Theory & Practice Week: Theory, Methodology, and Application by J. R. Moller

Greetings Everyone (and graduate students in particular)! My name is J. R. Moller and I am a first year Ph.D. student within the Educational Research Methodology Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Prior to starting my Ph.D., I worked in evaluation and was trained on the job. I learned a lot, but nothing about theory and its tie-in to methodology (and of course how to apply that in practice!). As I am journeying through my graduate program, the importance of theory has become very clear. Similarly, the relationship between methodology and theory has been highlighted and is now at the forefront of my practice. While I am still learning about theories and different evaluation methods, it has become evident that theory and methodology are integrally linked and crucial in conducting strong evaluations. This linkage helps in framing the evaluation, identifying and developing the appropriate approach based on the evaluation aims, and even crafting the evaluation questions.

Lessons Learned 1: There is no perfect theory. However, understanding theories and identifying your own will help you in organizing yourself and your approach to different evaluations. You may not fit neatly into one theoretical orientation and that’s OK.

Lessons Learned 2: While your theory should be related to methodology, it cannot be the only thing that dictates your methods. It is important that the evaluation method(s) you select are appropriate to answering the evaluation question(s). For example, if your evaluation question is about how program participation affects participants one year after completion, you would not just collect attendance data for while the person was in the program, but would need a method that would allow you to follow-up with the program graduate one year later and have a basis for comparison.

Hot Tip: Speak to your advisor or evaluation mentor (or get one) in order to help parse the theories that you might use or want to use in your work. Talking it out is helpful!

Rad Resource 1: Mertens, D. M., & Wilson, A. T. (2012). Program Evaluation Theory and Practice: A Comprehensive Guide. New York: Guilford Publications.

This book is critical to so many things evaluation! From gaining just a cursory understanding of what evaluation is (terms and all) to understanding the paradigms, theories, and “ologies”, to the types of evaluations, implementing them, and then communicating findings, this book provides an excellent road map for understanding and performing evaluation with a theoretical lens. Check out chapters 2, 8, and 9 especially.

Rad Resource 2: Schwandt, T. A. (2015). Evaluation foundations revisited: cultivating a life of the mind for practice. Stanford University Press.

This book provides a palatable link between theory and practice. It provides clarity on what a theory is and examples of different types of theories. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 are particularly helpful in providing tangible links between theory, methods, and practice.

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@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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