate university students?” I felt that interviewing small groups of 4-8 students, grouped by similar socio-economic factors would be a good method for a) conducting cheap research and b) getting interesting feedback from a variety of first-generation students quite quickly.

But after reading Knight’s section on focus groups, I noticed he stated that focus groups are useful “as long as the results are treated only as material for thought, reflection and further investigation” (p. 71). L&L also discussed how focus groups have historically tended to be thought of as a way to further explore research questions, but usually have needed to be backed up by quantitative research in order to be taken seriously. While L&L did argue that research derived from focus groups can be reliable and valid without having to be backed up with quantitative research or other qualitative methods, I ended up scratching out my plan to write down “focus group” as the research method for my SSHRC proposal.

Instead, I ended up feeling as if an initial questionnaire would help me gain respondents, then I could use in-person interviews to help me flesh out the finer aspects of my research question, and lastly I could use Nominal Group Technique to help me achieve my final research objective - identifying the information seeking priorities of first-generation students. Ultimately, my whole interest in this subject stems from my belief that by better understanding the priorities and experiences of first-generation students, academic libraries can develop more effective instruction classes and outreach programs for this type of student.

Well, that’s pretty much my current research idea in a nutshell right now. I feel as if this blog post started out about the readings and then became more about my SSHRC proposal. But now that you know what I’m working on, I’d love to hear your feedback about my current (and ever-changing, it seems) research plan!

-Stephanie Quail

8 comments:

John Daniel said...

I actually like your first question better. By asking about priorities, you are suggesting that these students have a certain level of skill in information gathering and are able to prioritize. I think the first step is your first question. Find out what the students' habits actually are. Then you will know what techniques they are comfortable with and what techniques they don't know about. You can leverage the skills they do have to expand their skill set.

mwells said...

Steph, I think your research question is a very interesting one. It seems as if academic institutions are always a bit behind the current information-seeking habits of first-year students. The U of T library system only recently introduced an iPhone app, and it still seems to lack a few basic features. And iPhone apps are probably becoming a bit outdated well (maybe a library Facebook app? I don't know).

About your methodologies, I actually think you hit the nail on the head quite well. I was a bit confused about Knight's dismissal of focus groups, since many articles that I've read (including several on information-seeking behaviour) do use focus groups. But what they seem to do is use questionnaires to narrow down a group of candidates to interview, as you were suggesting. So I think you're on the right track! Of course, I'm not a professional academic, so take my opinion with a grain of salt :)

Amy. said...

I think your research question is a great one! Having taken the Information Literacy course this past summer, I understand how important it is for libraries to truly know their library users. When reading about focus groups this week, I was surprised to discover that focus groups are typically regarded as a less 'serious' research method, espeially considering the number of articles I've read that use focus groups as a means of conducting research, specifically on reference behaviour. Considering the popularity and 'ease' of focus group interviews, but also the commments made by Knight, I think you're on the right track. Your methodologies seem suitable for the type of research you're doing, and you've evidently been considering (by taking into account the praises and criticisms) the best ways to re-enforce your methods so that your end research is sound and reliable. 

Aaron. said...

I agree - it's a great question, lots of room for exploration and a very current issue.

As to the readings...I ended up finding myself in agreement with Knight, actually. I found myself imagining being in a focus group myself and there are so many variables that would drastically change what (and how much)I would say that I don't know if it would be an accurate reflection of my thinking.

Aaron. said...

Although, I have to admit, in saying that I probably am making the mistake identified in L&L's piece of judging a qualitative method by quantitative standards.

Heather said...

Steph – you’re question is a very topical one (as we know from first-hand experience!), and a focus group could still be useful so long as you consider coupling it with something else. Knight mentions that the focus group can be used to, “respond to researchers’ questions, findings from earlier studies, etc…” (p. 70). Although I see from the readings how focus groups alone can give a lot of information, it is sometimes unstructured, leading the researcher ( you!) to tease out something from all that is said in the group, and take it a step further.
Would you consider doing a broad quantitative research (survey, questionnaires) before conducting a focus group, if you still wish to consider focus group? Or did you cross off focus group in thick marker, never to go back again?! Upon re-reading (there are SO MANY ways to research…who knew!) the nominal group technique, that seems quite appropriate for your question, as it stresses the idea of sorting views/concerns into priorities. This list of priorities can lead to librarians creating more effective workshops, instruction and students getting the information they want/need. A win-win situation!

Heather

Stephanie Lauren said...

Thanks for the great feedback and suggestions everyone! I really did like the idea of the focus group at first, but I think Aaron's post neatly summed up the problems I think might come out of using this method. There are endless factors out there that can change a person's contribution to a group discussion! But I suppose this is why good research questions and well planned prompts are invaluable to a researcher. They help you focus the group discussion, keep people from dominating the group, and figure out ways to get the quieter people to contribute.

I honestly don't know if I'm skilled enough yet to mediate between 4-8 people's views on a topic :) So maybe I will start small (with interviews) and build my way up to the tricky focus group.

Ramona said...

I think the weakness that we are seeing with using the focus group as a stand-alone method is related to the larger problem of using lightly structured inquiry methods, which is that the data it captures tends to reflect the “spontaneous understanding” of research participants rather than their “receptive understanding” (Knight p. 52). The questions that focus groups are asked tend to be open-ended, which makes it a good method for capturing people’s opinions. But as Knight points out, these opinions reflect what is on the participant’s mind at the time, so the researcher must take into consideration the group dynamics that affect individual responses (i.e. if one participant dominates the discussion).

Knight’s Prozac example suggests that a mix of highly structured fixed response methods (i.e. questionnaire) and lightly structured methods (i.e. focus groups/interviews) can provide a fuller picture of the problem.

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