PERU is undertaking a review to address the methodological and theoretical challenges faced by Higher Education Providers when evaluating the impact of widening participation and student success activities with small cohorts. The focus of the review is on impact evaluation methodologies that use small numbers of cases: so-called ‘small n’ evaluation methodologies and forms part of a larger project commissioned by TASO.

What is the need?

A number of recent reports have pointed to limitations in approaches to evaluating widening participation approaches in Higher Education. The authors of TASO’s own report The Impact of Interventions for Widening Participation, for example, concluded that although there has been increased focus on robust evaluations across the HE widening participation sector, ‘there are still some gaps in the research base, and the evidence often does not demonstrate causality’. The authors also noted a preponderance of ‘black box’ interventions, which combined several outreach components and had a range of intended outcomes. Traditional counterfactual impact evaluation designs will not always be well suited to unpicking the complexity of such interventions.

What are we doing?

We are undertaking the methodology phase of the project. We will review and select the most suitable evaluation designs and methods for impact evaluation with small cohorts.

We are conducting a review of the existing methods used to evaluate programmes/interventions with small cohorts. The review will consider a range of methods used to evaluate small cohorts, including guidance on mixing methods and with a particular focus on methods that support causal inference where possible. We will develop a methodology taxonomy and transfer knowledge from this methods guidance phase to NEON, who are working with TASO to translate and test the methods guidance.

What will be the outcomes?

Our review, including a taxonomy of small n impact evaluation methodologies and guidance on their use will be part of a suite of tools to support HE providers.

What are the timescales?

The project will be completed during 2021.

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