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Student Parallel Election Program (Student Vote) Evaluation

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Background

Student Vote is a parallel election for youth under the voting age, coinciding with federal, provincial and municipal elections. The purpose is to provide young Canadians with an opportunity to experience the voting process first-hand and practise the habits of active and engaged citizenship. The program culminates with a vote on local election candidates. Student Vote is the flagship program of CIVIX. Elections Canada supports Student Vote at the federal level as part of its civic education mandate. In an effort to increase the impact of Student Vote 2015, CIVIX organized five professional development conferences, Democracy Bootcamps, for teachers in the lead-up to the election to improve their democratic engagement and delivery of Student Vote.

Evaluation

The Student Vote program evaluation was designed to assess program outcomes during the 2015 federal election. The goal of the study was to assess the success of Student Vote at meeting the program objectives, including:

  • Imparting knowledge and understanding of Canada's democratic system among students.
  • Generating appreciation of the importance of voting and civic engagement among students.
  • Providing educators with a better ability to teach civic knowledge and civic education concepts, specifically focused on the democratic process, in an experiential and hands-on manner.
  • Contributing to future democratic participation among Canadian youth.

Methodology

The evaluation incorporated a mixed method approach. Survey data were collected from students, teachers and parents from schools that had participated in Student Vote, and schools that had not participated in Student Vote, during the 2015 federal election. Key informant interviews with participating and non-participating teachers, parents of students who had participated in Student Vote and program stakeholders were collected to supplement survey data. Additionally, focus groups were conducted with students who had participated in Student Vote. Finally, site visits were held at schools that had taken part in Student Vote.

Although data were collected from non-participating schools (schools that did not register with Student Vote for the 2015 federal election), concerns arose about the appropriateness of the control group. The participating student sample and non-participating student sample differed substantially in their grades and ages, raising concerns about the comparability of the two groups and the statistical power of the analyses with the secondary students. Additionally, some non-participating teachers reported using Student Vote materials to teach about politics during the election, raising concerns about the degree to which these teachers could be viewed as truly non-participating. Finally, 30% of students in the non-participating sample reported that they had taken part in a mock election during the 2015 federal election. While it is possible for a teacher to organize a mock vote independently of the Student Vote program, it is likely that at least some of these students were, in fact, participating in Student Vote without their class having been registered in the program. As a result of these multiple concerns, with the exception of reviewing teacher reasons for not participating in Student Vote, the control groups, composed of the non-participating samples, were not incorporated into the analyses of the outcomes. The removal of the control group from the analysis, however, limits the ability to attribute changes in outcomes directly to the Student Vote program.

Key Evaluation Outcomes

Student Outcomes

Knowledge and Critical Thinking

After Student Vote was completed, both elementary and secondary students displayed increased knowledge about politics and elections. The increased knowledge reported by students was consistent even after controlling for possible confounding variables. The regression additionally showed that student age had a positive impact on both elementary and secondary student knowledge and that teacher/school participation in the Democracy Bootcamps benefited elementary student knowledge. However, the regressions, counterintuitively, indicated that prior teacher/school participation in Student Vote or a Democracy Bootcamp was associated with lower secondary student knowledge scores. The reasons for this counterintuitive finding are not clear and would require additional analyses not possible with the existing data.

Parents and teachers also reported that Student Vote had had a positive impact on students' knowledge. Parents reported that participation in Student Vote had improved their child(ren)'s critical thinking. This perception was echoed by teachers and student focus group participants, who noted that the Student Vote activities had encouraged critical thinking and helped students make better voting decisions.

Interest

Among both elementary and secondary students, participating in Student Vote increased the proportion of students who were somewhat interested in politics, although not the proportion who were very interested. Additionally, after participating in Student Vote, fewer students responded that they were not at all interested in politics. After controlling for possible confounding variables, Student Vote maintained its impact on secondary students.

As with the impact of Student Vote on knowledge, parents and teachers were clear about the positive impact that they felt the program had had on students' interest levels. The majority of parents and teachers reported that Student Vote had positively impacted their child(ren)'s interest in government and politics.

Student Discussions of Politics

After Student Vote was over, both elementary and secondary students were less likely to report that they never talked to their friends or family about politics. Additionally, over half of all students reported talking to their friends and family about the election at least once a month. While the independent effect of Student Vote was maintained in only one of the regression analyses (for secondary students talking to friends about politics), in several cases, Democracy Bootcamp participation did have a significant impact on student outcomes. Elementary students whose teacher/school had participated in a Democracy Bootcamp talked to their friends and family more often about politics and talked to their friends more often about the election. Secondary students whose teacher/school had participated in a Democracy Bootcamp were more likely to talk to their friends about the election and to their family about politics.

Parents and teachers were clear in their perceptions of the impact of Student Vote on political discussion and student engagement. The majority of parents indicated that Student Vote had motivated their child(ren) to discuss politics more. Similarly, interviewed teachers recalled instances of students discussing the election outside the classroom or bringing parental opinions into classroom discussions.

Confidence

Defining student confidence as their comfort level in telling others their political opinions, Student Vote had a strong, positive impact on students. After Student Vote was over, both elementary and secondary students were more likely to report being very comfortable talking to friends and family about politics. For elementary students, the impact of Student Vote maintained significance in the regressions.

Additionally, older elementary students, and students whose teacher/school had previously participated in Student Vote, were more likely to report being comfortable talking to friends and family about politics. For secondary students, the independent effect of Student Vote remained significant for talking to friends, although not to family. This finding could possibly be explained by the responses of interviewed parents, who noted that their child(ren) felt comfortable talking to them about anything, Student Vote or not.

Voting Intentions

Student Vote increased student interest in voting in the 2015 federal election. The independent impact of Student Vote 2015 stayed significant in the regression for elementary students, although not for secondary students. However, the regression did indicate that secondary students who had previously participated in the Student Vote program, whose teacher/school had previously participated in Student Vote or who were born in Canada were more interested in voting in the 2015 federal election. This suggests that repeated exposure by teachers and/or students may be linked to stronger outcomes.

Additionally, Democracy Bootcamps had a relatively consistent and robustly positive impact on student voting intentions. Elementary students whose teacher/school had participated in a Democracy Bootcamp reported being more interested in voting in the 2015 federal election and more likely to vote in future elections. Secondary students whose teacher/school had participated in a Democracy Bootcamp reported being more likely to vote in future elections.

When asked why they would have voted in the 2015 federal election, both elementary and secondary students were more likely to state that it was their responsibility as Canadian citizens after completing Student Vote. This suggests that the program and experience is helping strengthen civic duty.

Interviewed parents and teachers tended to report that Student Vote had increased their child(ren)'s/students' intentions to vote in the future. Both felt that the Student Vote activities and material had helped to teach the importance of voting. However, some parents and teachers noted that it was too early to determine the impact of Student Vote and that there were other factors that could influence voting behaviour.

Teacher Outcomes

Student Vote had a limited impact on teacher outcomes. There were no pre-/post-program differences with respect to teachers on knowledge of, or interest in, politics. The regressions indicated that experience teaching civics had a greater impact on these outcomes, although past participation in Student Vote was also associated with increased knowledge and interest. Also, teachers, both before and after completing Student Vote, were equally likely to agree that voting was a civic responsibility. This was supported by the finding that almost all teachers planned on voting in the 2015 federal election, and almost all teachers reported actually voting in the election. Such results may be indicative of a selection bias, meaning that teachers who chose to participate in Student Vote may have done so because they already had high levels of knowledge, interest and belief that voting is a civic responsibility. However, although the majority of teachers reported being confident teaching civics, the majority of teachers also reported that participating in Student Vote had increased their confidence in teaching civics. Additionally, participating in Student Vote improved teacher perceptions that there were issues they cared about and that politicians spoke about important issues.

Parent Outcomes

The majority of parents (90%) reported that their child(ren)'s participation in Student Vote had increased their families' opportunities to learn more about elections and politics. Although the majority of parents reported being at least somewhat informed about, and interested in, politics, at least half indicated that their knowledge of, and interest in, politics had increased because of their child(ren)'s participation in Student Vote. At least half of the parents who indicated no increase in knowledge or interest stated that it was because of their already high level of knowledge or interest, limiting the impact that their child(ren)'s participation in Student Vote could have. The majority of parents stated that voting was the responsibility of citizens, and this was evidenced by the majority of parents reporting voting in the 2015 federal election.

Just over a quarter of parents (28%) reported that their child(ren)'s participation in Student Vote had positively influenced their decision to vote. This reflects an increase of 40% since the last election.

Satisfaction with Student Vote

Approximately three-quarters of students reported enjoying learning about government and politics through Student Vote. Additionally, voting in the Student Vote election was the most commonly mentioned activity that students engaged in during the election, and it was rated as one of the top three most useful activities by over half of all students. Finally, while over half of all students reported being interested in participating in Student Vote again, elementary students were more likely than secondary students to want to participate in a future Student Vote program.

Teachers reported being very satisfied with Student Vote materials, resources and support. All the materials and resources provided by Student Vote were very highly rated. Over 90% of teachers who used the materials rated them as either good or excellent. Thus, almost all teachers indicated future intentions to participate in Student Vote again.

Participation in Student Vote

More than 7,500 schools registered to participate in the 2015 federal Student Vote, which is approximately half of all Canadian schools (grades 4 and up). CIVIX reported that 922,000 students cast a ballot from 6,662 schools, representing all the federal electoral districts across Canada. This level of participation represented a 78% increase in the number of schools and a 64% increase in the number of students who participated in 2011, making it the largest Student Vote program to date.

The majority of teachers who participated in Student Vote for the 2015 federal election had already participated in the program during a previous election – an indication of the positive experience teachers had with Student Vote previously. Teachers indicated that a desire to help students understand government and to help meet curriculum requirements were the two most common reasons stated for participating in Student Vote. Teachers reported that they could select from, and adapt, Student Vote materials to meet the needs of their classroom, allowing the materials to be integrated into the curriculum. It was also noted that some materials provided by Student Vote could not be developed by individual teachers – e.g. the Elections Canada ballot boxes and online videos – and that these materials, and the national scope of the program, helped link students with other students across the country.

Democracy Bootcamp

A greater proportion of teachers attending a Democracy Bootcamp had previously participated in Student Vote than those who did not attend. Democracy Bootcamp attendees rated themselves as slightly more interested in politics and slightly more confident about teaching the subject. While having attended a Democracy Bootcamp did not impact the amount of time teachers prepared, attendees did spend more time covering the election in the classroom. Additionally, while the majority of teachers felt that Student Vote had had a positive impact on increasing student interest in politics, motivating students to discuss politics and improving student intentions to vote, Democracy Bootcamp attendees reported a greater impact than non-attendees.

Previous Teacher Participation in Student Vote

Over half of post-program teachers reported participating in Student Vote before the 2015 federal election. Teachers who had participated in an earlier Student Vote program reported that they were more informed about politics than teachers participating in Student Vote for the first time. Additionally, teachers who had previously participated in Student Vote reported being more interested in politics than those who were participating for the first time.

Previous Student Participation in Student Vote

Previous student participation in Student Vote had a modest effect on pre-program students. Elementary students who had participated in an earlier Student Vote were less likely to report being uncomfortable talking to family and friends about politics than elementary students experiencing Student Vote for the first time. Additionally, secondary students with previous experience with Student Vote reported being slightly more interested in politics than secondary students participating in Student Vote for the first time. However, differences due to previous participation in Student Vote were not maintained after the election. These results indicate that while Student Vote may have some carry-over effects for students, these effects are subsumed in recent exposure to the program.

Non-participation in Student Vote

Teachers were asked why they had chosen not to participate in Student Vote for the 2015 federal election. The most common responses provided were that they did not have time to implement Student Vote with their class and that they did not learn about it early enough to integrate it into their lesson plan.

Conclusions

Overall, the results of the evaluation show that Student Vote is generally meeting its stated objectives for students and teachers. While some results are more clearly demonstrated than others, the overall evaluation demonstrates the positive impact of the program on students and teachers.

Impart Knowledge and understanding of Canada's Democratic System among Students

Self-reported student knowledge of politics and government showed an increase after the completion of Student Vote. This increased knowledge was also demonstrated in the knowledge-based questions. After Student Vote ended, students answered more of the knowledge-based questions on the survey correctly. These findings were robust and continued to have a significant impact when the regression analysis controlled for possible confounding variables. Thus, participating in Student Vote does have a significant impact on student knowledge. Parents and teachers also felt that the Student Vote activities had increased their child(ren)'s knowledge and critical-thinking skills about politics and government.

Generate Appreciation of the Importance of Voting and Civic Engagement among Students

Student Vote had a positive, although modest, impact on student appreciation of politics, elections and civic engagement. While Student Vote did not increase the proportion of students who reported being very interested in politics, it did increase the proportion who were somewhat interested, and it reduced the proportion who were not at all interested in politics. This implies that while Student Vote did not necessarily generate intense interest in politics, it did help to increase moderate interest and awareness of politics as well as address a certain level of apathy about politics. However, the impact of Student Vote on student interest in politics was not very robust and became insignificant when other variables were controlled for in the regression analysis.

Student Vote's impact on how often students discussed politics with their friends and family was similar to its impact on student interest in politics. The initial analyses showed that Student Vote reduced the proportion of students who stated that they never talked to their friends and family about politics. These findings, though, did not stay significant when other variables were controlled for in the regression. Democracy Bootcamps, however, did have a significant impact on elementary students. Elementary students whose teacher/school had participated in a Democracy Bootcamp reported talking to their friends and family about politics more often than students whose teacher had not attended.

Adult perceptions of Student Vote's impact on their child(ren) were more straightforward. The majority of parents and teachers reported that Student Vote had had a positive impact on the students' sense of civic duty and responsibility. Additionally, the majority of parents and teachers felt that Student Vote had increased student interest in government and politics. Finally, the majority of parents and teachers also felt that Student Vote had motivated students to discuss politics with friends and family.

Provide Educators with a Better Ability to Teach Civic Knowledge and civic education Concepts

Participating in Student Vote 2015 did not appear to impact teachers' knowledge of, or interest in, politics. This could partially be explained by the finding that a majority of teachers had participated in previous Student Vote programs. Both before and after the completion of Student Vote, the majority of teachers reported being at least somewhat knowledgeable about, and interested in, politics. A regression of these outcomes indicated that the amount of experience teachers had teaching civics had a stronger impact on outcomes: more experience was associated with higher levels of knowledge and interest. Given that 60% of teachers had previously participated in Student Vote, it is possible that teacher knowledge and interest were impacted by earlier experiences of the program. This was partially demonstrated by the finding that teachers who had previously participated in Student Vote reported greater knowledge of and interest in politics. Additionally, the majority of teachers strongly agreed that participating in Student Vote had increased their confidence in teaching civics.

Student Vote does enhance the ability of educators to teach civics by providing high-quality resources. Teachers reported being very satisfied with all the resources that were provided to them for Student Vote. Participating teachers noted that the materials were readily adaptable for use in their classroom. Thus, they were able to incorporate the materials into their lesson plans to help supplement information. Teachers also noted that the Student Vote materials helped to create a sense of community for the students. Rather than just their classroom learning about the election, students felt a part of something national in scope. This helped to make the material more relevant and engaging for students by bringing the real world into the classroom.

Contribute to Future Democratic Participation among Canadian Youth

Student Vote had a positive impact on future voting intentions and democratic participation. The initial analyses found that students had an increased interest in voting in the 2015 federal election after the completion of Student Vote. This impact was robust among elementary students, maintaining its significance in the regression. Democracy Bootcamps also had a unique, positive impact on elementary student voting intentions – in both the 2015 federal election and future elections. Student Vote's immediate impact on secondary students, though, did not stay significant in the regression analysis. However, the regression noted that prior student or teacher/school participation in Student Vote and being born in Canada increased interest in voting in the 2015 federal election, suggesting that repeated exposure is related to outcomes. Additionally, students' past participation in Student Vote and teacher/school participation in a Democracy Bootcamp positively affected secondary students' interest in voting in the future. Finally, after the completion of Student Vote, students were more likely to agree that voting was a civic responsibility. This was further manifested by the fact that the most common reason students gave for wanting to vote in the future was that it was their responsibility as Canadian citizens. Finally, parents and teachers reported that Student Vote had increased student intentions to vote in the future.

Increase Program Participation Rates

Student Vote succeeded in meeting its program participation objectives (which were to meet or exceed the 2011 student and school participation rates). The Student Vote program for the 2015 federal election was the largest program to date. Over half of all Canadian schools, representing all federal electoral districts in Canada, participated in the program. Participation of students and schools increased by more than 64% and 78%, respectively, from the 2011 federal election.

Recommendations

Student Vote Should Continue to Be Offered for Future Elections

Student Vote has a positive impact on students' knowledge and understanding of Canadian politics and elections as well as on their interest and confidence in discussing politics and their interest in voting in the future. It helps to make the material more relevant and engaging for students. It provides teachers with high-quality materials to assist them in teaching civics to students. As such, Student Vote should continue to be offered as a resource for educators and schools when teaching civics.

Investigate Barriers to Registration for Student Vote

Given that the Student Vote program is tied to election cycles, its availability is necessarily limited – i.e. it cannot be offered every year. Further efforts may be needed to better understand those schools/educators not participating in Student Vote to help develop appropriate recruitment strategies in the future. As part of understanding barriers to participating in Student Vote, an investigation could be undertaken to determine why educators do not re-register and instead use previous Student Vote materials.

Offer Professional Development Opportunities for Teachers

The evaluation found that Democracy Bootcamps had a relatively consistent and positive impact on student voting intentions. Democracy Bootcamps also had a significant impact on political knowledge among elementary students as well as political discussion among elementary and secondary students. In an effort to increase the scope and impact of Student Vote, more Democracy Bootcamps or similar professional development events should be delivered in the future.

Track Individual Student and Teacher Survey Responses on Future Evaluations

Tracking individual student and teacher surveys would allow for a true repeated-measures study design – i.e. the pre- and post-response of specific individuals could be linked. This would allow for the direct observation of changes in participants over time. Additionally, repeated-measures study designs provide greater power in statistical modelling, allowing the analysis to more accurately capture differences between groups.

Tracking individual student and teacher responses would also make it possible to link student responses to individual teachers, helping to determine whether teacher characteristics impact student outcomes. The current identification of survey participants allows only for school-level identification. Although there are commonalities within schools that could impact Student Vote outcomes (e.g. administration endorsement of the program), teachers differ within schools. Thus, a new teacher providing Student Vote for the first time to a class may mask the benefits of experience from another teacher at the same school.

It is understood that tracking individual survey responses is time-consuming and challenging; however, the increased statistical power associated with it may mean that a smaller sample would be needed. Future evaluations should assess the costs and benefits of conducting a smaller repeated-measures study design.

Develop a More Robust and Appropriate Control Group

The control group used to test the impact of Student Vote in the current study was not ideal. Almost a third of the control group teachers had participated in Student Vote in the past. Elementary students made up the bulk of the non-participating students. Non-participating teachers reported that they were using Student Vote materials to teach their students about the election, and nearly a third of non-participating students reported that they had participated in a mock election. Each of these factors impacts the ability to determine the effect of Student Vote on participating students and teachers.

Future evaluations need to ensure that the control group better matches the needs of the evaluation. As such, before the collection of data, there needs to be clarity about what aspects of Student Vote are expected to impact outcomes. For example, if registration is required to access key Student Vote materials, then a comparison of registered versus non-registered schools may be an appropriate comparison. However, since Student Vote materials are readily available for free to all teachers, information about the use of those materials needs to be collected from all teachers. In this case, the evaluation may be less about the difference between registered and non-registered schools and more about the use of Student Vote materials. In either case, clear expectations about how Student Vote impacts outcomes should be developed before the evaluation. These expectations can be used to tailor the evaluation to better measure the unique impact that Student Vote has.

Develop a Program Theory of Change

A program theory of change outlines the links between program activities and expected program outcomes. The presence of a well-articulated theory of change helps us understand how a program works and what aspects of it are expected to drive change in program participants. Having this articulation can help us understand what components of Student Vote are unique to the program and how those components contribute to overall outcomes. Being able to isolate unique components to Student Vote will help future evaluations develop more appropriate control groups.