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Theories of Evaluation TIG Week: Should We Create or Adopt Standardized Definitions for Evaluation Types? by Marshall Young

Hello! My name is Marshall Young, I am a first-year doctoral student at the University of Tennessee Knoxville in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department pursuing a degree in Evaluation, Statistics, and Methodology. One area I am interested in is evaluation theory and how it relates with practice.

Although I am relatively new to the academic study of evaluation, I do have an observation: authors are really good at defining evaluation types, but they don’t often seem to agree on the terms we use to describe different forms of evaluation. For example, I noticed early on in readings and lectures that each evaluation type (needs assessment, process/formative evaluation, outcome evaluation, and evaluation of efficacy) has several definitions. I find myself putting the different definitions side-by-side and comparing them to gain a big-picture understanding of how they related to each other, and even then, there were points of confusion and misunderstandings!

Hot Tip:

To get a more complete understanding of each evaluation type, one must read a broad array of writings from various sources, and I have found that the American Evaluation Association Topical Interest Groups (TIG) for Needs Assessment does a respectable job of providing an array of resources and definitions for Needs Assessments. For Process (Formative) Evaluations, I would recommend the Formative Evaluation Toolkit. For Summative/Outcome Evaluation, I recommend an article by Brad Rose Consulting for a simplified definition. Each contributor to the discussion usually leads with a definition or description, with each introducing subtle differences or unique perspectives depending on the context from which the author is writing. This side-by-side comparison has helped me develop a more complete (if still imperfect) understanding to the topic at hand, and raises the question in my mind: “Should we create or adopt standardized definitions for evaluation types?” This question gives rise to subsequent questions:

  • Is the contextual nature of evaluation too broad to adopt a singular definition?
  • Does defining evaluation types demystify it enough to justify the effort or is some of the beauty and complexity of evaluation lost if we limit our definition to a singular interpretation or source?
  • Since there are so many different definitions, and all of them seem context-dependent, would the attempt to singularly define an evaluation type result in an overly long, obfuscated definition?
  • Is there a way to combine the wide array of definitions of evaluation types that would both take context into account and be visually appealing (a table, graphic, or the like)?
  • Are context-specific definitions good for the field of evaluation?  Or, would it be better to have some overarching definitions that are agreed on at the profession level that can be then adapted for specific practice?

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Theories of Evaluation (ToE) TIG week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from AEA’s ToE TIG. 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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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