Getting Started With Your ATE Evaluation, a basic guide on the basics of starting your evaluation.
New ATE project principal investigators (PIs): When you worked with your evaluator to develop an evaluation plan for your project proposal, you were probably focused on the big picture—how to gather credible and meaningful evidence about the quality and impact of your work. To ensure your evaluation achieves its aims, take these four steps now to make sure your project provides the human resources, time, and information needed for a successful evaluation:
- Schedule regular meetings with your evaluator. Regular meetings help ensure that your project’s evaluation receives adequate attention. These exchanges should be in real time—via phone call, web meetings, or face-to-face—not just email. See EvaluATE’s new Communication Plan Checklist for ATE PIs and Evaluators for a list of other communication issues to discuss with your evaluator at the start of a project.
- Work with your evaluator to create a project evaluation calendar. This calendar should span the life of your project and include the following:
- Due dates for National Science Foundation (NSF) annual reports: You should include your evaluation reports or at least information from the evaluation in these reports. Work backward from their due dates to determine when evaluation reports should be completed. To find out when your annual report is due, go to Research.gov, enter your NSF login information, select “Awards & Reporting,” then “Project Reports.”
- Advisory committee meeting dates: You may want your evaluator to attend these meetings to learn more about your project and to communicate directly with committee members.
- Project events: Activities such as workshops and outreach events present valuable opportunities to collect data directly from the individuals involved in the project. Make sure your evaluator is aware of them.
- Due dates for new proposal submissions: If submitting to NSF again, you will need to include evidence of your current project’s intellectual merit and broader impacts. Working with your evaluator now will ensure you have compelling evidence to support a future submission.
- Keep track of what you’re doing and who is involved. Don’t leave these tasks to your evaluator or wait until the last minute. Taking an active—and proactive—role in documenting the project’s work will save you time and result in more accurate information. Your evaluator can then use that information when preparing their reports. Moreover, you will find it immensely useful to have good documentation at your fingertips when preparing your annual NSF report.
- Maintain a record of project activities and products—such as conference presentations, trainings, outreach events, competitions, publications—as they are completed. Check out EvaluATE’s project vita as an example.
- Create a participant database (or spreadsheet): Everyone who engages with your project should be listed. Record their contact information, role in the project, and pertinent demographic characteristics (such as whether a student is a first-generation college student, a veteran, or part of a group that has been historically underrepresented in STEM). You will probably find several uses for this database, such as for follow-up with participants for evaluation purposes, for outreach, and as evidence of your project’s broader impacts.
An ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure: Investing time up front to make sure your evaluation is on solid footing will save headaches down the round.
This EvaluATE newsletter issue is focused on getting started with evaluation. It’s oriented to new ATE principal investigators who are getting their projects off the ground, but I think it holds some good reminders for veteran PIs as well. To shorten the evaluation learning curve, avoid these common pitfalls:
Searching for the truth about “what NSF wants from evaluation.” NSF is not prescriptive about what an ATE evaluation should or shouldn’t look like. So, if you’ve been concerned that you’ve somehow missed the one document that spells out exactly what NSF wants from an ATE evaluation—rest assured, you haven’t overlooked anything. But there is information that NSF requests from all projects in annual reports and that you are asked to report on the annual ATE survey. So it’s worthwhile to preview the Research.gov reporting template (bit.ly/nsf_prt) and the ATE annual survey questions (bit.ly/ATEsurvey16). And if you’re doing research, be sure to review the Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development – which are pretty cut-and-dried criteria for different types of research (bit.ly/cg-checklist). Most importantly, put some time into thinking about what you, as a project leader, need to learn from the evaluation. If you’re still concerned about meeting expectations, talk to your program officer.
Thinking your evaluator has all the answers. Even for veteran evaluators, every evaluation is new and has to be tailored to context. Don’t expect your evaluator to produce a detailed, actionable evaluation plan on Day 1. He or she will need to work out the details of the plan with you. And if something doesn’t seem right to you, it’s OK to ask for something different.
Putting off dealing with the evaluation until you are less busy. “Less busy” is a mythical place and you will probably never get there. I am both an evaluator and a client of evaluation services, and even I have been guilty of paying less attention to evaluation in favor of “more urgent” matters. Here are some tips for ensuring your project’s evaluation gets the attention it needs: (a) Set a recurring conference call or meeting with your evaluator (e.g., every two to three weeks); (b) Put evaluation at the top of your project team’s meeting agendas, or hold separate meetings to focus exclusively on evaluation matters; (c) Give someone other than the PI responsibility for attending to the evaluation—not to replace the PI’s attention, but to ensure the PI and other project members are staying on top of the evaluation and communicating regularly with the evaluator; (d) Commit to using the evaluation results in a timely way—if you do something on a recurring basis, make sure you gather feedback from those involved and use it to improve the next activity.
Assuming you will need your first evaluation report at the end of Year 1. PIs must submit their annual reports to NSF within the 90 days prior to the end of the current budget period. So if your grant started on September 1, your first annual report is due between the beginning of June and the end of August. And it will take some time to prepare, so you should probably start writing a month or so before you plan to submit it. You’ll want to include at least some of your evaluation results, so start working with your evaluator now to figure what information is most important to collect for your Year 1 report.
Veteran PIs: What tips do you have for shortening the evaluation learning curve? Submit a blog to EvaluATE and tell your story and lessons learned for the benefit of new PIs: evalu-ate.org/category/blog/.