Student volunteers can provide valuable support and a new perspective for evaluating your public or community engagement activities. Based on learning from vinspired students, this brief guide provides some advice in using this approach.
Evaluating your public engagement work helps to understand what your audience get out of taking part, as well as providing feedback on how to improve. If you are new to public engagement and/or evaluation, involving a student volunteer as an evaluator is probably not the best place to start. However if you have been evaluating your public engagement activities for a while and are looking for some new insights from your evaluation, then working with a student volunteer could be for you.
Depending on your public engagement project, students can often be closer in age and background to activity audiences, for example if you are working with young people. They can also provide an external, objective view of the project, without the cost of employing a professional external evaluator. Taking on an evaluator role is a valuable opportunity for student volunteers to develop skills, and as evaluation is a branch of social research this may be especially attractive to students in the social sciences – although students with a range of backgrounds took on the role as part of vinspired students.
Guidelines and approach
We have identified four stages that you will need to work through:
- Recruiting your student volunteer evaluator
- Data collection and analysis
- Reporting, reflection and learning
Recruiting the student volunteer evaluator
Before recruiting your student volunteer evaluator, it is useful to be clear about your expectations for the evaluation. The student volunteer is very unlikely to be an evaluation expert, so you should still be sure that systems are in place to collect any evaluation data (such as audience figures) that are required by funders or others. The student volunteer evaluator role works best when it plans to enrich evaluation that is taking place already, rather than replace it. So before recruiting, think about where these areas of enrichment could be. For example, if some of the Public Engagement work is to be delivered by other students, the evaluator is likely to be able to elicit more honest feedback than a project manager, and will also be able to understand the perspective of other students better, leading to more meaningful recommendations in the evaluation report. As well as benefits, think about the potential constraints that taking this approach could bring. For example, the evaluation work is unlikely to be top priority during exam time and it may be difficult to keep up the momentum with the project over university holidays. Working with a student volunteer evaluator is not necessarily an easy option, as the volunteer will need appropriate support. When recruiting a volunteer, ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the potential benefits/constraints of having a student led evaluation as part of your project?
- What aspects could student volunteer evaluators usefully reflect on, i.e. where would their efforts best be directed?
- What skills would you like your student volunteer to have? Would they need research skills/experience, or is their background more important, e.g. that they are from the community your project is engaging, or within the same subject area as other student volunteers on the project?
- What skills do you hope the student volunteer evaluator could develop? The work on vinspired students suggested that evaluators developed skills in research and evaluation, but also communication, planning, time management, confidence, and problem solving
- Are you prepared to open yourself and your project to critique from a student evaluator? Are project partners prepared to take the evaluation findings on board?
- Is there a way that the student volunteer evaluator’s work could be accredited? E.g. could the evaluation project be offered as an honours project or similar?
Top tips for recruiting your student evaluator:
- Consider the student volunteer as enriching rather than replacing your evaluation work
- Think of some areas where you would like them to focus – but remain open to ideas that the student you recruit could bring
- When advertising, be clear about the skills the volunteer could develop
- As well as advertising widely, it is worth suggesting the role to students you think might be suitable. This is not a conventional student volunteer role so some perfectly able students may be put off applying
- Think about the timeframe of the student’s involvement. Relatively short and focused involvement can work best for students. If your project is long-term or ongoing, it may be best to identify points along the way where student volunteers could enrich the evaluation findings, or provide useful learning for future delivery
- You might like to recruit a small team of volunteer evaluators, rather than an individual
Effective planning is crucial for successful public engagement – and successful evaluation. As well as the planning you would usually do for the evaluation, there are a few points it is also worth bearing in mind when working with a student volunteer evaluator.
The most important of these is support. In the vinspired students pilots, the role worked best when there was regular contact, communication and support between the evaluator and the project manager, e.g. a brief meeting weekly or fortnightly over the course of the project. The students also received training, which they found valuable, and it may be worth running an informal training or induction session using some of the NCCPE evaluation resources. The Volunteering England impact assessment toolkit is also a helpful resource in this area.
As a project manager, being clear about the project objectives and what success looks like is also essential.
Top tips for planning with a student volunteer evaluator:
- Clarify the aims and objectives for the project
- Be clear about the scope and purpose of the evaluation
- With the student, draw up a timeline for the project evaluation including what you see as key data collection, analysis and reporting points. Adjust these if necessary based on the students’ other commitments e.g. exams
- Clarify and agree an evaluation approach with the student volunteer. Strike a balance between methods you would like to use and ideas the student would like to bring to the project
Data collection and analysis
The work you will need to do to support the student with data collection and analysis will depend very much on the approach the evaluation uses, and the skills and experience of the individual student. As with any evaluation, an ethical approach is essential. If you and/or the student are unsure of what this entails, some useful links are provided at the end of this document.
One of the main challenges faced by student volunteer evaluators was poor participation rates in the evaluation, and it is helpful to ensure the importance of the evaluator role is communicated to all involved in the project. Data analysis can also be tricky, so it is worth building in some time to support the student at this stage. Referring back to the project objectives can provide a useful framework.
Top tips for data collection and analysis:
- Ensure the student evaluation plan is ethical and gain approval though the relevant university ethics committee if appropriate
- Ensure all those involved in the evaluation have an enhanced CRB disclosure to allow them to work with young people/vulnerable adults
- Ensure the evaluation is carried out with an ethic of respect for participants (e.g. considering timing for involvement of participants, sensitivity, inclusive and non-judgemental practice)
- Ensure the evaluation has sufficient endorsement to enable the student to access information and contacts they need to carry out their work. This could be by informing others about the student volunteer evaluation process and introducing the student evaluator to HEI staff and community partners where relevant
- Make time to support the student volunteer evaluator in any issues faced in carrying out their evaluation or analysing findings
Reporting, reflection and learning
Overall, our team felt that this experience was worthwhile particularly in helping us to develop important research and group work skills. We faced many of the difficulties researchers encounter in the field and are now better prepared to deal with those difficulties in the future.
Student volunteer evaluator
At this stage, think about the most effective way for the student to report their findings. For vinspired students, the evaluators wrote a report, which project managers referred to in their report to funders. This clearly delineated evidence from different sources which was helpful, but it risks the student’s findings being sidelined if they do not align with the project manager’s view of how the project went (to be fair, this can be an issue with evaluation more widely and is not unique to evaluations involving students). Being clear from the outset how the student findings will be used can help make the most of the student’s efforts.
In terms of reflection, it is helpful to have a de-brief with the evaluator where the findings can be discussed, but also where you and the student can reflect on the successes and challenges of working together. This has helped embed this way of working, enrich the way projects are evaluated and offer new opportunities for students to develop skills at several of the vinspired students pilot HEIs.
For some student evaluators, there were challenges in their projects that meant they learned a great deal about the issues that professional researchers face in the field. While in some cases the challenges meant that the outcome from the evaluation was not as strong as had been hoped, this real learning was invaluable – especially for those students looking to pursue careers in research. So while much has been made of the issue of support in this guide, it is also important for volunteers to be able to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Student volunteers are not professionals, and while some of the vinspired evaluators produced work that was of a professional standard it is always a good idea to have realistic expectations.
Top tips for reporting, reflection and learning:
- Empower student volunteer evaluator to learn from their own experiences, and support them at a distance.
- Have a debrief meeting at the end of the project to signal the end of the process
- Reflect on the process of involving student volunteer evaluators. What has been learned from the perspectives of the project manager, the student volunteer and for the project as a whole?
Volunteering Impact Assessment Toolkit (2004) available from the Institute for Volunteering Research
The UK Evaluation Society website provides some useful guidelines for evaluators
The British Educational Research Association provides a useful ethical framework for evaluators