Three Questions for Evaluative Thinking

Evaluative thinking is at the heart of evaluation, yet it’s remarkably challenging to do in practice. To help strengthen those evaluative neural pathways, we offer some questions to aid you in developing your evaluative thinking skills.

To begin, let’s first look at this odd concept of ‘evaluative thinking’.

Tom Grayson’s recent post on the AEA 365 Blog looked at this topic more closely and provided a useful summary of some of the definitions of the term commonly in use. In its simplest term: evaluative thinking is what we do when we think about things from an evaluation perspective, which is to say, a point of view that considers the merit, worth, and significance of something.

Like many simple things, there is much complexity on the other side of this topic. While we have many methods and tools that can aid us in the process of doing an evaluation, engaging in the evaluative thinking supporting it is actually far more challenging. To help foster evaluative thinking we suggest asking three simple questions:

What is going on?

This question is about paying attention and doing so with an understanding of perspective. Asking this question gets you to focus on the many things that might be happening within a program and the context around it. It gets you to pay attention to the activities, actors, and relationships that exist between them by simple observation and listening. By asking this question you also can start to empathize with those engaged in the program.


What is going on for [ ] person?

What is going on in [ ] situation?

What is going on when I step back and look at it all together? 

Inquiring about what is going on enlists one of the evaluator’s most powerful assets: curiosity.

By starting to pay attention and question what is going on around you in the smallest and most mundane activities through to those common threads across a program, you will start to see things you never noticed before and took for granted. This opens up possibilities to see connections, relationships, and potential opportunities that were previously hidden.

What’s new?

Asking about what is new is a way to build on the answers from the first question. By looking at what is new, we start to see what might be elements of movement and change. It allows us to identify where things are shifting and where the ‘action’ might be within a program. Most of what we seek in social programs is change — improvements in something, reductions in something else — and sometimes these changes aren’t obvious. Sometimes they are so small that we can’t perceive them unless we pause and look and listen.

There are many evaluation methods that can detect change, however, asking the question about what’s new can help you to direct an evaluation toward the methods that are best suited to capturing this change clearly. Asking this question also amplifies your attentive capacity, which is enormously important for evaluation in detecting large and small changes (because often small changes can have big effects in complex systems like those in human services).

What does it mean?

This last question is about sensemaking. It’s about understanding the bigger significance of something in relation to your enterprise. There can be a lot happening and a lot changing within a program, but it might not mean a whole lot to the overall enterprise. Conversely, there can be little to nothing happening, which can be enormously important for an organization by demonstrating poor effects of an intervention or program or, in the case of prevention-based programs, show success.

This question also returns us to empathy and encourages some perspective-taking by getting us to consider what something means for a particular person or audience.  A system (like an organization or program) looks different from where you sit in relation to it. Managers will have a different perspective than that of front-line staff, which is different for clients and customers, and different yet from funders or investors. The concept of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ is judged from the perspective of the viewer and a program may be wildly successful from one perspective (e.g., easy to administer for a manager) and a failure from another (e.g., relatively low return on investment from a funder’s point of view).

This question also affords an opportunity to get a little philosophical about the ‘big picture’. It allows program stakeholders to inquire about what the bigger ‘point’ of a program or service is. Many programs, once useful and effective, can lose their relevance over time due to new entrants to a market or environment, shifting conditions, or changes in the needs of the population served. By not asking this question, there is a risk that a program won’t realize it needs to adapt until it is too late.


By asking these three simple questions you can kick-start your evaluation and innovation work and better strengthen your capacity to think evaluatively.

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

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