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close this bookA Manual for the Use of Focus Groups (Methods for Social Research in Disease) (International Nutrition Foundation for Developing Countries - INFDC, 1993, 97 pages)
close this folderPart II: Staff training for focus group discussions
View the documentSection 1: Introduction
View the documentSection 2: Introduction to focus groups
View the documentSection 3: Overview of skills training session
View the documentSection 4: Roles of the team
View the documentSection 5: Personal characteristics of the moderator
View the documentSection 6: Preparation for each focus group discussion
View the documentSection 7: Entering the community and activities for the reception of participants
View the documentSection 8: Beginning the focus group discussion
View the documentSection 9: Moderator skills: Asking questions
View the documentSection 10: Encouraging and controlling the discussion
View the documentSection 11: Moderator and observer skills: Observing non-verbal messages
View the documentSection 12: Observer skills: Recording the session
View the documentSection 13: Closing the discussion and meeting
View the documentSection 14: The debrief

Section 9: Moderator skills: Asking questions

9.1 Introduction

The research team will have carefully prepared questions for the focus groups. If you are working in a second language, the field staff who may also be the translators may need to provide the research team with some guidance in wording the questions as well as translating them.

The question lines have been created to meet specific needs to obtain the right information as quickly as possible. During the pilot sessions it may become obvious that some of these need to be revised, as the participants are not able to understand what is wanted of them.

The most important thing to remember is that the questions need to be asked in exactly the same way as they have been prepared. If you change the order or think that something is wrong, check with the team first.

9.2 Types of questions used

The questions used in focus groups are what we call open-ended. This means that the question could be answered in a variety of ways. This helps the participants to answer what is important to them rather than in a specific way.

We start the session with very open-ended and general questions, but begin to get more specific as we get onto the topic of interest. This allows us to get the information we are really after.

Focus groups avoid yes/no questions. We phrase a question to encourage a discussion. If you ask "do you.." or "is.." questions, then you may simply get a yes/no answer.

Focus groups rarely use "'why" questions. This is because it suggests a sensible answer, and the participants may tend to answer in whatever way they think is correct, or what they think you want to hear.

"Accidental" questions may become necessary to ask once the focus group has begun. This happens when we have not anticipated the direction of the discussion, and a topic of great interest emerges during the session. If you think of any such extra or "accidental" questions, and are moderating with a controlling moderator, let them know before you explore the topic further. We usually try and ask these questions at the end of the session in the last five to ten minutes, but it may be necessary to ask them at the time they are suggested.

For example, suppose you were conducting a focus group on schistosomiasis haematobium (urinary schistosomiasis) and someone in the group says that haematuria (blood in the urine) is normal (Bello and Idiong 1982; Nash et al. 1982). This would be an occasion for an accidental or unplanned question, as set out in a hypothetical example in Box 8. "M" is the moderator.


It would be worthwhile to spend some time looking at the question guide that you have prepared, or if you are preparing the question guide with the help of the field staff, then it is better to let the staff complete the training sessions first.

Box 8: Accidental questions: Haematuria in young boys

M: We've been discussing various illnesses which you see in older children. You've mentioned malaria, cough, and diarrhoea? Is that all?

A: Yes (all participants agree). Older girls and boys are quite healthy around here. Of course, they have the normal things, like menstruation in girls and blood in urine in the boys, but that's part of growing up.

M: Blood in urine is interesting. Could you tell me a bit more: in what ways is this normal?

A: Like I said, it's just like menstruation, it's the first sign that the boy is becoming a man. All boys have this ...

M: They do?...