A focus group on the use of ecstasy

The following is a sample Paper 3 that looks at focus groups. Below you will first find the stimulus piece, followed by the static questions.  A copy of the mock paper is included to give students as an in-class assessment.

The mark scheme below is created by me and is not an official IB document.

Potential answers are included in the hidden boxes below.

Student copy

Mock markscheme

Stimulus piece

This study examined ecstasy use in 30 college students who participated in one of four 60-minute focus groups.

To obtain a sample, fliers were posted on a large university campus, inviting individuals who had used ecstasy on at least one occasion to anonymously contact the researcher via telephone or e-mail using a fictitious first name if they were interested in participating in a focus group about ecstasy. Four focus groups of six to 10 individuals were held in a private room on campus.

Upon entering the room for the focus group, each participant was instructed to write the fictitious first name they had used during the telephone screening on a name-tag. Participants were instructed to only use their fictitious first name during the session to protect their identity.

After completion of a brief survey, the guidelines for the hour-long group discussion were reviewed. Participants were told that they could speak about their personal experiences or what they knew about other substance users, but they could not disclose anyone's true identity. The researcher asked specific questions and permitted group members to respond to each other. The amount of time allotted to each topic varied based on group feedback and the judgment of the researcher. The researcher introduced six main topics, but discussion was not limited to these topics. Responses were written down by both the researcher and a trained research assistant.

Most participants had a basic understanding of the effects that ecstasy has on the brain and bodily functions. Participants reported positive effects on mood, social pressure, curiosity and boredom.  They also reported a desire for an altered state of mind, desire to escape, desire to have fun, and the ease of use of ecstasy in comparison to other drugs as reasons for initiating ecstasy use. Participants described their experiences of both the positive and negative effects (physical and psychological) that they attributed to their use of ecstasy. The majority was unaware of specific types of problems ecstasy could potentially cause and discounted its potential harm.

At the conclusion of the group discussion, the researcher provided participants with a list of mental health resources and an informational handout about ecstasy containing a list of websites pertaining to substance use.


Levy, K. B., Ogrady, K. E., Wish, E. D., & Arria, A. M. (2005). An In-Depth Qualitative Examination of the Ecstasy Experience: Results of a Focus Group with Ecstasy-Using College Students. Substance Use & Misuse, 40(9-10), 1427-1441. doi:10.1081/ja-200066810


1a. Identify the method used and outline two characteristics of the method.

This study used a focus group. A focus group is a group interview which is facilitated by a researcher. It is an efficient way of collecting information from several participants at the same time. In addition, by listening to other participants, this may inspire participants to say something that they would not have said on their own. The conversation may bring up memories or help them to define their opinions. It may help them to be more honest about their experience with drugs.

1b. Describe the sampling method used in the study.

A self-selected sample was chosen for this study. With the controversial nature of the topic studied, it is important that participants choose to reveal this "private" part of their lives. The method used is efficient and does not require any previous knowledge or contact with the target population. A self-selected sample responds to a request for participants, based on interest in the study.

1c. Suggest an alternative or additional research method giving one reason for your choice.

One additional method might be a survey.  This would give the researcher more specific information about individual's ecstasy use and their thoughts on it. It would also avoid the conformity effect that could happen as a result of a group interview where they may not want to disagree publically with members of the focus group.

2. Describe the ethical considerations that were applied in the study and explain if further ethical considerations could be applied.

There are several ethical considerations that are discussed in the study.  Anonymity of the data was clearly kept.  The participants only used a fake name and were never actually identified. In addition, the focus groups were not recorded; the responses were written down by the researcher and an assistant with the hope of confirming the data. It was also made clear that they should not disclose information about someone else.

In addition, the researchers debriefed the participants, explaining to them both the findings and then discussing with them the potential negative outcomes of ecstasy use.

Other ethical considerations include informed consent, the right to withdraw and undue stress or harm. The researchers should have clearly explained the goals of the study and how the information would be used.  The participants had to agree to take part in the study.  As the study was made up of volunteers, we can assume that consent was gained.  In addition, they should know that they may withdraw at any point in the study.  This includes during the debriefing; after having the discussion, they may conclude that they do not want their information included in the study.  Finally, they have to make sure that the members of the group are protected from harm.  This is difficult because although they are anonymous, they are on a campus where there is a potential for the other members of the focus group to come into contact with them again.  It would be important for the researchers to have a confidentiality agreement which is signed by the members of the group so that they would not use this information in any way to harm another member of the study.

3. To what extent could you generalize the findings of this study?

There is some question about whether this study could represent the population from which the sample was drawn.  As this was a volunteer sample, it is possible that a certain type of ecstasy user would volunteer.  The sample may be made up of mostly extroverted individuals who are very confident and satisfied with their ecstasy use. It could even be that they see ecstasy use as part of their social identity.  In this case, it may not represent all ecstasy users on that campus and not be fully generalizable.
In addition, psychologists consider inferential generalization.  Can this information be transferred to other student communities? To other types of drugs? In order to do this well, it is important that psychologists document the nature of the sample population so that readers of the study can determine the extent to which the findings may be transferred to other samples. In this study, it would be important to know the age, culture and socio-economic status of the participants. It would also be important to know what type of university culture the students come from. Is it a liberal arts school? A medical university? A highly competitive, well-known university? This type of information would help readers to determine whether the populations are similar enough to potentially generalize the findings.
Finally, the psychologists could employ theoretical generalization - that is, they could use their findings to generate more theory.  For example, that young people are more likely to discount the negative effects of a drug; or that a certain culture may be more likely to do so.
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Comments 11

Lakshmi Priya Vivek 26 February 2018 - 02:03

Hi John
3) Discuss how the researcher in the study could avoid bias.
3) Discuss how a researcher could ensure that the results of the study are credible.
For generalization you have given some possible points in the sample paper 3, as that was the question in the sample paper.
Can you suggest something like that for bias and credibility?

John Crane 26 February 2018 - 07:48

Dear Lakshmi,

I hope to have more Paper 3s up soon, but my focus right now is the core since most teachers are focusing on that in the first year of the curriculum. You can see thinkib.net for credibility. For bias, they should consider reflexivity, double blind testing, researcher triangulation and having others read their data and interpretations to establish credibility.

Lakshmi Priya Vivek 26 February 2018 - 10:13

Thanks John

Xiaolo Wang 7 May 2018 - 01:59

Hi,John, I am thinking about the sampling method in this study. Can I identify it as purposive sampling since the specific experience- ecstasy use is required this this study? Thanks

John Crane 8 May 2018 - 06:45

Dear Xiaolo

It is both purposive and self-selected. The fact that it was advertised using flyers, but requires a specific trait, makes it both. Students could write about either facet on the exam - or both.

Alison Daniels 8 June 2018 - 09:18

Hi John
Thanks for this resource. Do we have any idea about grade boundaries for Paper 3 with the new mark allocation?
Many thanks

John Crane 9 June 2018 - 05:10

Dear Alison

We don't. The markbands are not set until after the first set of exams. It will all depend on student performance. I currently use scaled markbands. thinkib.net

Claire Evans 17 July 2018 - 03:14

Hi John,
Your example here for Q3 uses 'to what extent' but in the guide I'm seeing that it's 'discuss', just curious what the reason was for the change here - was it just for practice?

John Crane 18 July 2018 - 05:26

In the old curriculum, they could use to what extent. In the new curricum it will be discuss. I will be updating all if these files for thw new curriculum in the coming weeks.

Bhavna Chopra 27 July 2018 - 04:15

Hi John

Would really appreciate if there are some more sample paper 3's so that we can make our students practice more.

John Crane 28 July 2018 - 20:30

Dear Bhavna,

That is what I am currently working on. There should be several uploaded before August 12 when I return to school. I hope to have about 10 up for students to practice with.