Many times one needs to initiate a group discussion. The classroom teacher, employer, and counselor (personal or camp) are just a few of the individuals needing topics for group discussion. In this article, we begin by looking at focused group discussion – what it is and how to conduct one. Then we provide you with questions and activities to help you conduct successful group discussions. Finally, we provide some guidelines for creating questions for successful group discussions.

Focused Group Discussion

Focus group discussions help people from similar backgrounds or experiences discuss a specific topic. Guided by a moderator, groups of participants gain insight into issues and topics. Each group participant shares as prompted by a set of questions asked by the moderator or facilitator. As they agree and disagree, insight is provided about:

  • How the group thinks about an issue
  • A wide range of ideas and opinions
  • Inconsistencies and variations of practices, experiences, and beliefs

When to Use Focused Group Discussions

Although there are many benefits to using a focused group discussion, it is important to define when doing so is beneficial to the task(s) one wishes to accomplish. The following information will help you determine if a focused group discussion is the best method for accomplishing your purpose.

A focus group discussion works well to:

  • Build consensus among personnel as it provides a place to voice questions and answers
  • Create buy-in to a decision or an outcome by letting participants act as part of the solution
  • Reveal issues and problems a company has
  • Elicit insight into different opinions among different parties involved in the change process, thus enabling the process to be managed more smoothly
  • Explore the meanings of survey findings that cannot be explained statistically
  • Explore the range of opinions/views on a topic of interest
  • Prepare for designing questionnaires
  • Uncover assumptions and attitudes people have when they choose products or services

Focus Group Discussions are effective when:

  • You need to understand an issue at a deeper level than you can access with a survey.
  • You wish to add meaning and understanding to existing knowledge – get the “why” and “how” of a topic.
  • Verify that participant’s stated preferences are the same as their actual preferences.

Length of the Focused Group Discussion

Sixty minutes is suggested for your focused group discussion in order to fully explore your discussion topic. However, the focused group discussion should last no longer than ninety minutes as participants lose interest and the discussion becomes unproductive if the session lasts longer.

Preparing for a Focused Group Discussion

Preparing for a Focused Group Discussion

Choose Participants for the Focused Group Discussion

Focus Group Discussion generally involves two to eight people. If you think some participants may not show up, invite one or two extra participants. Just be sure your group does not become too large. If participants must skip work to participate in the focused group discussion, consider paying a participation fee.

Your goal should be creating homogeneity for your focused group discussion, so that participants feel comfortable expressing their opinions. To do so, consider the following when choosing participants:

  • Gender. Is the topic for discussion applicable to men, women, or a mixed group?
  • Age. Is the topic specific to an age, i.e. teens, retirees, etc.?
  • Hierarchy. Is the topic for discussion comfortable for those of varied hierarchical positions, i.e. employer and employee?

Your group works best with participants who have some commonality, i.e. similar in age, employment, education level, etc. Additionally, people who are comfortable communicating their opinions but who do not know each other well add value to the focus group discussion. Certain criteria should be set related specifically to the topic and used to screen potential participants.

Pick a Location for the Focused Group Discussion

Choose a location convenient for your participants with adequate lighting and ventilation. Make sure the seating is comfortable. Make sure all participants know the time and the location of your focused group discussion.

Determine if you need to collect demographic data from participants (i.e. age, gender, etc.). Create a two to three-minute short form to have participants complete before the focused group discussion.

Gather Materials Needed for Your Focused Discussion Group

Adequate preparation helps guarantee a successful focus discussion group session. You may not need everything specified in the following list, as requirements are somewhat dependent on the goal and content of your session. However, we suggest the following:

  • List of participants
  • Name tags
  • Markers
  • Flip chart or easel paper
  • Notepads/paper and pens/pencils
  • Focus group script with questions for facilitator
  • Watch or clock for timekeeping
  • Recording device (audio and/or video)
  • Refreshments (optional)

Choose a Facilitator and Prepare the Script

The facilitator’s script is actually an outline of the topics to be covered. Additionally, the script has questions to cover and activities to be used. This moderator guide should have times for each section, with the entire session lasting no longer than ninety minutes.

The Role of the Facilitator

The facilitator has an important role in creating a successful focused group discussion. The goal of the facilitator is to generate the maximum amount of discussion and opinions within a given time period.

To do so, the facilitator should:

  • Ensure even participation.
  • Carefully word key questions.
  • Ask broad questions to elicit responses and generate discussion among the participants.
  • Maintain a neutral attitude and appearance.
  • Summarize the session, reflecting participants’ opinions fairly and evenly.
  • Prepare a detailed report after the session is finished with observations during the session noted and included.

Conducting the Focus Group Discussion

Conducting the Focus Group Discussion

After you have chosen your participants, chosen a time and place, and gathered materials for your focused group discussion, it is time to actually hold the focus group discussion. The following format is suggested:

Open the Focused Group Discussion Session

The facilitator calls the group to order and welcomes participants. After giving a brief personal introduction, the facilitator provides an explanation of the basic rules of a small group discussion:

  • Only one person speaks at a time, with everyone given an opportunity to participate.
  • No one person should dominate the conversation.
  • The session will be either video or audio taped.
  • Everyone’s comments will be respected.

Next, the facilitator briefly covers the purpose of the meeting, agenda, general topic, and the specific problem(s) to be solved or question(s) to be answered. Each participant introduces themselves to the group.

Introduce the Focused Group Discussion Topic and Activity(ties)

Your session may consist of pre-selected questions and answers, one long activity, several short activities, or a combination of applicable discussion formats. Your choice of content and method of presentation depends on the topic, the facilitator, and the goal of the session. However you choose to conduct the session, the following applies:

  1. Allow participants enough time to answer, interact, and communicate.
  2. Keep the session flowing.
  3. Write comments on white board or flip chart.
  4. Provide a way for people to take notes if they wish to do so.

Wrap Up the Focus Discussion Session

Thank the participants at the end of the session. Check your notes and add any additional pertinent information. Thank respondents for participating and usher them out. If applicable, have a debriefing session with any observers, and include their thoughts and perceptions in the final report.

Group Discussion Activities

Group Discussion Activities

Discussion activities, also referred to as formats, help guide participants through a group discussion. Our comprehensive list helps participants gather information, solve problems, and share their ideas and knowledge. Some of the following activities require preparation prior to the group discussion. We have listed those first. Use one or more of the following to enhance the group discussion experience.

Activities Requiring Preparation Prior to the Group Discussion

Some activities require pre-work or preparation by the facilitator to make sure participants have effective group discussions. The following activities require some type of pre-planning.

Interview (Role Play)

Participants assume the role of authors, historical figures, or other significant individuals and interact with others from this character’s perspective. The facilitator should break down the role playing into specific tasks, so participants’ contributions remain organized and the desired material is covered. Assign preparation work for before the group discussion takes place to keep participant interest high.


This cooperative active learning exercise can be used as a team or individual activity. Used to analyze a subject, answer a question, or solve a problem, each team or individual receives a different portion of the topic under consideration, becomes an expert, and then shares with the whole group. Jigsaw is effective for:

  • Exploring problems or topics
  • Engaging all participants
  • Cooperative learning
  • Interactive Demonstration

For this activity, participants demonstrate the application of a concept, a skill, or act out a process. Preplanning is necessary for the participants to actively engage in this activity. To conduct this activity:

  • The facilitator Introduces the goal and describes the demonstration.
  • Participants use a Think, Pair, Share activity to make a prediction of the outcome of the demonstration.
  • The facilitator conducts the demonstration.
  • Participants analyze and discuss the outcome in pairs, small groups, or as the entire class using their initial predictions or interpretations.
  • Entry and Exit Tickets

An exercise effective for on-line group discussions, entry tickets are short prompts providing facilitators knowledge of how much participants know about the group discussion topic prior to the group meeting. Exit tickets collect feedback on participant’s understanding at the end of group discussion. This activity is useful for:

  • Engaging participants
  • Focusing participants on key ideas and concepts
  • Providing facilitator with preparatory and closing information on participant knowledge and understanding of the topic under discussion

Discussion Activities for Conducting a Full-session Discussion Group

Some activities work well for a full-session discussion group, as they are comprehensive enough to last for a full sixty to ninety minutes. The following activities can also be shortened and used for only a portion of the discussion group session.

Case Study

These real-life scenarios, presented in narrative form and often involving problem-solving, are most effective when used sequentially, with participants receiving additional information as the case unfolds. This allows participants to continue to analyze or critique the situation/topic as the facilitator guides the activity. Case studies, also called problem-based learning, develop problem solving and decision-making skills, critical thinking skills, and encourage critical reflection.

Rotating Stations

Create stations and divide the participants into small groups. Each group moves to a station, where they take about ten minutes discussing an idea, issue, or concept, and recording the results of their discussion on a white board located at the station. As the groups move from station to station, they base their discussions on what previously has been recorded on the white board. The activity ends when each group has been to every station.


A workshop is effective for introducing and discussing new topics or skills. Participant are allotted time for working on a project or preparing for a specific skill development. The facilitator answers participants’ questions and works with them as necessary.


Discussion group participants begin this activity by responding to questions or issues posed by facilitator individually. Then they pair up for discussion. Next, they double the size of their group when prompted to do so – every three to five minutes. By the end of the activity, everyone is in the full group.


Debate works well when the group discussion topic is a contentious issue. Participants choose to support or oppose the issue by a show of hands and form groups based on their preferences. After they prepare their arguments for or against, have those in the group supporting the issue argue against, and those in the group opposing the issue argue for. Each group chooses one person to present their arguments. After the first debate, each group drafts rebuttal arguments and chooses a different person to present these. The facilitator ends the debate exercise with a debriefing.

Discussion Activities to Include in a Group Discussion

Some group discussion activities take very little time and can be used as a part of the group discussion session, combined with other activities. One benefit of using shorter activities is the ability to keep participant’s interest high. Try one or more of the following activities in your next group discussion session.

Three-step Interview

Create four-member groups for the three-step interview assigning each group member a letter – A, B, C, and D.

  • Step 1 – A interviews B, and C interviews D.
  • Step 2 – B interviews A, and D interviews C.
  • Step 3 – Share information from the interviews in each four-member group.
  • Think–Pair–Share

This ten-minute activity asks participants consider a question on their own, and provides an opportunity for participants to discuss it in pairs, and then with the whole class. Questions should involve deeper thinking, problem-solving, and/or critical analysis.  The procedure is as follows:

  • Pose a question, writing it on the board or projecting it. (1 min.)
  • Have participants consider the question on their own (1-2 min.).
  • Allow the participants to form groups of 2-3 people. (1 min.)
  • Have participants discuss the question with a partner, sharing their ideas and/or contrasting opinions (3 min.).
  • Re-group everyone and solicit responses from some or all of the pairs (3 min.).
  • Roundtable

The facilitator poses a question with multiple possible answers. Groups of participants receive a worksheet, a single piece of paper, and a pen or pencil. A participant writes down an answer, shares it out loud, and then passes the paper to the person to their left. This continues until all members of the group have provided an answer.

Posted Dialogue

Participants are divided into small groups who summarize their conversation about a topic on a large sheet of newsprint or a whiteboard. Individual participants read the responses and add their comments and observations.

Numbered Heads Together

Divide participants into groups of four, numbering each group from one to four. The facilitator poses a question, states an issue, or presents a problem. The participants talk about the question, issue, or problem in their group and prepare a response. The facilitator calls upon group members by number to share their group’s response.

Truth Statements

Groups of four to six participants create three endings to open-ended statements and then choose one or more to share with the group.

Circle of Voices

After participants form groups of 4 to 5 members, give three minutes of silent time for consideration of the topic. After they have done so, each group member has three minutes to discuss the topic without interruption. After all group members share, everyone can comment on the shared information.


The facilitator introduces a subject or question and participants respond within a set amount of time. The responses are listed on a whiteboard or poster without any comments, elaboration, or criticism until the brainstorming time ends.

Free Writing/Minute Paper/Question of the Day

These three activities prompt participants to write responses to open questions and can be introduced any time during a focused group discussion. Each activity should take only one or two minutes and focuses on key questions or ideas, or asks participants to make predictions.

Choosing Group Discussion Questions

Choosing Group Discussion Questions

The facilitator should take time to carefully plan the group discussion questions, avoiding poorly-worded, biased, or awkward questions. Also, avoid overwhelming participants with too many questions, as this confuses and tires them. Short, simple questions work best. Clarify terminology, use clear wording, and make sure all participants understand the questions. Word your questions so that participants cannot answer with a simple “yes” or “no”; why or how questions work well. It is also advisable to start with simpler questions and work towards more complex ones.

Types of Questions Used for Focused Group Discussion

A focused group discussion should consist of three types of questions:

  • Probe Questions. Questions introducing participants to the discussion topic; designed to make participants more comfortable sharing their opinion with the group
  • Follow-up Questions. Questions that explore the discussion topic and the elicit participants’ opinions
  • Exit questions. Ensure participants have not missed anything

Additionally, consider these four types of questions:

  • Connection Questions. These low-risk and safe group discussion questions are used at the beginning of the focused group discussion to encourage everyone to participate.
  • Dissection Questions. Used after the topic has been introduced, these questions explore the subject, gleaning participants perspectives.
  • Inspection Questions. Encourage participants to embrace the topic under discussion, leading them to feel it is important, relevant, and worthy of consideration.
  • Reflection Questions. Encourage a personal application or call for a relational commitment.

Preparing Questions for a Focused Group Discussion

Your focused group discussion’s success directly depends not only upon the types of questions you ask, but also on the way in which they are asked. When preparing questions for a focused group discussion, remember to:

  • Elicit information from shy or hesitant participants with comments such as, “Will you share more about that?”, or “Will you give an example?”
  • Deal with more forceful and dominant participants by repeating and acknowledging their contribution, and then soliciting the opinions of other participants. For example, say, “Good comment. Thank you. What does someone else think?”
  • Summarize or paraphrase wordy or confusing statements by participants to clarify meaning for everyone.
  • Be aware of tangent discussions and go with them if they contribute to the group discussion. Just stop when the information gained begins to become irrelevant.
  • Keep questions neutral so that everyone is comfortable expressing their opinion without nodding or shaking your head, raising your eyebrows, making comments indicating you are agreeing or disagreeing with a participant, or praising or putting down participants’ contributions to the discussion.


Focused group discussions gather people from similar backgrounds or experiences to discuss a specific topic of interest. They are effective for exploring thoughts, feeling, needs, and perceptions; understanding survey results and opinions; discovering factors influencing decisions; and facilitating interactions. The successful focused group discussion has a knowledgeable, prepared facilitator, a well-defined topic, appropriate activities, and pertinent discussion questions. This article provides everything you need for a successful focused group discussion. Now that you are prepared, schedule your focused group discussion with confidence.