My name is Kristie A. Thomas, PhD, MSW and I am a recipient of the 2019 AEA/SAGE Early Career Excellence in Teaching Awards. The Teaching of Evaluation Topical Interest Group asked me to reflect on what I learned at the conference and share some tips and tricks I have learned from teaching evaluation to graduate-level, clinical social work students at Simmons University.
My biggest “aha” moment at the conference came from Ronald Heifetz’s plenary on adaptive change. I was already familiar with his framework, but I had never thought about using it to inform my approach to teaching evaluation. As he spoke, I reflected on the challenges I often encounter when teaching evaluation (e.g., student anxiety, resistance, and anger at having to take the course; beliefs that evaluation is unhelpful or even harmful for clients). What I realized from his talk is that addressing these challenges requires an adaptive change framework. In other words, requiring the course exposes them to the material, but without attention to their attitudes and norms about evaluation, it is unlikely that they will exit with a solid grasp of the material or an appreciation for its importance.
I use several strategies to combat these attitudes and norms.
- Convince me! During the first class I ask students to convince me why evaluation is important. They often report back that evaluation helps them to be more accountable to clients and aligns with the social work code of ethics. Bingo! I then show them the following video to highlight how evaluation can directly improve the lives of clients.
- Understand your identity! To get them to think of themselves as evaluators, I have them identify the sources of data that they collect to inform treatment planning (e.g., self-report, administrative records), and then ask them to draw parallels to data collection in program evaluation.
- Demystify evaluation! Finally, it is important to make the process feel real to students and to demystify it as much as possible, so I always share examples from my own evaluation work. For example, I teach the process of measure development by showing them the many stages of the evaluation measures that I have co-authored with my community partners (e.g., MOVERS). They especially enjoy reviewing the full list of initial items, discussing which items they would drop and why, and learning how we settled on the final items. They appreciate that I am honest about the challenges we encountered and mistakes we made along the way.
In summary, good teaching of evaluation, especially in social work education, involves guiding students through a process of uncovering and replacing any negative attitudes and norms about evaluation that they might hold. Doing so helps to ensure that students truly absorb the content and actually apply it.
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