I recently participated in a workshop at Brandeis University for graduate students who were considering non-academic careers in the social sciences. During the workshop, one of the students asked about the difference between program evaluation and other kinds of social research. This is a valuable and important question to which I responded that program evaluation is a type of applied social research that is conducted with “a value, or set of values, in its denominator.” I further explained that I meant that evaluation research is always conducted with an eye to whether the outcomes, or results, of a program were achieved, especially when these outcomes are compared to a desired and valued standard or criterion. At the heart of program evaluation is the idea that outcomes, or changes, are valuable and desired. Evaluators conduct evaluation research to find out if these valuable changes (often expressed as program goals or objectives) are, in fact, achieved by the program.
Evaluation research shares many of the same methods and approaches as other social sciences, and indeed, natural sciences. Evaluators draw upon a range of evaluation designs (e.g. experimental design, quasi-experimental desing, non-experimental design) and a range of methodologies (e.g. case studies, observational studies, interviews, etc.) to learn what the effects of a given intervention have been. Did, for example, 8th grade students who received an enriched STEM curriculum do better on tests, than did their otherwise similar peers who didn’t receive the enriched curriculum? Do homeless women who receive career readiness workshops succeed at obtaining employment at greater rates than do other similar homeless women who don’t participate in such workshops? (For more on these types of outcome evaluations, see our previous blog post, “What You Need to Know About Outcome Evaluations: The Basics,”) While not all program evaluations are outcome evaluations, all evaluations gather systematic data with which judgments about the program can be made.
Evaluation’s Differences From Other Kinds of Social Research
Evaluation research is distinct from other forms of applied social research in so far as it:
- seeks to determine the merit, value, and/or worth of a program’s activities and results.
- entails the systematic collection of empirical data that is used to measure the processes and/or outcomes of a program, with the goal of furthering the program’s development and improvement.
- provides actionable information for decision-makers and program stakeholders, so that, based on objective data, a program can be strengthened or curtailed.
- focuses on particular knowledge (usually about a program and its outcomes), rather than seeks widely generalizable and universal knowledge.
While evaluators share many of the same methods and approaches as other researchers, program evaluators must employ an explicit set of values against which to judge the findings of their empirical research. The means that evaluators must both be competent social scientists and exercise value-based judgments and interpretations about the meaning of data.
Research vs. Evaluation
Differences Between Research and Evaluation
Harvard Family Research Project’s “Ask an Expert” series.
See “Michael Scriven on the Differences Between Evaluation and Social Science Research,”
Office of Educational Assessment
Sandra Mathison’s “What is the Difference Between Evaluation and Research, and Why Do We Care?”
“Distinguishing Evaluation from Research”