Posts Tagged ‘outcome’

As evalua25th Anniversary Butterflytors, we are often asked to help our clients build evaluation capacity among staff in their organization. The motivation for these requests varies. Sometimes the primary motivator is professional development; other times it is perceived cost savings (since conducting professional evaluations can require resources that not all organizations have at their disposal). We welcome when an organization values evaluation enough to inquire about how to integrate it more fully into their staff’s daily work. If an organization has a true interest in using evaluation as a tool to learn about the relationship between its work and the public, building an organization’s evaluation capacity may be quite successful. On the other hand, if the primary motivator is to save costs associated with evaluation, often the outcome is much less successful, mostly because evaluation takes considerable time and invariably there is a trade-off; when the evaluation is being done, something else is being ignored.

Evaluation capacity building can take a variety of forms. It can range from building staff’s capacity to think like an evaluator, perhaps by helping staff learn how to articulate a project’s desired outcomes (I think this is the most valuable evaluation planning skill one can learn), to training staff to conduct an evaluation from beginning to end (identifying outcomes, creating an evaluation plan, designing instruments, collecting data, conducting analyses, and reporting findings). Even among the most interested parties, it is rare to find museum practitioners who are genuinely interested in all aspects of evaluation. As an evaluator, even I find certain aspects of evaluation more enjoyable than others. I’ve noticed that while practitioners may be initially intimidated by the data collection process, they often find talking with visitors rewarding and informative. On the other hand, they have much less enthusiasm for data analysis and reporting; I’ve only encountered a handful of museum practitioners who enjoy pouring over pages and pages of interview transcripts. We lovingly refer to these individuals as “data nerds” and proudly count ourselves among them.

There is yet another challenge, and it has to do with the fact that most museum practitioners are required to wear many mountain-data-mining33hats. Conducting evaluations is my one and only job; it is what I am trained to do and have intentionally chosen for my vocation. While a practitioner may be intrigued by what evaluation can offer, often it is not the job he or she was trained or hired to do, which means that evaluation can become a burden—just one more hat for a practitioner to wear. Some organizations have addressed an organization’s evaluation needs by creating a position for an in-house evaluator and the individual who might fill that position is usually someone who is schooled in evaluation and research methodologies, much like all of us here at RK&A. I would caution organizations to be very realistic when considering building their organization’s evaluation capacity. Does your staff have the time and skills to conduct a thoughtful study and follow through with analysis and reporting? What responsibilities is your organization willing to put aside to make time for the evaluation? And, do you want your staff to think like evaluators or become evaluators?—an important distinction, indeed. Otherwise, even those with the best of intentions may find themselves buried in mountains of data. Worse yet is that what was once an exciting proposition may be perceived as an annoyance in the end.

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Welcome to our new Throwback Thursday series, where we take a moment to look back at projects from our archives.  Today we’ll be sharing a case study about our planning and evaluation work with the Science Museum of Virginia and their Sphere Corps Program.  You might recall this particular Science On a Sphere program from one of our prior posts, Learning to Embrace Failure, and today we’ll share a bit more about how we approached the study, what we learned, and the implications of those findings.

Sphere Corps Program [2012]

For this planning and evaluation project with The Science Museum of Virginia (SMV), RK&A evaluated Sphere Corps, a Science on a Sphere program about climate change developed by SMV with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).    

How did we approach this study?  

The study was designed around RK&A’s belief that organizations must be intentional in their practice by continually clarifying purpose, aligning practices and resources to achieve purpose, measuring outcomes, and learning from practice to strengthen ongoing planning and actions.  To this end, the Sphere Corps project included five phases of work—a literature review, a workshop to define intended program outcomes, two rounds of formative evaluation, and two reflection workshops.  Formative evaluation data were collected using naturalistic observations and in-depth interviews.  Each phase of work allowed staff to explore their vision for the Sphere Corps program and how it changed over time as they learned from and reflected on evaluation findings.

What did we learn?SOS

SMV staff’s goal was to create a facilitated, inquiry-based Science on a Sphere program about climate change.  RK&A first completed a literature review that revealed a facilitated Sphere experience was in keeping with best practices and that using inquiry methods in a 20-minute program would be challenging but worth exploring further.  Staff then brainstormed and honed the outcomes they hoped to achieve in Sphere Corps, which guided planning and script development.  The first round of formative evaluation identified implementation barriers and an overabundance of iClicker questions, all of which created a challenging environment for educators to effectively use inquiry.  Upon reflection, staff reduced the number of iClicker questions and added visualizations and questions that required close observation of the Sphere.  Following a second round of formative evaluation, staff made additional changes to the program script and began to reflect on the reality of using inquiry in a single 20-minute program.  Since the script covered a range of topics related to climate change, staff wondered if they should instead go deeper with one topic while encouraging more visitor observation and interpretation of Sphere data.  Out of this discussion arose the idea of “mini-programs”—a series of programs that would focus on communicating one key idea about climate change, such as helping people understand the difference between weather and climate.

What are the implications of the findings?

Central to the idea of the “mini-program” is the idea of doing less to achieve more.  Impact and outcomes are incredibly difficult to achieve and trying to achieve too much often results in accomplishing very little.  Through a reflection workshop and staff discussion, the SMV team was able to prioritize and streamline the outcomes and indicators originally written for the Sphere Corps program.  Staff also recognized that their primary goal with the Sphere Corps program is to encourage visitors to think more critically about the science behind climate change.  By scaling down the number of topics covered in the presentation, each program could intentionally focus on: (1) one key idea or question related to climate change; (2) achievement of only a few intended outcomes; and (3) implementation of specific facilitation strategies to achieve those outcomes.  Intentionally covering less content also opens up opportunities to more effectively use inquiry methods.

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25th Anniversary Butterfly

So often we evaluators are asked to measure outcomes or results, which of course align with our expectations.  When we conduct an evaluation and the results are positive, an organization can wave its flag; and ideally the whole museum field benefits from learning why a particular exhibition or program is so successful at achieving its outcomes.  During my time as an evaluator, I have learned that there is enormous value in walking before running.  Because measuring results sounds compelling to museums and their funders, museums often jump over important evaluation processes and rush into measuring results.  Accordingly, staff, in a moment of passion, forgo front-end and formative evaluation—those early stages of concept testing, prototyping, and piloting a program—that help staff understand the gaps between the intended outcomes for their audience and the successes and challenges of implementing a new project. 

So, when we are asked to measure results, we always ask the client if the project has ever been evaluated.  Even then, we may pull the reins to help slow down our clients enough to consider the benefits of first understanding what is and is not working about a particular program or exhibition.  More often than not, slowing down and using front-end and formative evaluation to improve the visitor experience increases the likelihood that staff will be rewarded with positive results when they measure outcomes later.  In fact, when an organization’s evaluation resources are limited, we often advocate for conducting a front-end and/or formative evaluation because we believe that is where all of us will learn the most.  It is human nature to want to jump right in to the good stuff and eat our dessert first.  We, too, get excited by our clients’ passion and have to remind ourselves of the value of taking baby steps.  So, one of the many lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning) is that when it comes to evaluation, encouraging practitioners to walk before they run (or test before they measure) is key to a successful project and their own personal learning.

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25th Anniversary ButterflyOver the years there have been pivotal moments in which we at RK&A tried something out-of-the- ordinary to meet the needs of a particular project that then became a staple in how we do things.  It wasn’t always clear at the time that these were “pivotal moments,” but in retrospect I can see that these were times of concentrated learning and change.  For me, one of these pivotal moments was the first time we used rubrics as an assessment tool for a museum-based project.  I had been introduced to rubrics in my previous position where I conducted educational research in the public school system, which sometimes included student assessment.  Rubrics are common practice among classroom teachers and educators who are required to assess individual student performance.

Rubrics had immediate appeal to me because they utilize qualitative research methods (like in-depth interviews, written essays, or naturalistic observations) to assess outcomes in a way that remains authentic to complicated, nuanced learning experiences; while at the same time, they are rigorous and respond to the need to measure and quantify outcomes, an increasing demand from funders.  They are also appealing because they respect the complexity of learning—we know from research and evaluation that the impact of a learning experience may vary considerably from person to person. These often very subtle differences in impact can be difficult to detect and measure.

To illustrate what a rubric is, I have an example below from the Museum of the City of New York, where we evaluated the effect of one of its field trip programs on fourth grade students (read report HERE).  As shown here, a rubric is a set of indicators linked to one outcome.  It is used to assess a performance of knowledge, skills, attitudes, or behaviors—in this example we were assessing “historical thinking,” more specifically students’ ability to recognize and not judge cultural differences.  As you can see, rubrics include a continuum of understandings (or skills, attitudes, or behaviors) on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 being “below beginning understanding” to 4 being “accomplished understanding.”  The continuum captures the gradual, nuanced differences one might expect to see.

Museum of the City of New York RubricThe first time we used rubrics was about 10 years ago, when we worked with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which had just been awarded a large research grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study the effects of its long-standing Learning Through Art program on third grade students’ literacy skills.  This was a high-stakes project, and we needed to provide measurable, reliable findings to demonstrate complex outcomes, like “hypothesizing,” “evidential reasoning,” and “schema building.”  I immediately thought of using rubrics, especially since my past experience had been with elementary school students.  Working with an advisory team, we developed the rubrics for a number of literacy-based skills, as shown in the example below (and note the three-point scale in this example as opposed to the four-point scale above—the evolution in our use of rubrics included the realization that a four-point scale allows us to be more exact in our measurement).  To detect these skills we conducted one-on-one standardized, but open-ended, interviews with over 400 students, transcribed the interviews, and scored them using the rubrics.  We were then able to quantify the qualitative data and run statistics.  Because rubrics are precise, specific, and standardized, they allowed us to detect differences between treatment and control groups—differences that may have gone undetected otherwise—and to feel confident about the results.  For results, you can find the full report HERE.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum RubricFast forward ten years to today and we use rubrics regularly for summative evaluation, especially when measuring the achievement of complicated and complex learning outcomes.  So far, the two examples I’ve mentioned involved students participating in a facilitated program, but we also use rubrics, when appropriate, for regular walk-in visitors to exhibitions.  For instance, we used rubrics for two NSF-funded exhibitions, one about the social construction of race (read report HERE) and another about conservation efforts for protecting animals of Madagascar (read report HERE).  Rubrics were warranted in both cases—both required a rigorous summative evaluation, and both intended for visitors to learn complicated and emotionally-charged concepts and ideas.

While rubrics were not new to me 10 years ago (and certainly not new in the world of assessment and evaluation), they were new for us at RK&A.  What started out as a necessity for the Guggenheim project has become common practice for us.  Our use of rubrics has informed the way we approach and think about evaluation and furthered our understanding of the way people learn in museums.  This is just one example of the way we continually learn at RK&A.

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This week, I’d like to begin to hone in on the idea of measuring impact that Randi raised in our first blog post.  We define impact as the difference museums can make in the quality of people’s lives, and measuring it can be both exciting and intimidating.  Exciting because just about every museum professional I’ve ever met believes museums have the potential to affect people in deeply powerful ways.  Stories abound from people who have distinct and palpable memories of museum visits from childhood—memories that became etched in their being and identity (for many, it is the giant heart at the Franklin Institute, for others it may be a beautiful Monet water lily, and for the nine-year old me, it was a historic house, My Old Kentucky Home).  It’s these kinds of experiences that draw museum professionals to their field.  On the other hand, the idea of measuring impact can be intimidating because some think it is impossible to evaluate, measure, or assess something as intangible as a personal connection, engagement, identity growth, a lasting memory, an aesthetic experience, or an “ah-ha” moment.  When these fears emerge, we try our best to allay them and try to move them towards an important first step in measuring impact—describing what impact looks like or sounds like.  Evaluators are accustomed to figuring out how to measure something—once the impact is described.

The Giant Heart at The Franklin Institute

The Giant Heart at The Franklin Institute

I, as a researcher and evaluator, become excited at the thought of being tasked with measuring impacts, such as “engagement” or “creativity.”  I relish the idea of studying something so I can explain the unexplainable, of drawing meaning from and describing unique human experiences.  As long as I can remember, I have been interested in the complexities of the human experience, especially in how it plays out in specific contexts, within the social realm, and in relationship to material culture, such as art, artifacts, and natural history specimens.  These interests led me to the field of anthropology and to work in social science research and museum evaluation, where I have the pleasure of spending my days exploring the ways people make meaning in museums and other similar institutions.

Sometimes when museums cite their impact, they fall back on the common practice of reporting visitation numbers.  While not unimportant, numbers indicate only that people came—they do not indicate the quality of visitors’ experiences.  Imagine hearing that a museum attracted a million visitors and then hearing about the qualitative difference a museum has made in people’s lives—wouldn’t that sound more meaningful? This brings me to discussing an often overlooked methodology in museum evaluation—case study research.  Its low rate of use is interesting in light of museums’ desire for evidence of impact, as a case study can provide rich details of a person’s or entity’s (e.g., a school) experience.  Case study research is “an in-depth description and analysis of a bounded system”—that “system” could be any number of things: an individual museum visitor, a school partner, or a community.  It provides a focused, in-depth study of one particular person or entity.  Practically speaking, what we do is follow several participants (or “cases”) over time (during and after a program for example), by interviewing them repeatedly, observing them in the program, and interviewing others within their sphere of influence (such as a parent, spouse,  museum professional, student, or community member) who can comment about their experience. The outcome is a concrete, contextualized, nuanced understanding of a particular phenomenon (for example,  a person’s growth over time, a relationship between a museum and school, or a museum’s affect on a community) that can explain not only what happened as a result of the program, but how it happened.   Knowing the “what” and the “how” are invaluable to museums; the “what” can offer indictors of impact and the “how” tells you what the museum might have been doing to create the “case” experience.

An example of case study research comes from an evaluation we did for an art museum that was launching a new multi-visit program in middle schools.  We began our work by helping the museum define its intended impact, which is articulated as: “Students are empowered to think and act creatively in their lives, their learning, and their community.”  We then worked with staff to operationalize the impact statement by developing a series of concrete, measureable outcome statements.  We identified our “cases” as three middle schools.  Each “case” study included a series of interviews with students, classroom teachers, a few parents, and program staff, as well as an observation of program activities in the school and in the museum—all over the course of several months.  The data were rich, specific descriptions of what happened to participants and how the program functioned in each school—all in relationship to the impact statement.  Not surprisingly, each school had a slightly different experience, with one school more closely meeting the impact statement than the others.  The case study approach unveiled the complex interplay of variables at each school to help explain why one school was more successful than the others.  Both the successes and challenges provided great insight as the museum considered its second year of program implementation.

I know what you are thinking.  How can we measure impact by focusing on a few individuals or one or two schools?  What about generalizability?  While these questions are reasonable, they miss the point of case studies, which I believe strongly aligns with what we know about museum experiences—case studies account for differences in people’s unique dispositions, life experiences, and knowledge; they value distinctiveness; and they recognize the complexities of life and situations and do not try to simplify them.  If a museum really has trouble accepting the essential value of what a case study can afford, plenty of museum programs are small enough to warrant conducting a case study without worrying about generalizability.  The example above is a relatively small program serving six schools, three of which we examined through our study.  In another example, we used case study research to assess the impact of a museum-based summer camp serving 20 or so teens.  Conducting case studies to demonstrate the impact of museums’ small programs might be just the perfect baby step towards museums’ beginning to measure impact.

I sense urgency in museums’ need to have evidence of the value of museums in the American landscape.  I think it is time we stopped worrying about what might be immeasurable and instead begin describing what success looks like.

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Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign (1982).

Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign (1982).

It’s that time of year—federal grant deadlines for NSF, IMLS, NOAA, NEH, and NEA are looming large, and many informal learning organizations are  eyeing those federal dollars.  While government agencies (and private foundations) often require evaluation, we relish working on projects with team members that integrate evaluation into their work process because they are interested in professional learning—rather than just fulfilling a grant requirement.  Sadly, evaluation is often thought of and used as a judgment tool—which is why funders require it for accountability purposes.  That said,   I am not anti accountability.  In fact, I am pro accountability; and I am also pro learning.

This pretty simple idea—learning from evaluation—is actually quite idealistic because I sense an uncomfortable tension between program failure AND professional learning.  Not all of the projects we evaluate achieve their programmatic intentions, in part because the projects are often complicated endeavors involving many partners who strive to communicate complex and difficult-to-understand ideas to the public.  Challenging projects, though, often achieve another kind of outcome—professional and organizational learning—especially in situations where audience outcomes are ambitious.  When projects fail to achieve their audience outcomes, what happens between the grantee and funder?  If the evaluation requirement is focused on reporting results from an accountability perspective, the organization might send the funder a happy report without any mention of the project’s inherent challenges, outcomes that fell short of expectations, or the evaluator’s analysis that identified realities that might benefit from focused attention next time. The grantee acknowledges its willingness to take on a complicated and ambitious project and notes a modest increase in staff knowledge (because any further admission might suggest that the staff wasn’t as accomplished as the submitted proposal stated).  The dance is delicate because some grantees believe that any admission of not-so-rosy results is reprehensible and punishable by never receiving funding again!

Instead, what if the evaluation requirement was to espouse audience outcomes and professional and/or organizational learning?  The report to the funder might note that staff members were disappointed that their project did not achieve its intended audience outcomes, but they found the evaluation results insightful and took time to process them.  They explain how what they learned, which is now part of their and their organization’s knowledge bank, will help them reframe and improve the next iteration of the project and they look forward to continuing to hone their skills and improve their work.  The report might also include a link to the full evaluation report.  I have observed that funders are very interested in organizations that reflect on their work and take evaluation results to heart.  I have also noticed that funders are open to thinking and learning about alternative approaches to evaluation, outcomes, measurement, and knowledge generation.

Most of the practitioners I know want opportunities to advance their professional knowledge; yet some feel embarrassed when asked to talk about a project that may not have fared well even when their professional learning soared.  When funders speak, most pay close attention.  How might our collective knowledge grow if funders invited their grantees to reflect on their professional learning?  What might happen if funders explicitly requested that organizations acknowledge their learning and write a paper summarizing how they will approach their work differently next time?  If a project doesn’t achieve its audience outcomes and no one learns from the experience—that would be reprehensible.

Isn’t it time that funding agencies and organizations embrace evaluation for its enormous learning potential and respect it as a professional learning tool?  Isn’t it time to place professional and organizational learning at funders’ evaluation tables alongside accountability?  In my opinion, it is.

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