Summer 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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Research + Volunteers = Success

Volunteer interviewers benefit both 4-H programs and themselves.

Christine Nelson
Assistant Professor and Human Development Extension Specialist
Department of Family and Child Ecology

Joanne Keith
Associate Professor and Human Development Extension Specialist
Department of Family and Child Ecology

Leah Hoopfer
Program Leader
Michigan 4-H Youth Programs

Anita Miller Covert
Research Associate
Department of Family and Child Ecology
Michigan State University - East Lansing

The program components of 4-H are developed in response to the needs of youth and must be based on research. Because of the many changes occurring within society and families and the lack of research available related to young adolescents, 10 to 14 years of age, it became a priority in the Michigan 4-H/Youth Programs to develop a stronger research base for statewide programming.

The direct access of 4-H to the university research base is an invaluable resource, but it's not without limitations. The research frequently provides only indirect support of 4-H programs, may not provide answers to the questions needed by 4-H, may be too theoretical without enough applied information, or may be dated.

To define and understand the current status of early adolescents in Michigan and to overcome some of the difficulties mentioned above, the Department of Family and Child Ecology and 4-H/ Youth Programs at Michigan State University applied for and received joint funding from the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service to conduct a statewide survey of Michigan young adolescents and their parents.

Michigan Survey

The major purpose of the Michigan Early Adolescent Survey was to develop a profile of Michigan youths between the ages of 10 and 14 that examined the developmental areas of responsibility/decision making, self-esteem, career exploration, communication, independence, and physical changes, as well as family, group organization, and other influences on these areas.

A total of 300 Michigan early adolescents were selected for the study through a stratified multistage cluster sampling technique. Volunteers collected the data for this study by interviewing the youths while the parents completed a questionnaire. This article describes the role of the volunteer interviewers and the outcomes related to their participation.

Why Volunteer Interviewers

Because of the age of the youths to be interviewed, the project managers decided that a direct interview was the most desirable way to obtain accurate and complete information. The current price of an interview carried out in the home is $60. So, to conduct 300 interviews would have cost $18,000, plus transportation costs. By involving volunteers from the counties where the youths lived, both of these major expenses were eliminated.

Noneconomic reasons also entered into the decision to involve volunteers. For those interviewers already working in a volunteer capacity for 4-H programs in their counties, the training for and experience with interviewing youths could offer an opportunity to further develop their knowledge of and skills related to early adolescents. Because the majority of 4-H members in Michigan are between ages 9 and 14, the experience would benefit both the volunteers and 4-H. Participation in a scholarly project also might help recruit new volunteers not previously involved in 4-H. Another consideration was to "close the gap" between research and the lay audience. And, by being a part of the research process, volunteers might understand more clearly the value of research.

Who Volunteer Interviewers Were

The following is a profile of the volunteer interviewers recruited by 4-H county staff:

  • 81 % were women.
  • Ages of volunteers ranged from 25 to 60, with 40 being the average.
  • 59% were high school graduates or had some college education.
  • 67% were self-employed or employed by others.
  • 11% fell into each of the following categories: unemployed, full-time homemaker, or student.
  • Average family income was $55,000.
  • 65% lived in rural or small town communities.
  • Number of children under age 14 in the volunteers' families ranged from 1 to 7; the average was 3.
  • Number of children older than 14 ranged from 0 to 6; the average was 3.
  • This was the first volunteer experience with 4-H for 75% of the interviewers.

Volunteer Interviewers' Training

The volunteers were trained in an intensive session beginning Friday afternoon and ending Saturday afternoon. Training sensitized the interviewers to the developmental stage of early adolescence and to the role of the interviewer in eliciting information from the youths. Guidelines for the interview process were taught in a problem-solving mode by viewing and criticizing actual videotapes of pilot interviews.

The interviewers then divided into small groups for practice interviews, which they criticized and discussed with the project managers. The selfadministered parent questionnaire and household interviews were also reviewed.

What Volunteer Interviewers Did

Letters with introductory information were sent from county Cooperative Extension Service offices to potential families indicating that the name of the early adolescent had been randomly selected from school district lists. Volunteers then called each family in the order given them by the county 4-H office to find out if the family was interested in participating in the study and to make appointments.

At the time of the interview, volunteer interviewer were responsible for:

  1. Conducting a brief household interview with a parent.
  2. Getting the parents started on their individual questionnaires and answering any questions they might have.
  3. Interviewing the early adolescent and recording his/her answers.
  4. Filling out an interviewer reaction sheet after leaving the home.

Interviewer Benefits

Interviewing was a positive experience for the volunteers. They reported that it provided them with feelings of accomplishment, increased self-esteem, and increased positive feelings about early adolescents. For the most part, interviewers enjoyed their work, felt comfortable doing it, and felt it was a valuable use of their time. They saw it as a positive experience allowing them to learn much about youths and their families.

Figure 1. Interviewer reactions to the interviewing experience.

Figure 1 gives mean responses to statements dealing with how the interviewers perceived themselves and the interview process. When asked what they enjoyed most, interviewers were most likely to say talking with the youths and their families-often after the interview had taken place. These talks seemed to increase the interviewers' knowledge about early adolescents and their families. Making phone calls and driving the sometimes long distances to the interview were the least-enjoyed activities.

As a result of the volunteer work, interviewers felt better about themselves. The Coopersmith SelfEsteem Inventory (Adult Short Form) was used to assess interviewer self-esteem and was part of an interviewer questionnaire. Before the interviews, the mean score was .4269 on a scale ranging from 0 to 1. After the interview, the mean score was .5111. This increase in self-esteem is statistically significant. Although other events in the interviewers' lives may have occurred between testing, it's highly probable that this change can be attributed, at least in part, to the opportunity to be associated with a research project and its attendant growth opportunities.

Another outcome was an increase in the positive responses given by interviewers about early adolescents in general. Before conducting interviews, the mean score on the Attitudes Toward Teens Scale was 2.1242 out of a possible 4. After interviewing, this mean score increased to 2.6013. This change is also statistically significant. Again, although there may have been other experiences during the time from the first data collection, it's highly probable that this increase was influenced by the training and interviewing experiences.

Project Benefits

The training and involvement of volunteer interviewers also benefited the project. This is one of the largest, most generalizable studies of early adolescents and their parents to be done. It has proved an invaluable base on which to develop programming not only for Michigan 4-H youths, but also those in other states. The study adds to the literature on early adolescence, which is in its infancy.

Benefits for Early Adolescents

By sensitizing the interviewers to the growing, changing early adolescent, the use of volunteers also contributed to the well-being of early adolescents in our society. Equipped with knowledge and skills, these interviewers will share information and positive attitudes with groups of parents inaccessible to parent educators or others who work with early adolescents and their parents. In informal and formal settings, these advocates for early adolescents will help build a positive environment in which those youths will grow and develop.


The involvement of volunteers in Cooperative Extension Service research depends on many factors, most of which aren't directly related to the volunteers themselves. It's true that access to qualified volunteers must exist for research involvement to take place, but volunteer involvement can occur only in the context of a commitment to research and dissemination by state and county Extension staff.

Academic faculty whose goals are congruent with the Cooperative Extension Service are essential. If commitment is lacking in any of these groups, the research project can't proceed. Administrative commitment, support, and reward for this kind of work is also necessary. Administrators at the county and state levels need to be aware that statewide research with volunteers isn't a simple process and b ready to provide the necessary context for this to take place.