Asee peer logo

Insights from Focus Groups: A Qualitative Assessment of Students' Perceptions of Their Communications Skills

Download Paper |


2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Writing and Communication II

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Tagged Topic


Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Sarah Liggett Louisiana State University

visit author page

Sarah Liggett directs the Communication across the Curriculum program at Louisiana State University. where she is also a professor in the Department of English.

visit author page


Boz Bowles Louisiana State University

visit author page

David "Boz" Bowles is a technical communication instructor and Engineering Communication Studio coordinator in the Chevron Center for Engineering Education at Louisiana State University. He earned a baccalaureate degree in English and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University.

visit author page


Annemarie Galeucia Louisiana State University

visit author page

Annemarie Galeucia, M.A., works for Communication across the Curriculum (CxC) at Louisiana State University (LSU). She is a Ph.D. candidate in LSU’s cultural geography and anthropology program, and has over 10 years of qualitative research and teaching development experience. Prior to her work at CxC, Annemarie was a research associate for CU-Boulder’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture, where she developed qualitative research materials and coordinated data analysis for human subject research.

visit author page


Warren R Hull Sr. P.E. Louisiana State University

visit author page

Warren R. Hull, Sr. is Director of the Chevron Center for Engineering Education in the College of Engineering at Louisiana State University. He earned a B.S. from Louisiana State University and an M.S. from Harvard University. He is a licensed professional engineer whose engineering career spans over 45 years. Prior to joining LSU, Hull was a senior partner with an international engineering firm, managing design and construction projects throughout North and South America. He was also a career U.S. Air Force officer, retiring in the rank of Colonel.

visit author page

Download Paper |


In 2006, our university initiated a program to enhance students’ communications skills by integrating communication assignments into existing courses in each academic discipline, providing a discipline-specific support facility, and offering an incentive award to recognize outstanding achievement. To quantitatively assess our progress in meeting our goals, we have routinely employed questionnaires directed at students, faculty members, and industry panels. These instruments provided valuable data that both validate our instructional strategies and identify changes to improve the program. Although we believed our surveys to be comprehensive, evidenced by publication in various peer-reviewed venues, we wondered what other information the students could have shared with us. To gain more insights from students, we employed a qualitative focus group approach, more common in social science research, because it can elicit more detailed and varied opinions and in-depth perceptions about a selected topic.

Our first task was to define the purpose of the study and then plan a series of probing questions to gather responses from our targeted groups. Students enrolled in spring semester engineering capstone courses were randomly selected to create a pool of participants for three focus group sessions with 7-10 participants each. To encourage participation, each student received a stipend for taking part in the group sessions. To encourage students to respond freely, experienced moderators, not members of the engineering faculty or staff, guided the hour-long discussions. The moderators encouraged all students to offer opinions, respond to one another’s ideas, and to express differing viewpoints if appropriate. Sometimes, moderators asked follow-up questions or requested clarification of a comment. After the first focus group session, the planning committee reviewed the results and made slight adjustments in the questions to probe further into some topics. All sessions were recorded and then transcribed, resulting in over 60 pages of annotated text. These transcriptions were then analyzed and interpreted by the moderators and the program coordinators to identify emerging trends.

Students readily offered opinions about our communications initiatives, citing those aspects they thought were effective and others that they felt need improvement. Although some problems were obvious to us, such as facility constraints (currently undergoing extensive renovations), we were surprised to learn of other perceived program shortfalls, such as inconsistent feedback on capstone oral presentations. Because most participants had experienced at least one industry internship and a few had also completed a co-op with industry, they offered self-assessments of how well prepared they were to communicate and interact in the context of professional settings. Challenges that students most often cited were related to interpersonal communications, intergenerational differences, and selection of the most appropriate mode of communication (face-to-face, phone, email, text, formal memo, etc.).

The focus group assessment identified a number of desirable programmatic changes that previously had not, perhaps could not, have been revealed when using a more quantitative questionnaire approach. We identified potential programmatic adjustments to increase the efficacy of the communication program, mitigate discrepancies among courses, and close perceived gaps between academic and industry communication standards or protocols. We are also exploring implementation challenges posed by student-identified initiatives such as introducing more interpersonal communication opportunities.

Liggett, S., & Bowles, B., & Galeucia, A., & Hull, W. R. (2016, June), Insights from Focus Groups: A Qualitative Assessment of Students' Perceptions of Their Communications Skills Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25727

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2016 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015