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The Evaluation Center at WMU Week: Managing Student-evaluator Anxiety and Interpersonal Communication by Brandon Youker

¡Hola! Salam aleikoum! Salut!, Bozho! Olá! Osiyo! Wilujeng enjing! Sawubona! My name is Brandon Youker and I am the founding director of the Evaluation Lab, which is housed in The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

The Evaluation Lab employs undergraduate and graduate students to design and conduct evaluations with Kalamazoo area public and nonprofit organizations with missions focused on social and/or economic justice. Numerous local foundations and non-profit leaders have told us that the traditional methods of accessing high-quality evaluations are unaffordable for our community’s grassroots organizations, many of which are BIPOC-led. Therefore, the Evaluation Lab is striving to reduce bureaucratic and cost burdens specifically for these organizations. We are about to hire student-evaluators. I’ll be drawing on two decades of experience teaching community-based program evaluation courses. I’ll be integrating two key lessons learned in supporting undergraduate and graduate students to learn evaluation by doing it.

1. Manage student anxiety.

Whether a freshman or doctoral student, students are anxious about the evaluation tasks and learning about evaluation. My main strategy for experiential learning is “I do. We do. You do.” This means I first introduce new evaluators to the big picture of the evaluation such as what the evaluand is, what the organization hopes to accomplish with the evaluation, and the resources available. Next, together we review a task, for example, we might examine relevant academic and professional literature together, or draft a list of criteria by which to assess the evaluand. Then the student-evaluators meet to continue working on these assignments often by delegating portions or tasks to individual team members. Students reconvene to collectively review their work before sharing it with the instructor (Lab Director) and making additional revisions.

Scaffolding, where each task builds on the previous and contributes to the whole evaluation, helps portion the evaluation (and learning) into bite-size chunks, improves deep learning and growing independence, and reduces student-evaluator anxiety.

2. Train and role model appropriate interpersonal communication.

Another lesson that I’ve learned is to be very intentional about the instruction and modeling of interpersonal communication when supervising project teams. In my evaluation courses, group dynamics and interpersonal communication were two consistent areas with the potential to derail an evaluation project. Often it is a student-evaluator who feels someone isn’t working equally, a clashing of the proactive versus the procrastinator, an abrasive personality, or just infrequent communication.

To mitigate some of these issues, I incorporated team-building exercises, bi-weekly group supervision, frequent reviews of project timelines and progress, and regular student reflection exercises and self-assessments. The Evaluation Lab will maintain these practices and additionally ask student-evaluators to keep a reflective lab journal, conduct all lab-related communication via a specific project management app, and attend bi-weekly individual supervision with me, the Lab Director. Through proactive management, the Lab will create a healthy work environment that is conducive to learning, experimentation, self-reflection, and open and honest dialog. 

Do 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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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