EEE Week: Mary Arnold on Program Theory: The Fuel for Logic Models

Hi! I’m Mary Arnold, a professor and 4-H youth development specialist at Oregon State University, where I spend the majority of my time in the area of program evaluation, especially in capacity building efforts. This is my second time preparing a blog post for the EEE-TIG, and the invitation came at a great time, because I have been thinking pretty obsessively these days on how we can do a better job of building Extension program planning and evaluation capacity. One of the conundrums and persistent late night ponderings that continues to rattle around my mind is how we can do a better job articulating what is suppose to take place in programs. If we are clear on of what is supposed to happen in a program, then we also should be able to predict certain outcomes and understand exactly how those outcomes come to be. This notion of prediction is what underscores a program’s theory.

Because of the emphasis on program planning and that swept Extension in the early 2000s, most Extension educators are familiar with logic modeling. The good news is that   many educators understand the concepts of inputs, outputs, and outcomes as a result, so the groundwork is in place to think more deliberately about a program’s theory. But at the same time, there is scant evidence that logic modeling has resulted in better program planning practices, or led to the achievement of stated outcomes in Extension programs. And there is even less evidence that logic models are developed based on theory.

Lesson Learned: Theory may be implied in logic models, but too often it is understated, assumed, or just hoped for. Program theory is what connects the components of a logic model and makes it run!

Hot Tip! Did you know that there are two important parts to program theory? The first is the program’s theory of change, which is the way in which the desired change comes about. The second is the program’s theory of action, which refers specifically to what actions need to happen, at what level of success, for the program to reach its intended outcomes.

Rad Resource! My favorite resource for understanding and developing a program theory of change and action is Purposeful program theory: Effective use of theories of change and logic models (Funnell & Rogers, 2011). This book has loads of great information and practical help on bringing logic models to life with program theory.

Rad Resource! If you are looking for specific theories that are useful for Extension programs, The University of Maryland Extension has a terrific short guide entitled Extension Education Theoretical Framework that outlines how several well-developed theories can be useful for Extension programming.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Extension Education Evaluation (EEE) TIG Week with our colleagues in the EEE AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our EEE TIG members. 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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “EEE Week: Mary Arnold on Program Theory: The Fuel for Logic Models”

  1. Ms. Arnold,
    Thank-you so much for this article. I am currently taking a grad school course on program evaluation, and if I am honest as a relative newcomer to formal evaluation a lot of the terminology around the topic is confusing to me. Your article simply and clearly explained the difference between a logic model and a program theory, and made it clear why it is important to differentiate the two. It also helped me differentiate theory of change and theory of action. Thank-you so much for this article, and for helping me get a better grasp on some of the more confusing terminology of evaluation.

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