Theory & Practice Week: Chicken or the egg: Evaluation theory and practice by Jeremy Acree

Hello, my name is Jeremy Acree and I’m a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), focusing primarily on research methods and program evaluation. I previously worked as a middle school math teacher, and the connections between teaching and evaluation have been interesting to explore. I’m particularly drawn to the ways theory and practice inform each other. In teaching, pedagogical ideals can be difficult to implement in the ever-changing context of schools and classrooms. In evaluation, theory also represents the ideal, but can often be indistinguishable in practice. The approaches and methods we choose are often intended to lead to certain processes and findings, but stakeholder reactions and interpretations can vary based on factors that are beyond the evaluator’s control.

Some recent readings and conversations in my classes have focused on these dynamics of theory and practice. I know that many evaluators come to graduate programs after spending years working in the field. I entered my program at UNCG with a relatively blank slate in terms of both practical and theoretical perspectives, but I wonder about the benefits and drawbacks of different entry points. What do long-time practitioners gain by learning more about evaluation theory? What am I missing by building my knowledge of evaluation from theoretical approaches and concepts before fully understanding practice? Which should come first, knowledge of evaluation theory, or practical evaluation experience?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I have started to piece together some thoughts about theory and practice.

Lesson Learned (Theory)

Evaluation theory isn’t a checklist or a prescriptive formula for conducting evaluation in practice. Evaluation is rooted in a rich history of social science, policy, and organizational management, and evaluation theory incorporates elements from these and other arenas to guide and justify what evaluation is and what it is intended to do. Theoretical concerns can be useful to practitioners, providing new perspectives and methods, and expanding notions of the role of evaluation.

Lesson Learned: (Practice)

Practice is at the heart of evaluation. Evaluators describe and construct values, raise and answer questions about program actions and outcomes, and provide judgments that inform stakeholder decision-making. These processes take place within varied contexts, for varied purposes, and through varied approaches, making evaluation complex, challenging, and difficult for theorists to conceptualize. Yet, while practitioners can learn from the broad guidance provided by theory, there is likely even more for theorists to consider in the nuances and intricacies of practice.

Rad Resources:

  • Chouinard, J. A., Boyce, A. S., Hicks, J., Jones, J., Long, J., Pitts, R., & Stockdale, M. (2017). Navigating theory and practice in evaluation fieldwork: Experiences of novice evaluation practitioners. American Journal of Evaluation, 38(4), 493–506.
  • Christie, C. a, & Christie, C. a. (2003). What Guides Evaluation? A Study of How Evaluation Practice Maps onto Evaluation Theory. New Directions for Evaluation, (97), 7–36.
  • Schwandt, T. A. (2014). On the Mutually Informing Relationship Between Practice and Theory in Evaluation. American Journal of Evaluation, 35(2), 231–236.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Theory and Practice week. The aea365 contributions all this week come from Dr. Ayesha Boyce and her University of North Carolina Greensboro graduate students’ reflections on evaluation theory and practice. 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.

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