Case Study: Bursting the Bubble: Peer-led Research
- Community groups,
- Schools and colleges
- vinspired students
Who: The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) commissioned a research team from the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) to undertake a national research study into students, volunteering and the community.
What: Student research teams were recruited in each Higher Education Institution (HEI) to develop, conduct and help analyse focus groups with students and community organisations as well as a mapping session with student volunteers.
Why: To develop research with greater ownership to students and assist in overcoming barriers presented in traditional research methodologies.
Where: 6 HEI’s selected as representative of the diversity of the higher education sector in England; The University of Oxford, Keele University, University of Leeds, University of the West of England, University of East London and the University of Gloucestershire.
When: The research was commissioned in 2009 with the final report published in late 2010.
Peer research teams of 3-5 student volunteers were recruited in each of the 6 universities using a variety of means. In most cases it was advertised as a new student volunteering opportunity; however some universities targeted specific academic departments and got an overwhelming response. Offering a researcher position to student volunteers was new ground for all of the HEI’s who participated, and it brought in students who had not volunteered with the university before.
The students were engaged in a meaningful way throughout the research process. The main responsibilities of the teams were to plan and facilitate focus groups with community organisations and with students who did not volunteer through the university, the peer-researchers also ran a participatory mapping session with student volunteers. Furthermore the input from the student researchers in developing the research tools (surveys/topic guides) and analysing the data, was an invaluable resource throughout the project.
This case study highlights the experiences of researchers in the University of Oxford, University of Leeds and Keele University. If you are interested in learning more about developing a research project, guides are available to peer-led qualitative research and for running a focus group.
- Produce rich data, by overcoming power relationships, as students shared a common language and experiences with participants;
- Give students the opportunity to develop professional research skills, with training and support provided by IVR;
- Enhance the relevance of the research to students.
‘There was real value in having the mapping session peer-led as student participants felt more comfortable talking to their peers about their experiences and responses were honest and frank.’ Academic researcher, IVR
What worked well
The half-day training session was felt by the peer researchers to be extremely helpful, providing more confidence in conducting the planned research. This was a chance for the peer researchers to try out some the techniques and prepare for the mapping sessions which none of the research team had experience in. After the initial training the group received ongoing support from IVR including advice on running the sessions and evaluating the data collected.
Conducting the research worked well when the students formed a strong team and divided the responsibilities, giving each member a clearly defined role for each session. This developed when the team met regularly and were able to build rapport with each other. In Oxford for example, this worked particularly well, with peer researchers meeting independently four times over the course of the project, planning and evaluating sessions and assigning a lead researcher for each session.
‘The research project was a great opportunity which is not normally available to students, and the topic was one of personal interest to me. We enjoyed working as a group and being able to get valuable information which will help us to get more students volunteering in Oxford!’ Student Peer Researcher, Oxford Hub
Data Collection Central support from the university helped to ensure that the research teams had access to the support that they needed in order to deliver the research project. This includes simple things like, distribution lists, rooms, catering and refreshment, in addition to more complex guidance and advice on what direction the research should take. For example, Keele and Leeds researchers noted that having confidence in the aims assisted them in taking responsibility for facilitation steering conversations effectively to generate a wealth of insightful data.
Vital to the success of the research was making sure all notes were kept and additional comments added straight after the session. The easiest way of capturing the data was when the sessions were recorded and transcribed. Although transcribing the session is a time consuming process, it proved to be highly beneficial to ensure all the perspectives and context of conversations were not misinterpreted during the analysis phase.
Unsurprisingly the most challenging stage of the research was write-up and analysis. Initially, the peer researchers found it difficult to compare results across the research as the findings from volunteer mapping session were in a different format and focused on different things to findings from the focus group with non-volunteers.
The Oxford peer researchers found the support from IVR at this point very valuable, as until then they had not really seen anything in the data that surprised them or that they thought would be useful. However when they were able to compare the results from Oxford with those from the other universities taking part, at the analysis day, they could identify differences and draw comparisons between them which they found very interesting to reflect on.
Overall, a reflection of the process suggested the peer-researchers enjoyed the experience of working with their peers, IVR researchers and with university staff on the project. In addition to gaining research experience, the project was an opportunity to learn new things about the university and some of the divisions between the wider community and the student body and how to facilitate interaction between the two.
What didn't work well
Recruitment of Participants
Issues were felt across the universities in recruiting participants for focus group sessions. Across the universities a mixture of methods were trailed, including setting up events in Facebook, utilising personal networks and contacts, and providing incentives.
Organisation and Support
Working with peer researchers is not an easy option, and it takes time and resources to support students to be effective in their role. It’s important to put in place clear roles and objectives for all members of the research team, including staff. This includes simple lines of responsibility, such as determining who will advertise the focus group sessions, how contacts and data will be managed, and who will manage, run and write up each session and support to recruit additional peer researchers if required.
‘The community organisation focus group was perhaps the best run, well attended and successful of the sessions. This was due in part to the rectification of earlier confusion and loss of key team members, the motivation of the participants, the significant input by ACE (Access and Community Engagement) and the experience gained from running the previous sessions. For this reason it is difficult to suggest how this might have been run better, all stakeholders came together to produce a stress free, enjoyable and informative focus group that was well attended by motivated participants and well run by the facilitation team.’ Student Peer Researcher, University of Leeds
The timing of any research project throws up a number of challenges in particular when there are considerations such as the academic calendar to consider, with exam and assessment time being particularly challenging for students. This was managed by recruiting researchers early in the academic year. Yet, with data collection carried out in some HEI’s nearer assessment dates the initial methodologies proved more challenging, so the researchers became more flexible in their approach. For example Keele University, experienced a low turnout for their mapping sessions so conducted a number of interviews in addition to group sessions.
- Ensure peer researchers are aware of their aims and objectives and the broader context of the work. This will help to develop confidence
- Meet regularly as a team to discuss and plan the progress of the research
- Divide up responsibility amongst the peer researchers, so that everyone has responsibility for one aspect of the project
- Change roles so every peer researcher gets the chance to experience each different aspect (i.e. facilitating, note-taking, write-up, analysis)
- Record the sessions, this ensures all of the data is captured from all perspectives
- Planning that takes into account the academic calendar and pressures on peer researchers.