Set the Stage for your Evaluation


Preparing for an evaluation is a lot like preparing for other important activities. You have to determine what information you need, lay out a plan, and make some decisions about how you will proceed.

Gather Background Information

Doing interviews, reviewing reports, searching in dusty archives—whatever it takes—read everything you can to learn about all the aspects and the various nuances of your project. (Escape route: This step is only necessary if you’re starting from the beginning as an evaluator. If you already have a program, initiative, or program in place, then you’ve got the information you need.)

The background information you need is often in the hands of other people—especially if you are an external evaluator— someone who is conducting an evaluation of a project that he or she did not design.

If you have not been integrally involved with the design of the project or program, you should read everything, from reports to memoranda and meeting notes. In fact, review any documentation that helps you better understand the project. And don’t forget to talk to the program designers and other key stakeholders. They’re an invaluable source of information that can help you better understand the project. They will also help shape questions, identify credible sources, and provide encouragement and critical feedback. Finally, they will render the incalculable service of helping you review and interpret your findings.

Together, the information you pull together from these sources will help you develop a conceptual framework or logic model. Many program designers find it very useful to do this, because then you can view at a glance—and discuss with ease—the project’s motivation and intentions, components, strategies, and desired outcomes.

Develop a Logic Model

A Logic Model is used to conceptualize a single intervention, project, initiative, or program. While it is helpful to build one to understand the relationships among the implementation steps of a project, program, or initiative and the intended outcomes and impact of those activities, it works best if all the activities fall within one initiative. For example, if the goal is to implement a new literacy program in a school, then a logic model can depict the activities that will be undertaken to get that literacy program in place.

For a more detailed explanation of logic models, click here. For more information about developing a logic model, go to Lab 1: Logic Model.

Design Plan


No doubt you have a lot invested in gaining approval or funding or whatever was needed to plan and implement an project or program, and you initiated it based on a belief that it will work and will benefit the target audience—children, teachers, coaches, instructional aides, parents—whoever it might be. Just getting the pieces in place and “pushing the boat off the shore” and then waiting to see whether the wind comes up or what people say about the experience is not enough to determine its value.

How will you know whether the project or program you have initiated is making a difference?

Remember the 3 BIG questions?
(mouse-over to view them)
These are the high-level questions you need to keep in mind, but before you can decide what data or information to collect, you have to develop an evaluation plan that will make capturing it possible. This is arguably the most critical phase of the process. Clear thinking and careful planning will save headaches later as the data begin rolling in.
Select Methods

The next step in designing the evaluation is determining how you will go about measuring your constructs and answering your research questions. You need to select the right set of methods to answer the questions you have specified.Tape Measure

After you’ve determined the questions you hope to answer (and perhaps the constructs you will need to measure), you can begin to consider how best to find the data you need to answer those questions. You can collect data in a variety of ways. You can design surveys or questionnaires, conduct interviews, hold focus groups, or combine them together to capture more information. These types of data collection methods fall into two general categories: quantitative and qualitative methods. Which one is right to monitor your implementation, or should you use a combination of methods? These days it is very common to use the latter—referred to as a “mixed methods” approach because it provides the richest information about how things are going.

Analyze Data
Analysis of
Qualitative Data

One approach to analyzing qualitative data is to begin with general analysis and then gradually get more specific as you dig deeper into the data. For example, you might first look at overall teacher content knowledge.

  • Do teachers generally talk about the subject in a new way?
  • Do they feel more confident in their knowledge of the subject area?
You may then delve a little deeper and try to understand more Data Diggingspecifically the ways in which teachers’ attitudes and understanding of the content have changed. Additional analyses might subdivide the group of respondents into subunits, such as more experienced versus less experienced teachers.
  • Do different groups of teachers have different experiences learning the content?
  • What factors make learning the content easier?
Sometimes these additional analyses can yield the most interesting and surprising results.

Another approach to analyzing qualitative data is to use the interview or focus group protocol as a guide. Going through the protocol, question by question -

  • What is the general response?
  • When asked to describe how their classrooms have changed as a result of their participation in your site’s programs, what do teachers say?
  • Do their responses seem to follow one or two primary themes, or is there a lot of variation?

Use responses from other questions to understand the variation.

  • Do teachers who typically report very small changes in their practices also report that they have a principal who is not very supportive?
  • Or a significant number of English learners in their classroom? Understanding the “why’s” is critical to making improvements in your programs.

In this way, evaluators can compare, aggregate, contrast, sort, and order data to look for patterns, links, and relationships. Evaluators search for patterns by reviewing data for categories, defining sets of relationships, making constant comparisons, and developing hypotheses. The analytical process is recursive in that as the evaluator looks for meaning in the data, he/she speculates on outcomes, which leads to new coding, sorting, and so on.

Evaluators struggle to determine just how much evidence is enough evidence to report. Since the size and scope of evaluations differ from project to project, the amount of evidence required to make a statement is relative to the project. There is no simple rule of thumb. Discerning findings from qualitative data means capturing persistent commonalities among similar respondents, i.e., “Nearly all first-year teachers found the Science in the Garden workshop useful and effective.”

What will you do with the information?

This is where the whole evaluation process was leading from the beginning. What decisions can you make based on the data collected? What actions can you—should you—take? This is where you decide what changes you and others want to make to improve the program or what steps to take to initiate a new one. Recall the questions you identified in the beginning.
How did you answer them?
What did you learn?
How will you use this information?
What did you find?

In some ways, this is the most satisfying stage of your evaluation. After preparing for and designing your evaluation, after collecting and analyzing your data, you can now tell the world (or at least the people important to your project) what you found.

ReportA good evaluation report is clear, concise, and provides adequate evidence for claims and enough explanation to make sure the reader understands your interpretation of the data. It is sometimes tempting to include too much information. When you have collected stacks and stack of surveys and reams of field notes, it is difficult to know “when to say when.” You’ve become invested in each of your data tables, but if the data don’t show anything, leave them out. Be clear about how the evaluation was conducted as well. Everyone involved in developing the school improvement plan or who is affected by the school improvement plan will be interested both in the methods and the outcomes of the evaluation.

Taking action means implementing specific strategies to accomplish your goals—to “put the rubber on the road,” as they say. Develop an action plan based on the data collected. Changes or improvements may focus on the content of the program, format, delivery, staffing, follow-up strategies, activities, setting, resources, and on and on. It all depends on what your data tell you. And all the decisions do not need to be made at one point in time. Collecting data to make course corrections should occur in an iterative way—one change leading to another after the results of the first change are assessed.

Tips on Making Decisions and Taking Actions
  • Consider whether you think the findings are valid for your program. Validate the data by looking for support for one set of data in another set. Do the findings clearly apply to your situation?
  • Determine what actions/decisions are suggested by the findings. Focus on areas to address, but you don’t try to address everything at once.
  • Determine whether possible actions are feasible. The data may suggest changes that are not really possible for you to make—given resources, time, or other constraints.
  • You may need to do additional research or information-gathering on particular strategies or program adjustments. Don’t jump into something without knowing enough about it to know whether it is likely to work for your set of circumstances.
  • Determine how you will know whether the changes/improvements are working. Put a monitoring plan in place that will allow you to watch implementation carefully. Don’t forge ahead without examining how well things are going as you proceed.