Hi y’all! I’m Jessica Shaw, Assistant Professor in the Boston College School of Social Work, and Program Chair of the Theories of Evaluation TIG. I teach program evaluation to social work clinicians in their final semester in graduate school. They are an eager bunch—to graduate that is, not so much to learn about evaluation theory. Here is how I teach evaluation theory…to non-evaluators…in one class session…that is only two hours long.
- Use Reading Groups: I find that the more readings I assign my students, the less likely they are to read them. Thus, I try to assign no more than 30 pages of reading each week. It is quite challenging to expose students to a number of different evaluation theories with enough depth on each for them to understand their differences in just 30 pages. Enter reading groups. Instead of having every student in the class read all assigned readings, I split them up into groups, and assign each a subset of the readings for the week. This semester, one group read about participatory evaluation (both the practical and transformative threads); another about culturally responsive evaluation; a third about utilization-focused evaluation; and a fourth about both theory-driven and goals-free evaluation (enabling them to compare and contrast the two).
- Have them teach one another: When assigning the readings, I let my students know that they are tasked with becoming as great an expert as they can in the short time allowed and few readings required, as they will be responsible for teaching their classmates about the theory they read. In class, each group is given the floor for 10-15 minutes to teach on their theory—What is this theory? What are its core principles or defining features? What is the role of the evaluator? Who participates in the evaluation? Are there special steps that must be taken? What should result if this theory is implemented as intended? After providing their instructions, each group fields questions from their classmates.
- Provide examples: I sit back as each group teaches. Once all questions have been answered, I step in, providing necessary clarifications, and also specific examples from my own work.
- Get excited: I love theory. I can’t hide it, nor do I want to do so. When my students are able to see how I excited I get in discussing theory, its nuance, and how it can have dramatic impacts on how we think about and make key decisions in evaluation, they get excited, too. And they engage. This semester, students were not required to discuss evaluation theory in any of their assignments. (Indeed, this is the first time evaluation theory has been explicitly taught as a part of our required program evaluation course). Yet, several of them wrote about it anyway, explaining what theory was guiding their evaluative decisions, and why. Who would have thought?
We shouldn’t just leave evaluation theory for theorists. It’s for everyone—practitioners, too.
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