Developmental Eval Week: Nora F. Murphy on Qualitative Data in Developmental Evaluation

Hi, I’m Nora F. Murphy, a developmental evaluator and co-founder of TerraLuna Collaborative. Qualitative Methods have been a critical component of every developmental evaluation I have been a part of. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks about making qualitative methods work in a developmental evaluation context.

Hot Tip: Apply systems thinking. When using developmental evaluation to support systems change it’s important to apply systems thinking. When thinking about the evaluation’s design and methods I am always asking: Where are we drawing the boundaries in this system? Whose perspectives are we seeking to understand? What are the important inter-relationships to explain? And who benefits or is excluded by the methods that I choose? Qualitative methods can be time and resource intensive and we can’t understand everything about systems change. But it’s important, from a methodological and ethical perspective to be intentional about where we draw the boundaries, whose perspectives we include, and which inter-relationships we explore.  

Hot TipPractice flexible budgeting. I typically budget for qualitative inquiry but create the space to negotiate the details of that inquiry. In one project I budgeted for qualitative inquiry that would commence six months after the contract was finalized. It was too early to know how strategy would develop and what qualitative method would best for learning about the developing strategy. In the end we applied systems thinking and conducted case studies that looked at the developing strategy in three ways: from the perspective of individual educators’ transformation, from the perspective educators participating in school change, and from the perspective of school leaders leading school change. It would have been impossible to predict that this was the right inquiry for the project at the time the budget was developed.

Hot Tip: Think in layers. The pace of developmental evaluations can be quick and there is a need for timely data and spotting patterns as they emerge. But often there is a need for a deeper look at what is developing using a method that takes more time. So I think in layers. With the case studies, for example, we structured the post-interview memos so they can be used with program developer to spot emergent patterns by framing memos around pattern surfacing questions such as: “I was surprised…  A new concept for me was… This reinforced for me… I’m wondering…” The second layer was sharing individual case studies. The third layer was the cross-analysis that surfaced deeper themes. Throughout we engaged various groups of stakeholders in the meaning making and pattern spotting.

Rad Resources:

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Developmental Evaluation Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from evaluators who do developmental evaluation. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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