Evaluating engagement: Our findings

Jason Slade, a Department of Town and Regional Planning postgraduate student, tells us about the evaluation outcomes of the department’s Community Engagement Initiative which is supported by the Engaged Curriculum Funding Stream.

Broadly speaking we can say that our project on the evaluation of engaged learning facilitated interesting insights in three areas. The first around practicalities for Town and Regional Planning’s engaged learning project in Westfield; the second concerns substantive issues of learning through engagement; and the third relates to the process of evaluating engaged learning. This final blog post presents our findings in these areas.

Most students and residents talk about the project as something both worthwhile and enjoyable. They feel they have gained from working and spending time together but do identify areas for improvement. These are frequently practical, around communication, organisation and expectation management. Specifically there are four things we can look to do:

  • On creating better relationships between residents and students both groups felt there should be more in/formal opportunities for them to interact, with suggestions ranging from eating a meal together to more activities like litter picking.
  • Whilst we looked to limit meetings to avoid students feeling overburdened interviewees actually requested more frequent meetings as a way of maintaining their commitment.
  • When there is not specific project-related activity to do meetings could endeavour to engage students in the reflexive thinking that is hard to work into a voluntary exercise and was lacking from some students’ experiences. They also offer students of different year-groups opportunities to become used to working together.
  • These steps might also improve areas where taking action is less straightforward, including instilling students with a sense of ownership of and responsibility for the project, which might see them more actively driving engagement forward.

Other problems, such as slowness and difficulty, actually represent important opportunities for learning, but it is important to manage expectations in these areas to avoid disenchantment. The list above, then, is not exhaustive and ancillary activities could be organised to help in this area. To this end a community development worker has been appointed to help co-ordinate and strengthen students’ work with residents.

Central to engaged learning is the desire that all involved can learn from one another in a spirit of mutuality. Our evaluation points to a number of ways in which this has happened. Students describe reconsidering their preconceptions as a result of working with Westfield residents. They also felt they had developed important skills around ‘real-world’ working that will help in their professional lives. Residents likewise felt they had learnt from students, who had different perspectives, bringing ideas they would not otherwise have considered. Residents also felt empowered by the university’s being interested in them and valuing their local knowledge, and suggested that engagement would raise aspiration amongst young people in Westfield. Interestingly some students derived benefit from a different mode of working with lecturers, which facilitates ongoing dialogue quite different to the comment sheet that is frequently the predominant feedback tool, and only after written assessment.

The in-depth evaluation that has identified these areas of success does, however, pose a series of questions around engaged learning. Some residents, for instance, highlight aspects of our work in Westfield that they do not understand; with others suggesting that they would like the university to work for them like consultants. Given our understanding of the project as based in working and learning together this is problematic. It may be the case, then, that we need to reconfigure mutuality as something built over time, and acknowledge the clear benefits of the university providing consultancy-like assistance in the present. This poses new challenges, in designing processes that continue to be sites of mutual learning, whereby we strengthen our relationship with communities in a spirit of equality.

From students too our evaluation poses problems for practitioners of engaged learning. Their responses are more nuanced than the literature tends to imagine, with one student even questioning whether they have learnt anything from the project. The issue seems to be one of acknowledging that we cannot teach students to identify with projects that are fundamentally value-driven. Whilst we can continue to work – through iterative cycles – towards projects that benefit everybody we must address the fact that en-route we might miss some of our goals, with some participants even feeling disempowered. If the academy is committed to engagement it will have to move here, making space for types of learning and teaching where outcomes cannot be guaranteed.

Finally we should reflect on this evaluation exercise itself, as it rests on the suggestion that the different underpinnings and expectations of engaged learning necessitate deeper, richer forms of evaluation. Our use of loosely structured interviews for all participants represents a productive addition to evaluation methods, evidenced by a breadth of responses unimaginable from pro-forma questionnaires. This highlights the way that conventional evaluation processes construct and respond to somewhat one-dimensional learners and a one-dimensional learning experience. Whether this accurately represents what happens in classroom based teaching is a matter for elsewhere, but in the context of engaged learning we have gathered sophisticated viewpoints from various positions within the project, which begin to show the benefits of a more holistic approach to evaluation. This can be conceived as an on-going exercise – perhaps starting a dialogue with methods employed in classroom based learning – that sees us broadening our understanding of evaluation and its goals.

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