Core elements in theory-driven evaluation

Huey Chen (1990) solved many issues that are still endlessly discussed in evaluation, e.g., the role of stakeholder theories versus social science theories and the different ways theories can be tested. Here’s a useful summary of core elements of a theory-driven approach (Coryn et al., 2011, Table 1, p. 205):

1. Theory-driven evaluations/evaluators should formulate a plausible program theory

a. Formulate program theory from existing theory and research (e.g., social science theory)

b. Formulate program theory from implicit theory (e.g., stakeholder theory)

c. Formulate program theory from observation of the program in operation/exploratory research (e.g., emergent theory)

d. Formulate program theory from a combination of any of the above (i.e., mixed/integrated theory)

2. Theory-driven evaluations/evaluators should formulate and prioritize evaluation questions around a program theory

a. Formulate evaluation questions around program theory

b. Prioritize evaluation questions

3. Program theory should be used to guide planning, design, and execution of the evaluation under consideration of relevant contingencies

a. Design, plan, and conduct evaluation around a plausible program theory

b. Design, plan, and conduct evaluation considering relevant contingencies (e.g., time, budget, and use)

c. Determine whether evaluation is to be tailored (i.e., only part of the program theory) or comprehensive

4. Theory-driven evaluations/evaluators should measure constructs postulated in program theory

a. Measure process constructs postulated in program theory

b. Measure outcome constructs postulated in program theory

c. Measure contextual constructs postulated in program theory

5. Theory-driven evaluations/evaluators should identify breakdowns, side effects, determine program effectiveness (or efficacy), and explain cause-and-effect associations between theoretical constructs

a. Identify breakdowns, if they exist (e.g., poor implementation, unsuitable context, and theory failure)

b. Identify anticipated (and unanticipated), unintended outcomes (both positive and negative) not postulated by program theory

c. Describe cause-and-effect associations between theoretical constructs (i.e., causal description)

d. Explain cause-and-effect associations between theoretical constructs (i.e., causal explanation)

i. Explain differences in direction and/or strength of relationship between program and outcomes attributable to moderating factors/variables

ii. Explain the extent to which one construct (e.g., intermediate outcome) accounts for/mediates the relationship between other constructs

References

Chen, H. T. (1990). Theory-driven evaluations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Coryn, C. L. S., Noakes, L. A., Westine, C. D., & SchrΓΆter, D. C. (2011). A systematic review of theory-driven evaluation practice from 1990 to 2009. American Journal of Evaluation, 32(2), 199–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/1098214010389321