Youth as Evaluators: What's an Adult to Do?

Practice Matters, January 2006

A publication of the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence


By Shepherd Zeldin, Cailin O'Connor, and Linda Camino, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Research in the field of youth development has consistently shown that youth participation in research and evaluation (R&E) projects has many positive outcomes for youth. From this research, we also know a lot about the conditions under which those outcomes are most likely to be achieved. For example, youth must have authentic roles and real responsibilities; and, like all of us, they need training and support to do the job well.

However, little guidance is available about the roles adults should play in these projects. Youth workers venturing into R&E projects with youth may be perplexed about whether they should sit on their hands and "let youth lead" or take a more active leadership role to ensure that the research is done "properly."

Based on a literature review of youth R&E projects and our own experiences observing and working with youth researchers and evaluators, we offer advice for youth workers and other adults to support youth involvement in R&E projects without either abdicating responsibility or overpowering youth partners in the project.

Purposes of Engaging Youth as Researchers and Evaluators

The goals of youth involvement in R&E projects vary. In the big picture, most are related to program improvement, school reform, or community development. Young people's motivation to get involved in these projects typically stems from a desire to effect change in these settings or to become a valued member of a cause-based group.

However, adults may have different purposes in mind when they initiate R&E projects with youth involvement or leadership. Often, adults involve youth in R&E projects so that young people may gain new skills and competencies. Often, too, teachers and youth workers initiate R&E projects to give youth "voice" about projects and issues. Professional researchers and evaluators sometimes engage young people with the purpose of gaining an authentic perspective on the research question.

The differing goals and purposes that youth and adults bring to R&E projects are important to recognize. When everyone's goals and purposes are understood, adults and youth are more able to work in partnership, and more likely to achieve all of the various goals that participants bring to the project.

Outcomes for Youth

Young people are involved in evaluating programs they participate in, using research to contribute to school reform efforts, and researching issues that matter in their communities. The settings for these projects range from community centers to classrooms, and often extend into the streets of their neighborhoods. Research finds that participating youth gain important skills and build social capital, while finding out more about themselves. These outcomes are summarized below.

Adult Roles in Projects

We have recently reviewed over two dozen reports and articles on youth involvement in R&E projects. This review revealed that adults' roles vary depending on the purpose of the research, from "lead researchers" who seek input from youth participants, to "advisers" to young people, providing technical and logistical support as needed. These roles can also change throughout the course of the project, depending on adults' goals and on the motivation and capacity of their youth partners.

Adults tend to play different roles depending on the purpose of the research. When youth development is a primary goal, adults are more likely to serve as advisers to "youth-led" projects. When youth development is secondary to other goals, such as enacting policy change in communities, adults are more likely to lead and provide direction for youth "assistants." Neither of these approaches is necessarily the best. Youth may lack the experience, clout, and access to resources necessary to successfully carry out an R&E project without adult guidance. On the other hand, an overbearing adult leader may not truly engage youth researchers and evaluators who sense that their input is not being taken seriously.

The objective, obviously, is for adults to integrate and find a balance between the two approaches. How does one do this? Foremost, adults initiating R&E projects with youth - or participating in a youth-initiated project - should strive to understand the goals of all participants, including their own. Take the time for everyone to discuss why they are participating. Then, youth and adults should work together to develop a strategy for the project, including the roles that each participant will take, to meet those goals. A partnership approach, with flexible, shared leadership, will advance the interests of all stakeholders.

Within this context, we conclude this brief with some recommendations on the roles adults can and should play in the various phases of R&E projects with youth involvement. This guidance is based on the above-mentioned reports (some of which are listed at the end) and on our own experience, including the development of the YALPE process (see box). These tips, along with your own expertise and experience, should help you implement successful R&E projects.

Youth and Adult Partners For Program Excellence (YALPE): A Practical Guide for Program Assessment and Action Planning

The YALPE Resource Kit, available through ACT for Youth, guides youth and adults through a rigorous program assessment and action planning process, providing tips and tools to help participants work in partnership. The Resource Kit includes all the tools you need to conduct a serious program assessment - with four program assessment tools to choose from, templates for data entry and reporting, and a step-by-step guide to the process in five phases:

The tools and methods are grounded in research on youth development and are user-friendly for both youth and adults. In addition, the YALPE Resource Kit guides youth and adult evaluators through key discussions about the purposes of the program assessment project, the goals of each participant, and action planning for data-based program improvement.


For more information about youth as evaluators, see the following publications and websites: