Putting the Value in eVALUation: Part I–What is Evaluation?

When you hear the word “evaluation,” what do you think of? If you are like most, beads of sweat appear on your forehead as you begin to recall the cranky driving instructor who put the kibosh on your earnest attempt to become a licensed driver with his red pen. Most of us are familiar with (and dread) this type of evaluation, which is defined as “the process of determining significance or worth, usually by careful appraisal and study.”

In the context of museums, however, evaluation takes on more of an emphasis of “analysis and comparison of actual progress versus prior plans, oriented toward improving plans for future implementation.” In this sense, museum evaluation is about enrichment—it is about setting, improving upon, and reaching measurable outcomes.

As Evaluation Specialist at the National Law Enforcement Museum (NLEM), my role in this vein is to help examine the outcomes of our educational programs against each program’s goals and objectives and to make certain these line up with the Museum’s overall mission. While at times challenging, evaluation is the means by which we incorporate accountability and long-term effectiveness into the Museum’s work.

Although the NLEM is slated to open in 2013, the Museum Programs Department is planning to begin a number of its public programs just after groundbreaking takes place on October 14, 2010. With the support of the non-profit Institute for Learning Innovation, we are currently in the process of testing our programs.

Over the next year and a half, the purpose of our testing is two-fold. First of all, over the next several months, our iterative testing (also known as front-end or formative evaluation) will provide feedback about early versions of our programs to inform decisions about how we can best modify and improve them. Secondly, we will use summative testing to evaluate the effectiveness of the final programs based on previously identified outcomes.

In part two of this post, I will outline in greater detail different types of evaluation, discuss our identified outcomes and how we arrived at them, and use our recent testing to help put it all into perspective.