The Importance of How We Define Evaluation with Amy Gullickson

Importance of How We Define Evaluation with Amy Gullickson

In this interview, I speak with Amy Gullickson, acting Co-Director and Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Program Evaluation at Melbourne Graduate School of Education. She is also Chair of the International Society for Evaluation Education. We talk about what is the best definition of evaluation and why it is important to have a clear definition. Amy also gives us some of her specific resources for people just starting to learn evaluation.

What is Amy’s definition of evaluation?

Amy explained that it’s important for us to think about the implications of the definition. She does that in detail in her article titled, The Whole Elephant: Defining Evaluation.

She indicates that evaluation is the generation of a credible and systematic determination of merit, worth, and/or significance of an object through the application of defensible criteria and standards to demonstrably relevant empirical facts.

Amy states that it is the implications of the definitions that are important – it’s worth exploring what you (or your clients, or stakeholders) think evaluation is. That will shape what they expect you to deliver, and what may or may not be appropriate.

Amy believes a definition of evaluation must include valuation. This is our task as evaluators and has been overshadowed by social science research. We’ve got much work to do to become as informed (and have as much empirical evidence about what good looks like) in our valuation practice as we are in our research practice.



Why Amy thinks it’s important to have a clear definition of evaluation

People often think evaluation and research are the same things. Amy talks to me about why it is clear to understand the difference and have a clear definition. Amy gives an example, if you are trying to find the value of p (probability of a type I error), how big was the change? But evaluation asks, “so what?” Did it actually reach the people that are most important? Was it big enough to make a difference? Does that p value actually mean anything?

The task defines the knowledge, skills, and attributes that are necessary to accomplish it. If evaluation is just applied social science, then there’s no need to have skills and knowledge related to valuation.

Amy thinks this is a significant flaw in common evaluation practice. You might not get to summative judgment every time (and for good reasons- it might not be appropriate to do so), but if we take the valuation process out of the definition, then we are allowing the implicit values of the most powerful to determine what good is, what evidence is. Then we become complicit in upholding systems that oppress the global majority, in effect, giving our blessing to programs and systems that actually create harm. Amy explains this is exactly counter to what most people say they aspire to when they engage in evaluation.



How Amy believes evaluator competencies relate to how someone might define evaluation

Most competency sets have more than 60 competencies (Amy tells us the Australian Evaluation Society has 94). Canada has decided that anyone who can demonstrate an acceptable level of skill on a percentage in each domain can be credentialed as an evaluator. But are all competencies equally important? Are all competencies equally unique to evaluation? What we emphasize in terms of training or educating evaluators rests on the competencies that are essential to its practice. What makes an evaluation different than social science research? Valuation.

What makes evaluators different from researchers, or general organizational consultants? The ability to provide explicit, clear, evidenced reasoning for valuation claims.



Amy’s thoughts on evaluation being a profession that requires licensing or credentials to practice

Amy believes the profession of evaluation should require a license and credentials. But that will be a long time coming to the US. Voluntary organizations of Professional Evaluators (VOPEs) in smaller countries will do it first (e.g., Canada.) Evaluation is at the top end of the cognitive taxonomies (Bloom’s, SOLO) and it is deeply and intrinsically political. But because everyone does it to get dressed in the morning, we seem to think anyone can do it in their professional life. This seems fundamentally foolish and also increases the possibility that evaluation will do harm.



What students can bring to their future work of evaluation

Amy indicated that criteria are always present in the collection of evidence and in decision making. Be the person who asks questions about what makes the organization, program, project, or system you’re working on or in good – and how would you know that? (with what evidence?)

Learn how to recognize good evaluation and advocate for it in your workplace and community (i.e., know whether you need research and/or valuation, don’t conflate the two). Be an educated commissioner or consumer. 



Lessons that inform your evaluation work

What we need to be looking at is what are the lessons from other disciplines that we need to improve our work? Evaluation is a trans-discipline. We have a contribution to make to all the other disciplines in their pursuit of good, and the skills and knowledge they’ve developed can contribute to ours. Look at the competency sets – they cover all kinds of skills and knowledge that other disciplines have been studying and training people to do for years. Why would we stick with only social science research methods?



Improving the world with evaluation – tackling fake news, climate change, and social inequities

Amy pointed to the importance of being explicit about what makes something – something, and what makes that something good – and asking questions about it. Genuine, naive curiosity in pursuit of answers to those questions can be powerful.

Let’s take the pro-life movement in the US. What is meant by a pro-life candidate? That they don’t support abortion. A good candidate is one that believes every fetus should live. This implies that life = fetus.

As many critics have discussed, if we assume a broader definition of “life”, it would probably encompass all human and non-human life. For humans, that would mean being “pro” things like health care (including mental health care), a living wage, decent housing, and protection from harm within or from the systems of government. For the planet, that would mean restoring habitat, natural systems like marshes, cutting fossil fuel dependency, and generally all the actions needed to reverse climate change. COVID-19 has kick-started us down that path by reducing pollution – can we maintain it?  

Good evaluation asks us to check our definitions – 1. What are the boundaries we are setting around a thing (like “life” – what counts as life and what doesn’t?); and 2. What are the definitions of good for that thing, look for values and criteria – (e.g,  – how would we know that “life” is good for everyone?)



Mindfulness and Evaluation

Amy has found that meditation is a good way to be able to take a research stance on her own functioning and get less caught up in the monkey mind and more able to keep a clear head. You’ve got to know your default functioning to be able to have any chance of avoiding it – and to use it to your advantage.

Amy’s recommendations for people just starting to learn evaluation

 Special issues of journals related to evaluation education and values in evaluation:;

Connect with Amy

Amy Gullickson on LinkedIn

Twitter: @amyg4ce


James Pann smiling at the camera, sitting in front of green trees

James Pann, Ph.D. is a Professor at Nova Southeast University and a highly experienced psychologist and evaluator with nearly 25 years of experience. He conducts research and evaluation projects with non-profit organizations in the fields of health, human services, and education, and has received funding from multiple government agencies.

James holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, an M.S. Ed. from the University of Miami, and a BBA in Accounting from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the host of the EvalNetwork podcast, a frequent conference presenter, and has published several peer-reviewed research articles and co-authored a book. James currently resides in Miami, Florida with his family and enjoys backpacking trips. Find out more about his work here.


Retrospective pretest designs

The Power of Retrospective Pretests to Address Common Survey Research Challenges

James Pann interviews Melanie Hwalek, Ph.D., a program evaluation consultant, to discuss the retrospective pretest (RPT) design, focusing on its practical applications and the findings from her recent research detailed in the paper, “Designing a Questionnaire with Retrospective PrePost Items: Format Matters.” RPT is particularly useful for evaluating changes in participants’ perceptions or self-assessments following

Read More »
How to Determine the Impact of Your Mindfulness Program

Program Evaluation of Mindfulness Projects Using the CIPP Framework and Logic Models

Introduction Mindfulness practices have a rich history, largely rooted in ancient Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and spread to the West through cultural exchange and immigration. From its influence on 19th-century Transcendentalists to its modern applications in medicine, education, and business, mindfulness has evolved into a widely recognized and practiced approach for stress reduction and holistic

Read More »
Empowerment Evaluation

Empowering Change: David Fetterman on Using Evaluation to Build a Better World

David Fetterman is a leading expert in empowerment evaluation, an approach that emphasizes collaboration, participation, and capacity building. He has written extensively on the topic, and his work has been used in a wide range of settings, including government agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses. David focuses on helping people evaluate their programs and initiatives. Moreover,

Read More »