What are standard evaluation tools?  What knowledge do you need to conduct an evaluation effectively and efficiently?  For this post and the next two, I’m going to talk about just that.

This post is about planning programs. 

The next one will be about implementing, monitoring, and delivering the evaluation of that program.

The third one will be about utilizing the findings of that program evaluation.

Today–program planning.  How does program planning relate to program evaluation?

A lot of hours goes into planning a program.  Questions that need to be answered among others include:

  • What expertise is needed?
  • What is the content focus?
  • What venue will be utilized?
  • Who is the target audience?
  • How many can you accommodate?
  • What will you charge?
  • And the list of questions goes on…talk to any event planner–they will tell you, planning a program is difficult.

Although you might think that these are planning questions, they are also evaluation questions.  They point the program planner to the outcome of the program in the context in which the program is planned.  Yet, what often happens is that evaluation is often left out of that planning.  It is one detail that gets lost in all the rest–until the end.  Unfortunately, retrofitting an evaluation after the program has already run often results in spurious data, leading to specious results, resulting in unusable findings and unfortunately–a program that can’t be replicated.  What’s an educator to do?

The tools that help in program planning are ones you have seen and probably used before:  logic models, theories of change, and evaluation proposals.

Logic models have already been the topic of this blog.   Theories of change have been mentioned.  Evaluation proposals are a new topic.  More and more, funding agencies want an evaluation plan.  Some provide a template–often a modified logic model; some ask specifically for a program specific logic mode.  Detailing how your program will bring about change and what change is expected is all part of an evaluation proposal.  A review of logic models and theories of  change and the program theory related to your proposed program will help you write an evaluation proposal.

Keep in mind that you may be writing for a naive audience, an audience who isn’t as knowledgeable as you in your subject matter OR in the evaluation process.  A simple evaluation proposal will go a long way to getting and keeping all stakeholders on the same page.

Sure, you want to know the outcomes resulting from your program.  Sure, you want to know if your program is effective.  Perhaps, you will even attempt to answer the question, “So What?” when you program is effective on some previously identified outcome.  All that is important.

My topic today is something that is often over looked when developing an evaluation–the participant and program characteristics.

Do you know what your participants look like?

Do you know what your program looks like?

Knowing these characteristics may seem unimportant at the outset of the implementation.  As you get to the end, questions will arise–How many females?  How many Asians?  How many over 60?

Demographers typically ask demographic questions as part of the data collection.

Those questions often include the following categories:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Race/ethnicity
  • Marital status
  • Household income
  • Educational level

Some of those may not be relevant to your program and you may want to include other general characteristic questions instead.  For example, in a long term evaluation of a forestry program where the target audience was individuals with wood lots, asking how many acres were owned was important and marital status did not seem relevant.

Sometimes asking some questions may seem intrusive–for example, household income or age.  In all demographic cases, giving the participant an option to not respond is appropriate.  When these data are reported, report the number of participants who chose not to respond.

When characterizing your program, it is sometimes important to know characteristics of the geographic area where the program is being implemented–rural, suburban, urban, ?  This is especially true when the program is a multisite program.   Local introduces an unanticipated variable that is often not recognized or remembered.

Any variation in the implementation–number of contact hours, for example, or the number of training modules.  The type of intervention is important as well–was the program delivered as a group intervention or individually. The time of the year that the program is implemented may also be important to document.  The time of the year may inadvertently introduce a history bias into the study–what is happening in September is different than what is happening in December.

Documenting these characteristics  and then defining them when reporting the findings helps to understand the circumstances surrounding the program implementation.  If the target audience is large, documenting these characteristics can provide comparison groups–did males do something differently than females?  Did participants over 50 do something different than participants 49 or under?

Keep in mind when collecting participant and program characteristic data, that these data help you and the audience to whom you disseminate the findings understand your outcomes and the effect of your program.

A faculty member asked me to provide evaluation support for a grant application.  Without hesitation, I agreed.

I went to the web site for funding to review what was expected for an evaluation plan.  What was provided was their statement about why evaluation is important.

Although I agree with what is said in that discussion, I think we have a responsibility to go further.  Here is what I know.

Extension professionals evaluate programs because there needs to be some evidence that the imputs for the program–time, money, personnel, materials, facilities, etc.–are being used advantageously, effectively.  Yet, there is more to the question, “Why evaluate” than accountability. (Michael Patton talks about the various uses to which evaluation findings can be put–see his book on Utilization Focused Evaluation.) Programs are evaluated to determine if people are satisfied, if their expectations were met, whether the program was effective in changing something.

This is what I think.  None of what is stated above addresses the  “so what” part of “why evaluate”.  I think that answering this question (or attempting to) is a compelling reason to justify the effort of evaluating.  It is all very well and good to change people’s knowledge of a topic; it is all very well and good to change people’s behavior related to that topic; and it is all very well and good to have people intend to change (after all, stated intention to change is the best predictor of actual change).  Yet, it isn’t enough.  Being able to answer the “so what” question gives you more information.   And doing that–asking and answering the “so what” question–makes evaluation an everyday activity.   And, who knows.  It may even result in world peace.

Last week I suggested a few evaluation related resolutions…one I didn’t mention which is easily accomplished is reading and/or contributing to AEA365.  AEA365 is a daily evaluation blog sponsored by the American Evaluation Association.  AEA’s Newsletter says: “The aea365 Tip-a-Day Alerts are dedicated to highlighting Hot Tips, Cool Tricks, Rad Resources, and Lessons Learned by and for evaluators (see the aea365 site here). Begun on January 1, 2010, we’re kicking off our second year and hoping to expand the diversity of voices, perspectives, and content shared during the coming year. We’re seeking colleagues to write one-time contributions of 250-400 words from their own experience. No online writing experience is necessary – you simply review examples on the aea356 Tip-a-Day Alerts site, craft your entry according to the contributions guidelines, and send it to Michelle Baron our blog coordinator. She’ll do a final edit and upload. If you have questions, or want to learn more, please review the site and then contact Michelle at aea365@eval.org. (updated December 2011)”

AEA365 is a valuable site.  I commend it to you.

Now the topic for today: Data sources–the why and the why not (or advantages and disadvantages for the source of information).

Ellen Taylor Powell, Evaluation Specialist at UWEX, has a handout that identifies sources of evaluation data.  These sources are existing information, people, and pictorial records and observations. Each source has advantages and disadvantages.

The source for the information below is the United Way publication, Measuring Program Outcomes (p. 86).

1.  Existing information such as Program Records are

  • Available
  • Accessible
  • Known sources and methods  of data collection

Program records can also

  • Be corrupt because of data collection methods
  • Have missing data
  • Omit post intervention impact data

2. Another form of existing information is Other Agency Records

  • Offer a different perspective
  • May contain impact data

Other agency records may also

  • Be corrupt because of data collection methods
  • Have missing data
  • May be unavailable as a data source
  • Have inconsistent time frames
  • Have case identification difficulties

3.  People are often main data source and include Individuals and General Public and

  • Have unique perspective on experience
  • Are an original source of data
  • General public can provide information when individuals are not accessible
  • Can serve geographic areas or specific population segments

Individuals and the general public  may also

  • Introduce a self-report bias
  • Not be accessible
  • Have limited overall experience

4.  Observations and pictorial records include Trained Observers and Mechanical Measurements

  • Can provide information on behavioral skills and practices
  • Supplement self reports
  • Can be easily quantified and standardized

These sources of data also

  • Are only relevant to physical observation
  • Need data collectors who must be reliably trained
  • Often result in inconsistent data with multiple observers
  • Are affected by the accuracy of testing devices
  • Have limited applicability to outcome measurement