Focus Groups

Following the success of last year’s focus group, we decided to hold another one to see how behaviour has changed within students. Enticed by free cake and sandwiches, we held informal discussions with one large group of 13 students and one small group of 4, both lasted about 45 minutes. The group conversation format stimulated conversation and students almost had too much to say. The purpose was to see where they go to buy resources and what they expect from them.

We started by asking them to write down all the websites they use frequently on a piece of paper. Answers did not differ much from last year, sites used by students being Google, Amazon/Ebay, Study Direct/Sussex Direct (VLE), e-mails and other popular academic and non-academic websites.

We continued with a discussion about academic resources. The main determinant of the students’ choice of resources was how little money they had to part with in order to access them. Some students swear by the website ‘Abe books’ where books identical to those necessary for their studies are offered for a reduced price – according to a student “they’re shipped from India and printed on a cheaper paper. A comparison given was £50 for a UK edition compared to £7 from Abe books.

It was pointed out that students find the layout of books extremely important. If they’re laid out clearly (and not just a dense pack of text) then there is a higher possibility that a student will buy them. This is based on a fact that students are given reading lists which sometimes include “textbooks from the 60s, that are really indigestible”. An important part of textbooks are the quizzes or other types of self-assessment at the end of each chapter (“I wouldn’t buy them if they didn’t include that”).

When it comes to coursework, students tend to use textbooks for basic understanding and online articles for more specific information. They don’t find textbooks good enough for the whole course, as they require both facts and opinions. Some students said that they prefer to use resources they think their lecturer will agree with because they don’t want to risk getting a bad grade for presenting different opinions and submitting a conflicting essay.

The focus group participants also said that they loved video teaching and video lectures. They praised lecture recordings and short YouTube explanations, stating that they absorb a lot from them.

We were interested in hearing if students would buy a new edition of a text book, since that question arose at the conference in St. Alban’s. As expected, price differences played an important role when deciding whether to buy the new edition or the old one. If the new edition had more self-assessment tests and had a better layout, they would be prepared to buy a new edition and even pay more. However they also highlighted that sometimes it is more useful to buy an older edition if the course is based on that edition.

Finally, and we weren’t supposed to ask this (we did anyway), students who do spend money on books said that the maximum price they would pay for a textbook would be £30 per module.

4 thoughts on “Focus Groups

  1. Hi Eva, really interesting to read this post, thanks! Did you ask students about companion websites that come with some textbooks, and whether/how much students use these? And on your last question about price, it would be interesting to know where they go to access other materials for a module e.g. supplementary reading that may still be important.

  2. Yes we did and most students said that they were unaware of companion websites, though not all students use textbooks for their course anyway.
    The first place students look at for supplementary material are the readings suggested by their lecturers on our VLE, Study Direct. Sussex uni’s ‘library search’ and Google Scholar are also popular places to start.
    Personally, I begin with these 3 and if I still need more material, I try to find the articles and books referenced in the articles and books I have already found relevant.
    Usually extra material is only needed for assignments and the material provided on our VLE is sufficient for the rest of the module. Although some students said that they often use video tutorials to explain concepts they didn’t fully grasp in their lectures.
    Hope that’s useful! Eva

  3. Hi Eva – this made for really interesting reading thanks. Do you know what subjects the students that participated are studying?

  4. Hi Alison, I’m glad you enjoyed reading about our focus group and what we found out! We had a mix of students from different subject areas such as: Physics, History, Geography & other Global Studies and English. We found the Physics students to be the most vocal about how they obtain their resources at discounted prices online. We found that the humanity-based students borrowed books more than the Sciences due to not having textbooks for every module and also due to expense.
    Hope this answered your question,
    Kind regards, Lucy

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