Chris Coryn—Director, Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Evaluation Program, WMU

September 15, 2009

In recent years, three major movements have dominated evaluation practice. These include evidence-based, participatory and empowerment, and theory-driven evaluation (TDE), in particular. Of these, the former has received the greatest attention, particularly in education and health and medicine, mostly centered on randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Whereas RCTs are premised on the assumption that they are the most appropriate method for generating strong knowledge claims as to “does it work?” (i.e., causal description), TDE is premised on the assumption that the approach generates knowledge claims as to “how?” “for whom?” and “under what conditions?” (i.e., causal explanation) a treatment or intervention works by formulating and testing complex causal hypotheses. Participatory and empowerment approaches, however, are essentially premised on the assumption that by engaging stakeholders in the evaluation process, greater buy-in is generated and, therefore, such evaluations are more likely to be used and have an impact than more scientifically rigorous methods that often exclude stakeholders in the evaluation process. In this Café, the key assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses of these three approaches will be critically examined, including their commonalities, with an emphasis on the specific contexts in which each is appropriate and their implications for contemporary evaluation theory and practice.

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