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Blog: Three Tips for a Strong NSF Proposal Evaluation Plan

Posted on August 17, 2016 by  in Blog

Principal Research Scientist, Education Development Center, Inc.

I’m Leslie Goodyear and I’m an evaluator who also served as a program officer for three years at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Research on Learning, which is in the Education and Human Resources Directorate. While I was there, I oversaw evaluation activities in the Division and reviewed many, many evaluation proposals and grant proposals with evaluation sections.

In May 2016, I had the pleasure of participating in the “Meeting Requirements, Exceeding Expectations: Understanding the Role of Evaluation in Federal Grants.” Hosted by Lori Wingate at EvaluATE and Ann Beheler at the Centers Collaborative for Technical Assistance, this webinar covered topics such as evaluation fundamentals; evaluation requirements and expectations; and evaluation staffing, budgeting and utilization.

On the webinar, I shared my perspective on the role of evaluation at NSF, strengths and weaknesses of evaluation plans in proposals, and how reviewers assess Results from Prior NSF Support sections of proposals, among other topics. In this blog, I’ll give a brief overview of some important takeaways from the webinar.

First, if you’re making a proposal to education or outreach programs, you’ll likely need to include some form of project evaluation in your proposal. Be sure to read the program solicitation carefully to know what the specific requirements are for that program. There are no agency-wide evaluation requirements—instead they are specified in each solicitation. Lori had a great suggestion on the webinar:  Search the solicitation for “eval” to make sure you find all the evaluation-related details.

Second, you’ll want to make sure that your evaluation plan is tailored to your proposed activities and outcomes. NSF reviewers and program officers can smell a “cookie cutter” evaluation plan, so make sure that you’ve talked with your evaluator while developing your proposal and that they’ve had the chance to read the goals and objectives of your proposed work before drafting the plan. You want the plan to be incorporated into the proposal so that it appears seamless.

Third, indicators of a strong evaluation plan include carefully crafted, relevant overall evaluation questions, a thoughtful project logic model, a detailed data collection plan that is coordinated with project activities, and a plan for reporting and dissemination of findings. You’ll also want to include a bio for your evaluator so that the reviewers know who’s on your team and what makes them uniquely qualified to carry out the evaluation of your project.

Additions that can make your plan “pop” include:

  • A table that maps out the evaluation questions to the data collection plans. This can save space by conveying lots of information in a table instead of in narrative.
  • Combining the evaluation and project timelines so that the reviewers can see how the evaluation will be coordinated with the project and offer timely feedback.

Some programs allow for using the Supplemental Documents section for additional evaluation information. Remember that reviewers are not required to read these supplemental docs, so be sure that the important information is still in the 15-page proposal.

For the Results of Prior NSF Support section, you want to be brief and outcome-focused. Use this space to describe what resulted from the prior work, not what you did. And be sure to be clear how that work is informing the proposed work by suggesting, for example, that these outcomes set up the questions you’re pursuing in this proposal.