Many evaluations fall short of their potential to provide useful, timely, and accurate feedback to projects because project leaders or evaluators (or both) have unrealistic expectations. In this blog, I expose three inconvenient truths about ATE evaluation. Dealing with these truths head-on will help project leaders avoid delays and misunderstandings.
1. Your evaluator does not have all the answers.
Even for highly experienced evaluators, every evaluation is new and has to be tailored to the project’s particular context. Do not expect your evaluator to produce an ideal evaluation plan on Day 1, be able to pull the perfect data collection instrument off his or her shelf, or know just the right strings to pull to get data from your institutional research office. Your evaluator is an expert on evaluation, not your project or your institution.
As an evaluator, when I ask clients for input on an aspect of their evaluation, the last thing I want to hear is “Whatever you think, you’re the expert.” Work with your evaluator to refine your evaluation plan to ensure it fits your project, your environment, and your information needs. Question elements that don’t seem right to you and provide constructive feedback. The Principal Investigator’s Guide: Managing Evaluation in Informal STEM Education Projects (Chapter 4) has detailed information about how project leaders can bring their expertise to the evaluation process.
2. There is no one right answer to the question, “What does NSF wants from evaluation?”
This is the question I get the most as the director of the evaluation support center for the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. The truth is, NSF is not prescriptive about what an ATE evaluation should look like, and different program officers have different expectations. So, if you’ve been looking for the final word on what NSF wants from an ATE evaluation, you can end your search because you won’t find it.
However, NSF does request common types of information from all projects via their annual reports and the annual ATE survey. To make sure you are not caught off guard, preview the Research.gov reporting template and the most recent ATE annual survey questions. If you are doing research, get familiar with the Common Guidelines for Education Development and Research.
If you’re still concerned about meeting expectations, talk to your NSF program officer.
3. Project staff need to put in time and effort.
Evaluation matters often get put on a project’s backburner so more urgent issues can be addressed. (Yes, even an evaluation support center is susceptible to no-time-for-evaluation-itis.) But if you put off dealing with evaluation matters until you feel like you have time for them, you will miss key opportunities to collect data and use the information to make improvements to your project.
To make sure your project’s evaluation gets the attention it needs:
- Set a recurring conference call or meeting with your evaluator—at least once a month.
- Put evaluation at the top of your project team’s meeting agendas, or hold separate meetings to focus exclusively on evaluation.
- Assign one person on your project team to be the point-person for evaluation.
- Commit to using your evaluation results in a timely way—if you have a recurring project activity, make sure your gather feedback from those involved and use it to improve the next event.