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MSI Fellowship Week: Engaging Social Work Students in Program Evaluation by Lorraine Graves

Hi, I’m Lorraine Graves, an Assistant Professor from North Carolina Central University in the Department of Social Work and a 2019 Minority Serving Institute fellow with American Evaluation Association.  I teach program evaluation to Master of Social Work (MSW) students. I find program evaluation is a course that increases students’ anxiety because of its connection to research methods and statistical analysis. Our social work educational standards and code of ethics identifies the importance of evaluation (CSWE, 2015; NASW Code of Ethics, 2017).

Many of our graduates intend to be practitioners.  It is important for them to understand their role in and how to conduct program evaluation. Many human service agencies lack program evaluation capacity or contract for such service.  Therefore, social workers versed in evaluation will benefit as well as the social service programs and vulnerable populations they serve.

Here are a few strategies I use in my course to engage social work students in program evaluation:

Strategy 1: Demystifying Program Evaluation and Social Work Practice

On day one of the course, I define program evaluation and emphasize the important role program evaluation has in social work practice. I inform students that evaluation is not research though we use research methods.  To reduce student’s anxiety, I create a discussion prompted by asking “how do you know a program is helping solve the problem it was intended to solve?” Students in my course, have experience interning in human service agencies and can draw from those experiences to make the connection on the importance of evaluation. We refer to standards and ethics statements to emphasize where evaluation fits into their role as social workers.

Strategy 2: Integrating Social Work Internships to apply Program Evaluation

All my students are completing an internship in addition to, taking courses. This creates an opportunity for students to integrate course content into their internship experience and bring their experiences to the classroom. Using the CDC approach to program evaluation, I have students work with key stakeholders to develop a program evaluation proposal to present agency stakeholders.

Strategy 3: Partnering with Community based Human Agencies

I have partnered with community based human service agencies to design service-learning projects to benefit student learning and build agency capacity. Students collaborate with the agency to develop an evaluation plan. These collaborations typically include visits to the agency, gathering data from key stakeholders and presenting findings to the agency at the end of the semester.

I find that these strategies have helped to demystify program evaluation, ease some anxiety associated with evaluating programs, increase my students’ competency and enhance the services provided to the community. Further research is needed to measure the impact these strategies have on student and community outcomes.  

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is AEA Minority Serving Institution (MSI) Fellowship Experience week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from AEA’s MSI Fellows. For more information on the MSI fellowship, see this webpage: http://www.eval.org/p/cm/ld/fid=230Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “MSI Fellowship Week: Engaging Social Work Students in Program Evaluation by Lorraine Graves”

  1. Hello,
    My name is Justin Garrison, I am currently learning about program evaluation. I enjoyed your strategy one was compelling to me because your bring real life experience into it for your students. I will be looking into situations differently now.

  2. To Lorraine Graves,

    My name is Sukhvir Narwan and I am an elementary teacher in British Columbia. I am taking a course on program evaluation, thus, can relate to the anxiety your students would experience. In my personal experience the anxiety has to do with our ability to breakdown each component of a program and not overthink what is being evaluated. In order to conduct an effective and efficient evaluation the evaluator needs to be able to answer simple questions one step at a time, which is harder than it seems.

    As an educator, of program evaluation for student engaging in social work, your approach to building on student’s prior knowledge and allowing them to make connections to their learning in real life experience permits a hands-on learning environment. As a student I feel we learn from our achievements and failures. Allowing a hands-on approach, through your three strategies, is an efficient opportunity for students fully engage in their learning by having peer support and guidance from a professional.

    By implementing your strategies, it allows your students to take on a role of a evaluators. Being able to practice the role of allows students to understand that it is our responsibility to” help decision makers identify their evaluation needs” (Shulha & Cousins, 1997). It is easy to create and implement generalizations from the research that is collected, however, as evaluators we need to understand “whose attention to secure, where and in what ways findings will have to compete; and how best to respond through the evaluation design” (Shulha & Cousins, 1997). This is directly connected to your approach of having your students connect and discuss with all stakeholders to develop a program evaluation.

    As a student I appreciate your teaching practice.

    Sukhvir Narwan


    Shulha, L., & Cousins, B. (1997). Evaluation use: Theory, research and practice since 1986. Evaluation Practice, 18, 195-208.

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