I’m Neha Sharma from the CLEAR Global Hub at the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group. A key Hub role involves facilitating learning and sharing knowledge about evaluation capacity development. So I often think about how people learn. In this context, I’ve been reading a lot of behavioral science literature, and reflecting on what makes people learn to change behaviors.
Richard Thaler, University of Chicago Economist and Behavior Science Professor, recently wrote about how he changed his class’s grading scheme to minimize student complaints about “low” grades when he administered difficult tests (to get higher dispersion of grades to identify “star” students). His trick was to change the denominator in the grading scheme from 100 to 137, meaning that the average student now scored in the 90s and not in the 70s. He achieved his desired results: high dispersion of grades and no student complaints about “low” grades!
Thaler’s blog made me wonder what effect this change in grading scheme had on student learning and the lessons it carried for communicating tough evaluation results. The relationship between performance and learning holds critical lessons for evaluators – does a 70 disguised as a 90 have an effect on learning?
Like classroom tests, evaluations that are seen as overly harsh or critical are often questioned and lessons are underused by the evaluated agency. This doesn’t mean that poor results should not be communicated – they absolutely should – but evaluators need to keep in mind that receiving and then learning from bad performance is not easy when there is a lot at stake – future funding, jobs, professional growth, and political stability. On the other hand, evaluations that reaffirm stakeholder-biases are futile too.
This balance between communicating actual performance and encouraging learning may be key to determining evaluation use. If evaluations are to fulfill their learning mission the “how to” learn is just as, if not more, relevant as the evaluation itself. Cognitive science research about behavior change could teach us a lot about how to encourage learning through evaluations. For instance, we see that easy is better than complicated, attractive is better than dull, and social is better rather than teaching in isolation when trying to change behaviors. Behavior science is an interesting field of study for evaluators – to help us demystify the relationship between evaluation performance and learning.
Thaler is one of many behavioral scientists (and psychologists, economists) writing about what influences our behavior. Here are more.
- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
- Thinking Fast and Slow
- Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
- Dan Ariely’s website and research
- The Paradox of Choice
- Behavioral Insights Team (UK Nudge Unit)
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