We EvaluATE - Proposal Development

Blog: 5 Tips for Evaluating Multisite Projects*

Posted on August 21, 2019 by  in Blog (, )

Senior Research Manager, Washington State University

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Conducting evaluations for multisite projects can present unique challenges and opportunities. For example, evaluators must be careful to ensure that consistent data are captured across sites, which can be challenging. However, having results for multiple sites can lead to stronger conclusions about an intervention’s impact. The following are helpful tips for evaluating multisite projects.

 1.      Investigate the consistency of project implementation. Just because the same guidelines have been provided to each site does not mean that they have been implemented the same way! Variations in implementation can create difficulties in collecting the data and interpreting the evaluation results.

2.      Standardize data collection tools across sites. This will minimize confusion and result in a single dataset with information on all sites. On the downside, this may result in having to limit the data to a subset of information that is available across all sites.

3.      Help the project managers at each site understand the evaluation plan. Provide a clear, comprehensive overview of the evaluation plan that includes the expectations of the managers. Simplify their roles as much as possible.

4.      Be sensitive in reporting side-by-side results of the sites. Consult with project stakeholders to determine if it is appropriate or helpful to include side-by-side comparisons of the performance of the various sites.

5.      Analyze to what extent differences in outcomes are due to variations in project implementation. Variation in results across sites may provide clues to factors that may facilitate or impede the achievement of certain outcomes.

6.      Report the evaluation results back to the site managers in whatever form would be the most useful to them. This is an excellent opportunity to recruit the site managers as supporters of evaluation, especially if they see that the evaluation results can be used to aid their participant recruitment and fundraising efforts.

 

* This blog is a reprint of a conference handout from an EvaluATE workshop at the 2011 ATE PI Conference.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Smith-Moncrieffe, D. (2009, October). Planning multi-site evaluations of model and promising programs. Paper presented at the Canadian Evaluation Society Conference, Ontario, CA.

Lawrenz, F., & Huffman, D. (2003). How can multi-site evaluations be participatory? American Journal of Evaluation, 24(4), 471–482.

Blog: 11 Important Things to Know About Evaluating Curriculum Development Projects*

Posted on July 24, 2019 by  in Blog ()

Professor of Instructional Technology, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

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Curriculum development projects are designed to create new content or present content to students in a new format with new activities or approaches. The following are important things to know about evaluating curriculum development projects.

1.     Understand the underlying model, pedagogy, and process used to develop the curriculum. There are several curriculum development models, including the DACUM model (Developing a Curriculum), the Backward Design Method, and the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) model of instructional design. Whatever approach is used, make sure you understand its methodology and underlying philosophy so that these can help guide the evaluation.

2.     Establish a baseline. If possible, establish what student performance was before the curriculum was available, to assess the level of change or increased learning created as a result of the new curriculum. This could involve data on student grades or performance from the year before the new curriculum is introduced or data on job performance or another indicator.

3.     Clearly identify the outcomes expected of the curriculum. What should students know or be able to do when they have completed the curriculum? Take the time to understand the desired outcomes and how the curriculum content, activities, and approach support those outcomes. The outcomes should be directly linked to the project goals and objectives. Look for possible disconnects or gaps.

4.     Employ a pre/post test design. One method to establish that learning has occurred is to measure student knowledge of a subject before and after the curriculum is introduced. If you are comparing two curriculums, you may want to consider using one group as a control group that would not use the new curriculum and comparing the performance of the two groups in a pre/post test design.

5.     Employ content analysis techniques. Content analysis is the process of analyzing documents (student guides, instructor guides, online content, videos, and other materials) to determine the type of content, frequency of content, and internal coherence (consistency of different elements of the curriculum) and external coherence (interpretation in the curriculum fits the theories accepted in and outside the discipline).

6.     Participate in the activities. One effective method for helping evaluators understand the impact of activities and exercises is to participate in them. This helps determine the quality of the instructions, the level of engagement, and the learning outcomes that result from the activities.

7.     Ensure assessment items match instructional objectives. Assessment of student progress is typically measured through written tests. To ensure written tests assess the student’s grasp of the course objectives and curriculum, match the assessment items to the instructional objectives. Create a chart to match objectives to assessment items to ensure all the objectives are assessed and that all assessment items are pertinent to the curriculum.

8.     Review guidance and instruction provided to teachers/facilitators in guides. Determine if the materials are properly matched across the instructor guide, student manual, slides, and in-class activities. Determine if the instructions are clear and complete and that the activities are feasible.

9.     Interview students, faculty, and, possibly, workforce representatives. Faculty can provide insights into the usefulness and effectiveness of the materials, and students can provide input on level of engagement, learning effort, and overall impression of the curriculum. If the curriculum is tied to a technician profession, involve industry representatives in reviewing and examining the curriculum. This should be done as part of the development process, but if it is not, consider having a representative review the curriculum for alignment with industry expectations.

10.  Use Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation. A highly effective model for evaluation of curriculum is called the Kirkpatrick Model. The levels in the model measure initial learner reactions, knowledge gained from the instruction, behavioral changes that might result from the instruction, and overall impact on the organization, field, or students.

11.  Pilot the instruction. Conduct pilot sessions as part of the formative evaluation to ensure that the instruction functions as designed. After the pilot, collect end-of-day reaction sheets/tools and trainer observations of learners. Having an end-of-program product—such as an action-planning tool to implement changes around curriculum focus issue(s)—is also useful.

RESOURCES

For detailed discussion of content analysis, see chapter 9 of Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P, & Borg, W. R. (2007). Educational research: An introduction (8th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

DACUM Job Analysis Process: https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/010699.pdf

Backward Design Method: https://educationaltechnology.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/backward-design.pdf

ADDIE Model: http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/history_isd/addie.html

Kirkpatrick Model: http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/isd/kirkpatrick.html

 

* This blog is a reprint of a conference handout from an EvaluATE workshop at the 2011 Advanced Technological Education PI Conference.

Blog: An Evaluative Approach to Proposal Development*

Posted on June 27, 2019 by  in Blog - ()

Director of Research, The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University

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A student came into my office to ask me a question. Soon after she launched into her query, I stopped her and said I wasn’t the right person to help because she was asking about a statistical method that I wasn’t up-to-date on. She said, “Oh, you’re a qualitative person?” And I answered, “Not really.” She left looking puzzled. The exchange left me pondering the vexing question, “What am I?” (Now imagine these words echoing off my office walls in a spooky voice for a couple of minutes.) After a few uncomfortable moments, I proudly concluded, “I am a critical thinker!”  

Yes, evaluators are trained specialists with an arsenal of tools, strategies, and approaches for data collection, analysis, and reporting. But critical thinking—evaluative thinking—is really what drives good evaluation. In fact, the very definition of critical thinking—“the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion”2—describes the evaluation process to a T. Applying your critical, evaluative thinking skills in developing your funding proposal will go a long way toward ensuring your submission is competitive.

Make sure all the pieces of your proposal fit together like a snug puzzle. Your proposal needs both a clear statement of the need for your project and a description of the intended outcomes—make sure these match up. If you struggle with the outcome measurement aspect of your evaluation plan, go back to the rationale for your project. If you can observe a need or problem in your context, you should be able to observe the improvements as well.

Be logical. Develop a logic model to portray how your project will translate its resources into outcomes that address a need in your context. Sometimes simply putting things in a graphic format can reveal shortcomings in a project’s logical foundation (like when important outcomes can’t be tracked back to planned activities). The narrative description of your project’s goals, objectives, deliverables, and activities should match the logic model.

Be skeptical. Project planning and logic model development typically happen from an optimistic point of view. (“If we build it, they will come.”) When creating your work plan, step back from time to time and ask yourself and your colleagues, What obstacles might we face? What could really mess things up? Where are the opportunities for failure? And perhaps most important, ask, Is this really the best solution to the need we’re trying to address? Identify your plan’s weaknesses and build in safeguards against those threats. I’m all for an optimistic outlook, but proposal reviewers won’t be wearing rose-colored glasses when they critique your proposal and compare it with others written by smart people with great ideas, just like you. Be your own worst critic and your proposal will be stronger for it.

Evaluative thinking doesn’t replace specialized training in evaluation. But even the best evaluator and most rigorous evaluation plan cannot compensate for a disheveled, poorly crafted project plan. Give your proposal a competitive edge by applying your critical thinking skills and infusing an evaluative perspective throughout your project description.

* This blog is a reprint of an article from an EvaluATE newsletter published in summer 2015.

2 dictionary.com

Blog: Evaluating Educational Programs for the Future STEM Workforce: STELAR Center Resources

Posted on November 8, 2018 by  in Blog ()

Project Associate, STELAR Center, Education Development Center, Inc.

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Hello EvaluATE community! My name is Sarah MacGillivray, and I am a member of the STEM Learning and Research (STELAR) Center team, which supports the National Science Foundation Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (NSF ITEST) program. Through ITEST, NSF funds the research and development of innovative models of engaging K-12 students in authentic STEM experiences. The goals of the program include building students’ interest and capacity to participate in STEM educational opportunities and developing the skills they will need for careers in STEM. While we target slightly different audiences than the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, our programs share the common goal of educating the future STEM workforce, and to support this goal, I invite you to access the many evaluation resources available on our website.

The STELAR website houses an extensive set of resources collected from and used by the ITEST community. These resources include a database of nearly 150 research and evaluation instruments. Each entry features a description of the tool, a list of relevant disciplines and topics, target participants, and a link to ITEST projects that have used the instrument in their work. Whenever possible, PDFs and/or URLs to the original resource are included, though some tools require a fee or membership to the third-party site for access. The instruments can be accessed at http://stelar.edc.org/resources/instruments, and the database can be searched or filtered by keywords common to ATE and ITEST projects, e.g., “participant recruitment and retention,” “partnerships and collaboration,” “STEM career opportunities and workforce development,” “STEM content and standards,” and “teacher professional development and pedagogy,” among others.

In addition to our extensive instrument library, our website also features more than 400 publications, curricular materials, and videos. Each library can be browsed individually, or if you would like to view everything that we have on a topic, you can search all resources on the main resources page: http://stelar.edc.org/resources. We are continually adding to our resources and have recently improved our collection methods to allow projects to upload to the website directly. We expect this will result in even more frequent additions, and we encourage you to visit often or join our mailing list for updates.

STELAR also hosts a free, self-paced online course in which novice NSF proposal writers develop a full NSF proposal. While focused on ITEST, the course can be generalized to any NSF proposal. Two sessions focus on research and evaluation, breaking down the process for developing impactful evaluations. Participants learn what key elements to include in research designs, how to develop logic models, what is involved in deciding the evaluation’s design, and how to align the research design and evaluation sections. The content draws from expertise within the STELAR team and elements from NSF’s Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development. Since the course is self-paced, you can learn more about the course and register to participate at any time: https://mailchi.mp/edc.org/invitation-itest-proposal-course-2

We hope that these resources are useful in your work and invite you to share suggestions and feedback with us at stelar@edc.org. As a member of the NSF Resource Centers network, we welcome opportunities to explore cross-program collaboration, working together to connect and promote our shared goals.

Blog: Four Personal Insights from 30 Years of Evaluation

Posted on August 30, 2018 by  in Blog ()

Haddix Community Chair of STEM Education, University of Nebraska Omaha

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As I complete my 30th year in evaluation, I feel blessed to have worked with so many great people. In preparation for this blog, I spent a reflective morning with some hot coffee, cereal, and wheat toast (that morning donut is no longer an option), and I looked over past evaluations. I thought about any personal insights that I might share, and I came up with four:

  1. Lessons Learned Are Key: I found it increasingly helpful over the years to think about a project evaluation as a shared learning journey, taken with the project leadership. In this context, we both want to learn things that we can share with others.
  2. Evaluator Independence from Project Implementation Is Critical: Nearly 20 years ago, a program officer read in a project annual report that I had done a workshop on problem-based learning for the project. In response, he kindly asked if I had “gone native,” which is slang for a project evaluator getting so close to the project it threatens independence. As I thought it over, he had identified something that I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with. It became difficult to offer suggestions on implementing problem-based learning when I had offered the training. That quick, thoughtful inquiry helped me to navigate that situation. It also helped me to think about my own future evaluator independence.
  3. Be Sure to Update Plans after Funding: I always adjust a project evaluation plan after the award. Once funded, everyone really digs in, and opportunities typically surface to make the project and its evaluation even better. I have come to embrace that process. I now typically include an “evaluation plan update” phase before we initiate an evaluation, to ensure that the evaluation plan is the best it can truly be when we implement it.
  4. Fidelity Is Important: It took me 10 years in evaluation before I fully understood the “fidelity issue.” Fidelity, for a loose definition, is essentially how faithful program implementers are to the recipe of a program intervention. The first time I became concerned with fidelity I was evaluating the implementation of 50 hours of curriculum. As I interviewed the teachers, it became clear that teachers were spending vastly different amounts of time on topics and activities. Like all good teachers, they had made the curriculum their own, but in many ways, the intended project intervention disappeared. This made it hard to learn much about the intervention. I evolved to include a fidelity feedback process in projects, to statistically adjust for that natural variation or to help examine differing impacts based on intervention fidelity.

In the last 30 years, program evaluation as a field has become increasingly useful and important. Like my days of eating donuts for breakfast, increasingly gone are the days of “superficial” evaluation. This has been replaced by evaluation strategies that are collaboratively planned, engaged, and flexible, which (like my wheat toast and cereal) gets evaluators and project leadership further on the shared journey. Although I do periodically miss the donuts, I never miss the superficial evaluations. Overall, I am always really glad that I now have the cereal and toast—and that I conduct strong and collaborative program evaluations.

Blog: The Life-Changing Magic of a Tidy Evaluation Plan

Posted on August 16, 2018 by  in Blog ()

Director of Research, The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University

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“Effective tidying involves only three essential actions. All you need to do is take the time to examine every item you own, decide whether or not you want to keep it, then choose where to put what you keep. Designate a place for each thing.”

―Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I’ve noticed a common problem with some proposal evaluation plans: It’s not so much that they don’t include key information; it’s that they lack order. They’re messy. When you have only about two pages of a 15-page National Science Foundation proposal to describe an evaluation, you need to be exceptionally clear and efficient. In this blog, I offer tips on how to “tidy up” your proposal’s evaluation plan to ensure it communicates key information clearly and coherently.

First of all, what does a messy evaluation plan look like? It meanders. It frames the evaluation’s focus in different ways in different places in the proposal, or even within the evaluation section itself, leaving the reviewer confused about the evaluation’s purpose. It discusses data and data collection without indicating what those data will be used to address. It employs different terms to mean the same thing in different places. It makes it hard for reviewers to discern key information from the evaluation plan and understand how that information fits together.

Three Steps to Tidy up a Messy Evaluation Plan

It’s actually pretty easy to convert a messy evaluation plan into a tidy one:

  • State the evaluation’s focus succinctly. List three to seven evaluation questions that the evaluation will address. These questions should encompass all of your planned data collection and analysis—no more, no less. Refer to these as needed later in the plan, rather than restating them differently or introducing new topics later in the plan. Do not express the evaluation’s focus in different ways in different places.
  • Link the data you plan to collect to the evaluation questions. An efficient way to do this is to present the information in a table. I like to include evaluation questions, indicators, data collection methods and sources, analysis, and interpretation in a single table to clearly show the linkages and convey that my team has carefully thought about how we will answer the evaluation questions. Bonus: Presenting information in a table saves space and makes it easy for reviewers to locate key information. (See EvaluATE’s Evaluation Data Matrix Template.)
  • Use straightforward language—consistently. Don’t assume that reviewers will share your definition of evaluation-related terms. Choose your terms carefully and do not vary how you use them throughout the proposal. For example, if you are using the terms measures, metrics, and indicators, ask yourself if you are really referring to different things. If not, stick with one term and use it consistently. If similar words are actually intended to mean different things, include brief definitions to avoid any confusion about your meaning.

Can a Tidy Evaluation Plan Really Change Your Life?

If it moves a very good proposal toward excellent, then yes! In the competitive world of grant funding, every incremental improvement counts and heightens your chances for funding, which can mean life-changing opportunities for the project leaders, evaluators, and—most importantly—individuals who will be served by the project.

Blog: Successful Practices in ATE Evaluation Planning

Posted on July 19, 2018 by  in Blog ()

President, Mullins Consulting, Inc.

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In this essay, I identify what helps me create a strong evaluation plan when working with new Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program partners. I hope my notes add value to current and future proposal-writing conversations.

Become involved as early as possible in the proposal-planning process. With ATE projects, as with most evaluation projects, the sooner an evaluator is included in the project planning, the better. Even if the evaluator just observes the initial planning meetings, their involvement helps them become familiar with the project’s framework, the community partnerships, and the way in which project objectives are taking shape. Such involvement also helps familiarize the evaluator with the language used to frame project components and the new or established relationships expected for project implementation.

Get to know your existing and anticipated partners. Establishing or strengthening partnerships is a core component of ATE planning, as ATE projects often engage with multiple institutions through the creation of new certifications, development of new industry partnerships, and explanation of outreach efforts in public schools. The evaluator should take detailed notes on the internal and external partnerships involved with the project. Sometimes, to support my own understanding as an evaluator, it helps for me to visually map these relationships. Also, the evaluator should prepare for the unexpected. Sometimes, partners will change during the planning process as partner roles and program purposes become more clearly defined.

Integrate evaluation thinking into conversations early on. Once the team gets through the first couple of proposal drafts, it helps if the evaluator creates an evaluation plan and the team makes time to review it as a group. This will help the planning team clarify the evaluation questions to be addressed and outcomes to be measured. This review also allows the team to see how their outcomes can be clearly attached to program activities and measured through specific methods of data collection. Sometimes during this process, I speak up if a component could use further discussion (e.g., cohort size, mentoring practices). If an evaluator has been engaged from the beginning and has gotten to know the partners, they have likely built the trust necessary to add value to the discussion of the proposal’s central components.

Operate as an illuminator. A colleague I admire once suggested that evaluation be used as a flashlight, not as a hammer. This perspective of prioritizing exploration and illumination over determination of cause and effect has informed my work. Useful evaluations certainly require sound evaluation methodology, but they also require the crafting of results into compelling stories, told with data guiding the way. This requires working with others as interpretations unfold, discovering how findings can be communicated to different audiences, and listening to what stakeholders need to move their initiatives forward.

ATE programs offer participants critical opportunities to be a part of our country’s future workforce. Stakeholders are passionate about their programs. Careful, thoughtful engagement throughout the proposal-writing process builds trust while contributing to a quality proposal with a strong evaluation plan.

Blog: Evaluation Feedback Is a Gift

Posted on July 3, 2018 by  in Blog ()

Chemistry Faculty, Anoka-Ramsey Community College

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I’m Christopher Lutz, chemistry faculty at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. When our project was initially awarded, I was a first-time National Science Foundation (NSF) principal investigator. I understood external evaluation was required for grants but saw it as an administrative hurdle in the grant process. I viewed evaluation as proof for the NSF that we did the project and as a metric for outcomes. While both of these aspects are important, I learned evaluation is also an opportunity to monitor and improve your process and grant. Working with our excellent external evaluators, we built a stronger program in our grant project. You can too, if you are open to evaluation feedback.

Our evaluation team was composed of an excellent evaluator and a technical expert. I started working with both about halfway through the proposal development process (a few months before submission) to ensure they could contribute to the project. I recommend contacting evaluators during the initial stages of proposal development and checking in several times before submission. This gives adequate time for your evaluators to develop a quality evaluation plan and gives you time to understand how to incorporate your evaluator’s advice. Our funded project yielded great successes, but we could have saved time and achieved more if we had involved our evaluators earlier in the process.

After receiving funding, we convened grant personnel and evaluators for a face-to-face meeting to avoid wasted effort at the project start. Meeting in person allowed us to quickly collaborate on a deep level. For example, our project evaluator made real-time adjustments to the evaluation plan as our academic team and technical evaluator worked to plan our project videos and training tools. Include evaluator travel funds in your budget and possibly select an evaluator who is close by. We did not designate travel funds for our Kansas-based evaluator, but his ties to Minnesota and understanding of the value of face-to-face collaboration led him to use some of his evaluation salary to travel and meet with our team.

Here are three ways we used evaluation feedback to strengthen our project:

Example 1: The first-year evaluation report showed a perceived deficiency in the project’s provision of hands-on experience with MALDI-MS instrumentation. In response, we had students make small quantities of liquid solution instead of giving pre-mixed solutions, and let them analyze more lab samples. This change required minimal time but led students to regard the project’s hands-on nature as a strength in the second-year evaluation.

Example 2: Another area for improvement was students’ lack of confidence in analyzing data. In response to this feedback, project staff create Excel data analysis tools and a new training activity for students to practice with literature data prior to analyzing their own. The subsequent year’s evaluation report indicated increased student confidence.

Example 3: Input from our technical evaluator allowed us to create videos that have been used in academic institutions in at least three US states, the UK’s Open University system, and Iceland.

Provided here are some overall tips:

  1. Work with your evaluator(s) early in the proposal process to avoid wasted effort.
  2. Build in at least one face-to-face meeting with your evaluator(s).

Review evaluation data and reports with the goal of improving your project in the next year.

Consider external evaluators as critical friends who are there to help improve your project. This will help move your project forward and help you have a greater impact for all.

Blog: Modifying Grant Evaluation Project Objectives

Posted on June 11, 2018 by , in Blog ()
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Evelyn Brown
Director, Extension Research and Development
NC State Industry Expansion Solutions
Leressa Suber
Evaluation Coordinator
NC State Industry Expansion Solutions

When performing grant evaluations, our clients develop specific project objectives to drive attainment of overall grant goals. We work with principal investigators (PIs) to monitor work plan activities and project outcomes to ensure objectives are attainable, measurable, and sustainable.

However, what happens when the project team encounters obstacles to starting the activities related to project objectives? What shifts need to be made to meet grant goals?

When the team determines that the project objective cannot be achieved as initially planned, it’s important for the PI and evaluator to determine how to proceed. In the table below, we’ve highlighted three scenarios in which it may be necessary to shift, change, or eliminate a project objective. Then, if changes are made, based on the extent of the project objective modifications, the team can determine if or when the PI should notify the project funder.

Example: Shift in Project Objective

Grant Goal Help underclassmen understand what engineers do by observing the day-to-day activities of a local engineer.
Problem The advisory board members (engineers) in the field were unavailable.
Objective Current: Shadow advisory board member. Change: Shadow young engineering alumni.
Result The goal is still attainable.
PI Notify Funder No, but provide explanation/justification in the end-of-year report.

Example: Change a Project Objective

Grant Goal To create a method by which students at the community college will earn a credential to indicate they are prepared for employment in a specific technical field.
Problem The state process to establish a new certificate is time consuming and can’t occur within the grant period.
Objective Current: Complete degree in specific technical field. Change: Complete certificate in specific technical field.
Result The goal is still attainable.
PI Notify Funder Yes, specifically contact the funding program officer.

Example: Eliminate the Project Objective

Grant Goal The project participant’s salary will increase as result of completing specific program.
Problem Following program exit, salary data is unavailable.
Objective Current: Compare participant’s salary at start of program to salary three months after program completion. Change: Unable to maintain contact with program completers to obtain salary information.
Result The goal cannot realistically be measured.
PI Notify Funder Yes, specifically contact funding program officer.

In our experience working with clients, we’ve found that the best way to minimize the need to modify project objectives is to ensure they are well written during the grant proposal phase.

Tips: How to write attainable project objectives.

1. Thoroughly think through objectives during grant development phase.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides guidance to assist PIs with constructing realistic project goals and objectives. Below, we’ve linked to the NSF’s proposal development guide. However, here are a few key considerations:

  • Are the project objectives clear?
  • Are the resources necessary to accomplish the objectives clearly identified?
  • Are their barriers to accessing the resources needed?

2. Seek evaluator assistance early in the grant proposal process.

Link to additional resources: NSF – A Guide for Proposal Writing

Blog: Utilizing Your Institutional Research Office Resources When Writing a Grant Application

Posted on March 20, 2018 by , in Blog ()
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Deborah Douma
Dean, Grants and Federal Programs, Pensacola State College
Michael Johnston
Director of Institutional Research, Pensacola State College

There are a number of guiding questions that must be answered to develop a successful grant project evaluation plan. The answers to these questions also provide guidance to demonstrate need and develop ambitious, yet attainable, objectives. Data does not exist in a vacuum and can be evaluated and transformed into insight only if it is contextualized with associated activities. This is best accomplished in collaboration with the Institutional Research (IR) office. The Association for Institutional Research’s aspirational statement “highlights the need for IR to serve a broader range of decision makers.”

We emphasize the critical need to incorporate fundamental knowledge of experimental and quasi-experimental design at the beginning of any grant project. In essence, grant projects are experiments—just not necessarily being performed in a laboratory. The design of any experiment is to introduce new conditions. The independent variable is the grant project and the dependent variable is the success of the target population (students, faculty). The ability to properly measure and replicate this scientific process must be established during project planning, and the IR office can be instrumental in the design of your evaluation.

Responding to a program solicitation (or RFP, RFA, etc.) provides the opportunity to establish the need for the project, measurable outcomes, and an appropriate plan for evaluation that can win over the hearts and minds of reviewers, and lead to a successful grant award. Institutional researchers work with the grant office not only to measure outcomes but also to investigate and provide potential opportunities for improvement. IR staff act as data scientists and statisticians while working with grants and become intimately acquainted with the data, collection process, relationships between variables, and the science being investigated. While the term statistician and data scientist are often used synonymously, data scientists do more than just answer hypothesis tests and develop forecasting models; they also identify how variables not being studied may affect outcomes. This allows IR staff to see beyond the questions that are being asked and not only contribute to the development of the results but also identify unexpected structures in the data. Finding alternative structure may lead to further investigation in other areas and more opportunities for other grants.

If a project’s objective is to affect positive change in student retention, it is necessary to know the starting point before any grant-funded interventions are introduced. IR can provide descriptive statistics on the student body and target population before the intervention. This historical data is used not only for trend analysis but also for validation, correcting errors in the data. Validation can be as simple as looking for differences between comparison groups and confirming potential differences are not due to error. IR can also assist with the predictive analytics necessary to establish appropriate benchmarks for measurable objectives. For example, predicting that an intervention will increase retention rates by 10-20% when a 1-2% increase would be more realistic could lead to a proposal being rejected or set the project up for failure. Your IR office can also help ensure that the appropriate quantitative statistical methods are used to analyze the data.

Tip: Involve your IR office from the beginning, during project planning. This will contribute greatly to submitting a competitive application, the evaluation of which provides the guidance necessary for a successful project.