Jeanne Hubelbank on Using Metaphors in Evaluation

Hello, my name is Jeanne Hubelbank. I am an independent evaluation consultant.  Most of my work is in higher education where, most recently, I help faculty evaluate their classes, develop proposals, and evaluate professional development programs offered to public school teachers.

In my practice I find that many clients think of evaluation as pre and post tests only and the imposition of the “syllabus police.”  Lack of understanding or misunderstanding of evaluation occurs outside of higher education too. As evaluators, we spend some of our time trying to explain and demonstrate that evaluation is helpful and relevant.  A concise and vivid way I do is this is through metaphors or similes.  While their use helps explain my approach to clients, creating them makes me think about what I value in evaluation.  Metaphors, analogies, and similes are helpful in other settings too, e.g., teaching evaluation and removing blank stares from folks when you say, “I am a program evaluator.”

Hot tips:

  • Use commonly known images
  • Make them relevant to your audience
  • Keep them short and to the point
  • Be aware of cultural implications
  • Avoid mixed metaphors
  • Can expand to an analogy
  • Think about what is important in your work

Metaphor for a choral instructor:  An evaluator is a guest symphony conductor.  Involved, but detached, an evaluator helps the players understand the process and product of their performance … all the while meeting the needs of various audiences.

Metaphor for engineering faculty:  Evaluation is an engineering design process.  It identifies clients’ needs, researches and ranks objectives and constraints, develops possible solutions, selects the best solution within constraints, and tests and evaluates the solution.  Results are communicated.  Reassessment and revision follow.  Team work is an inherent part of the process.

Rad Resources: 

Metaphors have a long history in evaluation.  The following citations represent the thoughts and work of some well-known proponents.

Nick L. Smith, editor. Metaphors for Evaluation: Sources of New Methods. New Perspectives in Evaluation, vol 1. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1981.

Ernest R. House. How We Think About Evaluation. In E.R. House (Ed.) Philosophy of Evaluation. New Directions for Program Evaluation, no. 19. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, September 1983.

Alexis Kaminsky. Beyond the Literal: Metaphors and Why They Matter. New Directions for Evaluation, no. 86. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Summer 2000.

George Madaus & Thomas Kellaghan.  Models, Metaphors, and Definitions in Evaluation.  In D.L. Stufflebeam, G.F. Madaus, & T. Kellaghan (Eds.) Evaluation Models: Viewpoints on Educational and Human Services Evaluation, 2nd Edition, Boston: Kluwer, 2000.

Michael Q. Patton. Training and Teaching with Metaphors. American Journal of Evaluation. 23:93, 2002.


This contribution is from the aea365 Tip-a-Day Alerts, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to Want to learn more from Jeanne? She’ll be presenting as part of the Evaluation 2012 Conference Program, October 24-27 in Minneapolis, MN

1 thought on “Jeanne Hubelbank on Using Metaphors in Evaluation”

  1. Pingback: Sharon Wasco on Evaluation Capacity Building: Saving the Blue Marble One Garden At A Time · AEA365

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