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Toward a Definition of Evaluative Thinking

  • Author(s): Vo, Anne T.
  • Advisor(s): Alkin, Marvin C.
  • et al.
Abstract

The field of evaluation is at a critical juncture as it faces new scrutiny and questions about what constitutes good research and good practice. I argue in this study that if the discipline is to be rooted in a sound empirical foundation, we need a clear understanding of key terms employed by scholars and practitioners alike. In particular, greater clarity concerning the term "evaluative thinking" will allow evaluators to engage in deeper, more meaningful dialogue about their work, thereby advancing and strengthening the field.

This study empirically articulates an operational definition of evaluative thinking by systematically soliciting and analyzing opinion data from 28 evaluation experts using the Delphi technique, an iterative survey method developed by the RAND Corporation. Results across three rounds of survey administration indicate that evaluative thinking is primarily linked to one's use of data and evidence in argumentation and secondarily focused on reasoning and practice in the face of contextual constraints. Thinking evaluatively also requires striking a balance between objectivity, professional judgment, and personal conviction.

With these findings in mind, the study leads to a working definition for evaluative thinking that recognizes it as a particular kind of critical thinking and problem-solving approach that is germane to the evaluation field. Specifically, it is the process by which one marshals evaluative data and evidence to construct arguments that allow one to arrive at contextualized value judgments in a transparent fashion.

In light of these findings, this investigation challenges the idea that evaluation is strictly about determining an evaluand's merit and worth. Rather, it is more productive to recognize that evaluators create knowledge during the evaluative process through the ways in which they address context. As such, the evaluative act and the thinking that accompanies it can--and should--be extended to include considerations for other dimensions that provide a more nuanced understanding of the evaluand and enable one to make evaluative claims about it. Understood in this way, the notion of evaluative thinking anchors the field's sense of professional identity in the goal of solving social problems and in fulfilling an educative function.

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