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Setting a Meaningful Participation Target

Posted by on February 26th, 2016 Posted in: Practical Evaluation


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I enjoyed reading an article in Public Libraries titled “The Grass Is Always Greener” by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh.  They discuss the complexities of deciding whether a program was “well attended” or “nobody came.”  Sometimes a program that seems well attended in one situation is the same as a poorly attended program in another.

I can think of a lot of times I’ve experienced this exact situation. When I was a branch manager at a public library, the program manager at the main library would ask if she could send authors to speak at our branch library.  When I said, “maybe you should send them somewhere else – we only had ten people come to the last one,” she replied “ten is a lot – ten is more than we get anywhere else.”

When I worked at the NN/LM South Central Region, in some parts of the region 30 people could be expected to attend training sessions.  In other parts of the region, we considered 6 people a successfully attended program.  These differences often corresponded to urban vs. rural, or the travel distance needed to get to the training, or whether the librarians were largely solo librarians or worked in multi-librarian organizations, or whether their institutions supported taking time off for training.  Other considerations include whether the trainers had already built an audience over time that would regularly attend the programs. Or on the other hand, whether the trainers had saturated their market and there were very few new people to learn about the topic.

So how can you decide what a good target participation level should be, or maybe more importantly, how can you explain your participation targets to your funder or parent organization?

Tying your participation level to your intermediate and long-term intended outcomes is one way to do that.  Let me give you an example of a program in Houston that was funded by the NN/LM South Central Region. The Greater Houston AHEC received funding many years ago to do an in-depth training project with a small number of seniors in the most underserved areas of Houston.  The goals were to teach these seniors how to use computers, how to get on the Internet, how to use email, and then how to use MedlinePlus and NIHSeniorHealth to look up health information.  They planned for the seniors to take 2-3 classes a week, and each class lasted several hours. It was a big commitment, but they intended for these seniors to really know how to use the Internet at the end of the series.  There were so few seniors who saw the need to learn to use computers that they had to persuade about 10 people from each location to sign up.  However, the classes were so good and the seniors so enthusiastic, that after a couple of weeks, the other seniors wanted to take classes too.  This led to a phase 2 project which included funding for a permanent computer and coffee area in a senior center where students could practice their Internet skills. There is now a third phase of the program called M-SEARCH which teaches seniors to use mobile devices to look up their health information.

At the beginning, Greater Houston AHEC may not have envisioned these specific outcomes.  However, if they were trying to convince a funder that 10 person classes were a reasonable use of the funder’s money, it might be good to show that small in-depth classes could lead to a long-term outcome like “seniors in even the poorest neighborhoods in Houston will be able to research their health conditions on NIHSeniorHealth.”  In addition, it would be important to bring in other factors, such as your intended goals for the project, for example whether you hope to have a small group of these seniors that you can train to really use the Internet for health research or whether you want to reach a lot of seniors in underserved areas to let them know that it’s possible to find great health information using NLM resources (see the Kirkpatrick Model of training evaluation for more information on evaluating your training goals).

For more on creating long-term outcomes, see Booklet 2 of the OERC’s booklets: Planning Outcomes-based Outreach Projects

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This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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