The who, where, what, and when of WP Evaluation

A recent event at the University of Sheffield, facilitated by the Office for Fair Access, asked the question ‘Why Evaluate‘ Widening Participation (WP) activity and, unsurprisingly, generated as many questions as answers.

A range of panel discussions, key notes, and workshops attempted to address some of the challenges facing higher education in relation to evidencing the impact of WP at various stages of student progression.

Several conversations focussed on the increasing use of randomised controlled trials (RCTs), which are now ‘considered the gold standard of evaluation, where feasible and ethical’ (Hume and Selley, 2017). Despite their popularity, opinions still vary as to the suitability of adapting this medical model for an education context.  Some were concerned about the level of challenge involved in ensuring tight control of the circumstances in which interventions are carried out and measured, whilst others were confident that RCTs are significantly enhancing our ability to evidence the positive benefits of our WP and fair access policies.

The topic of local versus national evaluation activity was also raised in discussion throughout the day. Some participants advocated the value of large-scale cross-institutional evaluations of the impact of interventions which are commonly used throughout the sector; whereas others favoured more concentrated collaborative approaches to evaluation, between specific institutions with shared goals and similar student cohorts.  Some also promoted the value of small-scale detailed evaluations which take a careful account of the unique context of a particular institution and its potential students.

Many of the examples of evaluation mentioned were driven, and conducted, by staff in higher education institutions, and were aimed at evaluating pre-entry WP activity. However, as we know, current student engagement discourse recommends that we ‘involve and work with students in partnership’ (RAISE, 2017), and the need to ‘do’ and evaluate WP doesn’t end when a student takes up their place at University.

Together with Jane de Vekey (Head of Insight and Policy, Students’ Union at Bournemouth University), I ran a workshop on Evaluating with Students, in which we shared examples of ways in which we might take a student-staff partnership approach to WP, and share the ownership of evaluative processes.  We highlighted the value of qualitative evaluations, using: students as researchers; appreciative inquiry workshops; interviews, focus groups, and peer-facilitated discussions; listening projects; and photo diaries.  We stressed the power which individual student stories can have, in shaping our approaches to enhancing the student experience, and urged participants to consider how they might facilitate greater involvement from their own students, in shaping, carrying out and analysing WP evaluations in new and creative ways.

For more information on this workshop, please contact me.