What is evaluation?

If you recently heard the term "evaluation" but you're not quite sure what that entails, you're not alone. At the American Evaluation Association conference this October, president John Gargani joked with evaluators that their job is so unfamiliar to the general public that a new field, Cryptoevaluology, has sprung up to study their so-called-existence. Even as I type this post, my computer insists "evaluator" is not a word, and I mean to say "elevator". 

I reassure you, though, evaluation is real!  You can look up fancy definitions to double check me, but I'm here to give you the simple foundations to comprehend this growing field.

Evaluation is a systematic process to illuminate a program, product, or project by actively seeking feedback from its audience.

In my field, museums and informal educators evaluate a broad range of offerings, but might include a museum exhibit, a new approach to convey information to visitors (e.g. labels, audio tours, teaching technique), or a field trip.  

So... what are the benefits of this illuminating process?

Evaluation increases transparency, so you don't have to guess what goes on beneath the surface.

Evaluation increases transparency, so you don't have to guess what goes on beneath the surface.

  • Evaluation allows a museum to reflect on their creation while giving enough space to remain impartial.
  • Evaluation provides evidence beyond how you might feel things are going.
  • Evaluation challenges assumptions you might have-- or confirms what you suspected.
  • Evaluation offers transparency for stakeholders, participants, or creators.
  • Evaluation focuses on the "why" and "how" but might also clear up the "what" and "who" if you need it.
  • Evaluation exposes extreme cases and offers a baseline, so decision-makers can make use of norms, rather than peaks and troughs.
  • Evaluation establishes benchmarks to gauge success, measures progress and tracks change.
  • Evaluation uses consistent methodology to ensure reliability and verification.
  • Evaluation condenses data, sheds light on sticky questions, and produces information for strategic decisions. 

This list is in no way exhaustive, but hopefully it helps you orient to evaluation as a discipline and tool in the informal learning sector.

An evaluator is simply the person that helps an institution take an introspective, critical eye to their work. People with these skills often overlap with roles filled by social science researchers, UX designers, data scientists, and strategic planners. Other evaluators have also taken their stab at defining evaluation-- check out their versions too!

Still not sure evaluation is right for your team? I'll address common reasons museums and informal educators dismiss evaluation in an upcoming post.