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Research Informing Practice on Student Volunteering

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Who: The University of East London (UEL) was one of six Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that took part in a research project on student volunteering undertaken by the Institute for Volunteering Research and commissioned by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) vinspired students’ programme.

What: Conducting peer-led research into student volunteering, through qualitative methodologies.

Why: To guide the university in its approach to engaging students with the community.

Where: Within the University of East London who are relatively new to organising student volunteering to conduct research.

When: The research was conducted in the academic year 2009/10, with the results published in November 2010.

Project description

At UEL a team of six student peer-researchers helped deliver the research which examined the motivations and outcomes of student volunteering. Working closely with UEL’s Volunteering and Mentoring Coordinator, the students helped conduct a focus group, a paired interview with representatives of two volunteer-involving organisations and a mapping session with students.

This research has encouraged UEL to develop a number of new measures to encourage and facilitate volunteering by students.

Results and outcomes

Conducting this research into student volunteering has had a number of impacts upon volunteering provisions within the university.

Peer researchers: A key success of this study has been the use of students in the research process. This was a new form of opportunity for students at the university and has proved to be highly beneficial, with students gaining skills through excellent ‘hands on’ experience. UEL are seeking to develop similar opportunities for research based projects in the future.

Raising awareness: The research process has also aided UEL in raising awareness of the opportunities available through volunteering. The mapping session was particularly successful in raising awareness as it was set up as part of a stall at a Student Community Health Day and over 40 students were invited to draw or ‘map’ their extra-curricular activities including volunteering. As the researchers also talked to students who did not volunteer, this allowed them to develop greater knowledge of what students want from volunteering. In particular the UEL students appear to be highly community focused, which has led to the development of more links with local primary schools.

A key outcome for the UEL volunteering unit is the revision of the marketing and publicity strategy. The research sessions uncovered a relatively low level of awareness, as well as a number of negative perceptions of volunteering at UEL. Furthermore revealed a need for volunteering to become more inclusive for students with disabilities.

Diversity of opportunities

A paired interview was held with two volunteer-involving organisations that had involved UEL students. This revealed important differences in approach to volunteer recruitment and placement. A key finding was that big organisations needed to provide more incentives for students to volunteer. The partnership needs to be mutually beneficial, for example the organisation can get help with street fundraising but students need to recognise how they also benefit. From this, UEL has begun to ask for opportunities for students to help out in charities’ offices so students can better understand why fundraising is so important.

"As UEL’s first piece of research into student volunteering it has been a successful attempt to understand what is important to UEL students. The use of peer researchers was very useful and provided extra support to me. The research will be a useful tool to reinforce that volunteering is important to higher management. We are thinking of future research to develop our new Volunteering Module further." Volunteering and Mentoring Coordinator

Linking volunteering to the curriculum

Building from this the research revealed students wanted to volunteer but also want to receive something more than a certificate in return. UEL students do not and cannot volunteer just because they enjoy it. Most students are very busy with non-university commitments such as work and family. Findings revealed that students wanted to enhance their employability through developing skills and were looking for routes into future careers or jobs.

As a result, in addition to finding a broader range of volunteering opportunities to offer students, the research has been input into the development of a Volunteering Module that launched in the academic year 2010/2011. The module, an extra 20 credit module, is offered to second year students and fits into UEL’s Skills and Employability framework. It is both academic and practical and requires students to complete 40 hours of volunteering per semester. To date, the module has been well received by students as a proactive method for students to gain experience, develop core transferable skills such as communication and team work and develop a range of soft skills such as confidence.

Top tips

  1. Plan and understand what you are going to do with the findings from the outset, for example changing volunteering services or presenting to senior management for increased funding. Don’t be afraid to let the emergent findings change practice.
  2. Peer research can be an excellent way to add legitimacy to a research study but you need to understand students’ motivations and skills to make the best use of them. Manage expectations about what support you can offer but recognise they have other commitments and may not be able to work independently
  3. Ensure taking part in research is interesting for students, either as peer researchers or participants