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Student Vote Program Evaluation

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Summary

To educate young Canadians about democracy and elections and to help them develop the habit of voting before they turn 18, Elections Canada has worked with Student Vote to provide students in both elementary and secondary schools with the opportunity to participate in parallel elections at the same time as federal general elections. The Student Vote Evaluation was commissioned by Elections Canada to evaluate the effectiveness of the Student Vote Program (SVP) in achieving civic education objectives among elementary and secondary school students, teachers and parents. During the May 2011 federal general election, 3,750 schools participated in the SVP, with 563,498 student ballots being cast. This study shows that the SVP has a significant positive impact on many factors associated with voter turnout, including political knowledge, interest and attitudes, such as a sense civic duty. The study also makes recommendations for strengthening and improving the program and civic education in general.

Main Findings

Background to the Study

  • Elections Canada has a legislated mandate to conduct voter education and information programs, particularly for those persons and groups most likely to experience difficulties in exercising their democratic rights.
  • Previous research shows that civic education has a positive impact on key factors associated with voter turnout, such as political knowledge, interest, attitudes, civic participation and intent to vote. There is also growing evidence of the effectiveness of hands-on learning opportunities in shaping future voters.
  • Student Vote is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that aims to build the capacity and commitment of young Canadians to participate in their democracy. Student Vote's flagship program is a parallel election for students under the voting age, coinciding with official election periods. The program combines in-class learning, family dialogue, media consumption and an authentic voting experience.
  • To educate young Canadians about democracy and elections and help them to develop the habit of voting before they turn 18, Elections Canada has been working with Student Vote to provide a parallel election program for every federal general election since 2004.
  • The program's reach has grown consistently since it began in 2004.¬† During the May 2011 federal general election, 3,750 schools (nearly one-third of all schools) participated in the Student Vote Program (SVP), with 563,498 student ballots being cast.

Purpose of the Evaluation

  • The Student Vote 2011 Federal Election Program Evaluation was conducted to determine the effectiveness of the SVP in achieving its civic education objectives among elementary and secondary school students, teachers and parents. The evaluation was based primarily on surveys of participating students, teachers and parents, who were compared to a control group of non-participating teachers and students who had taught or taken a class related to civics during the 2010–2011 school year.
  • The surveys used to inform this evaluation were carried out between April and June 2011.

Summary of Findings

Teachers and Parents

  • The SVP was well received by teachers, who praised its materials and the support they received from Student Vote. Both teachers and parents reported that the SVP had a significant, positive civics-related impact on students.
  • Teachers felt that their own confidence in teaching civic education had increased as a result of the program. Teacher satisfaction was very high, with 95% of participating teachers saying they would very likely participate in the program in the future.
  • Over 60% of parents reported an increase in their own political interest and knowledge as a result of their child's participation in the program. Parents further stated that the program provided their family with more opportunities to learn about and discuss politics. Among parents who voted, 20% reported that their child's participation in the SVP positively affected their decision to vote.

Students

  • The study found that the SVP had a significant positive impact on students' knowledge of politics and the electoral process. For example, the number of correct responses to political knowledge questions increased significantly between the pre- and post-program surveys (by 15 percentage points for elementary students and 11 percentage points for secondary school students). The program also increased students' likelihood of engaging in political discussions with parents.
  • Experiential learning, a key feature of the SVP, was found to have a significant positive impact on students' interest in politics. For secondary school students, program participation also had a strong positive impact on students' understanding of voting as a civic duty.
  • Research has shown that political knowledge, discussion with parents, interest in politics and civic duty are all important predictors of voting. The fact that the SVP is having a positive impact on these factors is strong evidence that the program is achieving important positive results for students.
  • On intention to vote in future elections, the study produced mixed results. On the one hand, the report shows that SVP participants reported a significantly higher intention to vote once they become eligible than non-participants (90% compared to 82%). There was also a 6 percentage point increase from the pre-program participants (84%). 
  • However, when multiple regression analysis was used to examine the impact of experiential learning on future intention to vote, it yielded different results – some positive, some negative – depending on how experiential learning was defined. (Multiple regression analysis is a statistical technique that examines the relationship between a dependent variable – in this case, future intention to vote – and a number of independent variables – in this case, experiential learning and other variables.)
  • The report notes that such conflicting results were likely caused by methodological issues that affected the validity of how this particular outcome was measured. Among other things, the wording of the question on intention to vote, which asked respondents whether they would have voted in the May 2 federal election had they been "eligible," may have been too complex for younger respondents. The question on intent to vote was followed by an open-ended question asking respondents why they would vote or not vote once they became eligible. Many of those who said they would not vote responded that they were "not old enough," further suggesting that the question was too difficult for younger respondents.
  • Confusion may have been compounded by references to both the "parallel" election and the "real" election in the questionnaire. 
  • Given the conflicting results for this outcome, and the likelihood that they were caused by methodological issues, it would be incorrect to conclude that the program leads to a decrease in intention to vote. Further research, using more accurate measures of future voting behaviour, are required before any conclusions can be drawn.
  • Overall, the study shows that the SVP is well appreciated by students, teachers and parents alike and that it has a positive impact on these groups.

Recommendations

  • The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at strengthening the Student Vote Program and improving civic education in Canada more generally. For example:
    • In response to comments from teachers, it is recommended that Student Vote engage official parties to develop simple explanations of their platforms for students and videos of party leaders addressing student participants.
    • Student Vote's recruitment strategy is extensive and includes reaching out to many stakeholders, including principals, superintendents, school boards, teachers and others by various means. ¬†However, to continue to increase the program's reach, it is recommended that Student Vote review and refine its recruitment and communication processes to ensure that key stakeholders and decision-makers are informed about the SVP – namely civics and social studies teachers, who are strong advocates of the program.
    • As a long-term approach to building civic literacy and increasing democratic engagement, it is recommended that Elections Canada explore options to work with external organizations to provide civic education and experiential learning opportunities to students between official election periods.
  • The report also makes recommendations for improving future evaluations. Examples include:
    • Reviewing survey instruments to ensure greater question specificity and simplified language.
    • Undertaking or supporting research to determine the program's impact on voting behaviour. One option would be to conduct a longitudinal study that measures SVP's impact on students over a longer period.
  • A full set of recommendations is provided in the report.