Evaluation Concepts

The distinction between evaluation and research

We reference here what Kirk Knestis, CEO of Hezel Associates, refers to as the "NSF Conundrum," the confusion among stakeholders about the role of a PI in research compared to that of evaluation of a program. He writes in the  AEA365 blog (August 14, 2014): "The most constructive distinction here is between (a) studying the innovation of interest, and (b) studying the implementation and impact of the activities required for that inquiry. For this conversation, call the former 'research' (following NSF's lead) and the latter 'evaluation'- or more particularly, 'program evaluation.' For clarity between these distinctions and a framework for your project, review the  Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development developed by the NSF and US ED Institute of Education Sciences (IES). To read Kirk's original blog, visit AEA365 Tip-a-Day

The following section is adapted from Assessing Campus Diversity Initiatives [see References, Garcia, et al.] and the User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation [see References, NSF].

First of all, not everyone enjoys the thought of conducting program evaluations. It’s important to consider why evaluation is useful and how it can contribute to your REU program.

“Evaluation is not separate from, or added to, a project, but rather is part of it from the beginning”
p. 3, NSF User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation.

Reasons for Evaluation:

  • Produces useful knowledge
  • Documents and clarifies useful work
  • Addresses concerns identified by the CISE REU community
  • Contributes to shaping institutional policy
  • Allows for immediate corrections based on findings
  • Provides context

Steps of Evaluation

Steps of Evaluation


  1. Define the purpose

    Consider why you are conducting an evaluation of your REU site.

    • Is it to measure program improvement?
    • Is it to monitor progress of the program and/or the individual students?
    • Be accountable for student success and/or the external funding agency?
    • Are you responding to an institutional mandate?

    For most REU sites, each of these questions define the evaluation purpose. Design a conceptual model to identify key evaluation points. Refer to Logic Models and Recommended Indicators.

  2. Determine your audience(s)

    Clarify your primary audience(s) for the evaluation. In other words, determine who your constituents are, or stakeholders. Common stakeholders are:

    • External funding agency (NSF)
    • Your department and institution
    • The CISE REU community
    • The larger academic community.

    The language you use to inform stakeholders will be dependent upon what information is crucial to that group. Not all stakeholders value the same information, nor do they require all information. For example, generalized demographic information of participants is relevant for all stakeholders, whereas specific participant names are considered confidential outside of your institutional records and those reported directly to the NSF. See Dissemination.

  3. Assemble your evaluation team

    Because the CISE REU funding does not incorporate evaluation into the budget, most REU sites will find the price of an external evaluator to be cost inhibitive. The NSF suggests as a guideline to dedicate between 5-10% of project cost to evaluation. Internal evaluation, conducted by an individual or individuals within your institution, is likely the most feasible option for the evaluation of your REU site. Refer to Who Should Do Evaluation for some suggested approaches, along with benefits and considerations.

  4. Identify the context

    Determine what your educational mission is, from the perspectives of the REU site, the stakeholders, and academic climate (both national and institutional). What is remarkable and unique about your REU site will depend upon these contextual factors. For example, a new REU site will have start up procedures and gain a great deal from formative evaluation during the first year of implementation. An extension site will be able to consider longitudinal follow up with past REU participants. Your region, student population, and institutional resources will be factors of your evaluation and program success. Refer to Evaluation Models.

  5. Target your topic(s)

    Establish what information you want to glean from the REU site. You may want to focus on one or more of the following:

    • Site administration and program satisfaction
    • Individual student development
    • Research and academic skills
    • Professional development skills
    • Self-efficacy
    • Intent to go to graduate school
    • Retention in CISE
    • Research initiatives and outcomes

    Refer to the Recommended Indicators; Common Metrics and Outcomes.

  6. Formulate your question(s)

    Formulate the research questions that guide the site evaluation based upon the main topics of interest to your site. Your assessment should include basic questions of importance across CISE REUs, and also address complex issues. Refer to Common Research Questions.

  7. Obtain the data

    Typical data collected for REU sites may include the following: survey data, focus groups, individual interviews, and institutional data. Refer to the Statistical Analyses and Qualitative Methods sections for explanations of each. Develop a timeline for your data collection (see Evaluation Plans & Timelines). Institutional approval must be provided by your institution before collecting any student data, in compliance with human subjects research and federal regulations. This consists of submitting approval request from your institution to conduct survey research you’re your REU participants, as well as obtaining individual consent from the participants. Contact your institution’s review board for details. Refer to the toolkit section on IRB & Human Subjects.

  8. Assess

    The results are dependent upon the quality of data that is gathered, so data collection needs to be assessed prior to and throughout collection. When using surveys, obtaining a good rate of return is critical when making inferences about a group of individuals. Whenever possible, rely on previously validated instruments with reliable outcomes to ensure that what you seek to measure is indeed what is being measured and that the instrument is consistent. The URSSA, (Undergraduate Research Student Self-Assessment), has been developed by a Colorado State NSF initiative and is available on this site. This instrument was originally designed for undergraduate course evaluations in Chemistry and has been expanded for customization. Some items and sections may be fitting to your REU site. Refer to Surveys & Instruments.9. Analyze

    Analyze the data you collect by selecting the appropriate methods and individuals. It’s considered good assessment practice to invite both advocates and adversaries of your REU site to review your interpretations and provide insight into implications. The analyses may inform the assessment overall. See Interpretation; Statistical Analyses; Qualitative Methods.

  9. Report Findings

    It is essential to report findings to the community, project successes and lessons learned can be disseminated for knowledge and policy implications. When reporting findings, be sure to consider the audience and set the tone and expectations accordingly. While it is obvious that NSF program managers and the directors of individual projects are key stakeholders in any project, it is important in developing the evaluation design to go beyond these individuals and consider other possible audiences and their needs for information. In all projects, multiple audiences exist. Such audiences may include the REU participants, would-be participants, community members, NSF scientists, school administrators, parents, etc. A detailed report of findings is appropriate for the NSF Fast Lane reporting. An executive summary is more appropriate for institutional leaders and stakeholders. Pamphlets are suitable for the general public and recruiting. Presentations are appropriate for classroom outreach, professional association meetings, and seminars. Papers that address particular outcomes are appropriate for professional association journals and symposiums. Refer to Dissemination.

[This section is an adaptation from the NSF User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation (NSF) and Assessing Campus Diversity Initiatives (see References, Garcia, et al.).]