Student Focus Groups Give CalSouthern Students a Voice

Mar 7, 2016 by Dr. Robert Weathers

Focus-GroupA recent—and quite positive—trend in higher education has been toward more actively inviting student body involvement in the self-assessment process that leading universities use to improve their academic programs and services. This may not grab your attention at first, but just think about it for a moment.

What if your feedback—about courses, textbooks, assignments, interaction with faculty and other advisors and even grading—was collected and combined with that of your student peers? And what if that feedback was guaranteed to be heard? And even more important, it would be incorporated directly into policy changes that you, the student, would immediately benefit from? Wouldn’t that be worth something to you? CalSouthern is taking this trend radically to heart. Let me give you just one recent, pioneering example.

A focus group was conducted in 2015 with our Bachelor of Arts in Psychology learners. What is a focus group? A focus group brings learners straight into the academic program review process as full partners and stakeholders. More specifically, we had nearly 10 percent of our BA learners not only participate in a live, online focus group discussion, but every single one who participated reported greatly appreciating the opportunity to provide input to assess what is working, and what needs improving, in our BA program.

Gia Hamilton, MS, LMFT

Here’s how the focus group project evolved. First, a current BA learner and a BA alumnus, in conjunction with two academic advisors from the School of Behavioral Sciences—Gia Hamilton, MS, LMFT and Mary Ann Palting, MS—partnered to develop questions for the focus group. Next, Mary Ann recruited current learners to participate in the actual focus group. Anonymity of focus group participants was insured in order to encourage honest feedback. For the same reason, the online focus group meeting was actually facilitated by a CalSouthern staff member, Brett O’Rourke, MBA, who works outside of the School of Behavioral Sciences. In addition, participant numbers instead of names were used to review the information gathered from the focus group discussion and the short questionnaire which immediately followed.

In terms of describing their overall experience in the BA in psychology program, all focus group participants responded quite favorably. Respondents identified the involvement of the faculty mentor as a major factor in their course experience. They voiced a preference for mentors who are approachable, as evidenced by communication, and who provide substantial feedback on assignments, as evidenced by constructive and relevant comments.

All participants reported valuing consistent, standardized course challenge levels and assignments throughout the BA program. In addition, they stated that videos and other visually oriented materials enhanced their understanding of the course material and connection with the mentor. And all participants identified textbook selection as crucial in their course satisfaction levels. They expressed appreciation for the current diversity of electives, and requested even more.

One of the unanticipated findings that emerged from the focus group was that participants shared concerns regarding anonymity on the post-course surveys. Several participants stated they may experience challenges in providing the most transparent feedback if they are not absolutely certain that their input is anonymous. Interestingly, and supportive of the focus group format, all participants who responded to the follow-up questionnaire reported that they felt very safe and were fully transparent with their feedback in the focus group.

Finally, both the BA learner and alumnus who helped develop the focus group—and who also participated in the group—vocalized their appreciation for the importance of their involvement in the focus group process. They also strongly recommended that learner-based focus groups continue to be cultivated in the future at CalSouthern as a value-added assessment measure, and supported the use of these findings to improve already very positively received university programs, just like the BA in Psychology.

As evidenced by the focus group program, CalSouthern is a school where your voice will be heard. In fact, you will be warmly invited to actively participate in self-evaluation innovations like this most recent group.

If you are interested in the cutting-edge inspiration for the CalSouthern assessment program, check out the well-written article “Embracing Students as Equal Stakeholders in a Culture of Assessment,” published in Assessment Update.




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