Formative and Summative Evaluation

Two Ways to Evaluate
What every project manager should know

“Formative” and “summative” — terms that sound a little technical and, until you learn the difference, a bit confusing. But grant recipients and project managers should understand these two forms of evaluation and the unique roles they play in any grant-funded project.

In recent newsletters, we’ve discussed evaluation in general, and the language of evaluation.

In a nutshell
Formative and summative evaluations perform discrete but complementary functions.

A formative evaluation examines the way your project is unfolding, or the “form” it is taking: what you’re doing, when you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it. And a summative evaluation (as its name implies) summarizes the impact of what you’ve done, or the results of your project.

It’s about the journey
Formative evaluation (aka process evaluation) focuses on project implementation. It describes how the project operates and what services it delivers. Like a monitoring system, it tracks whether the project is being implemented with fidelity to its original design. When operations are tweaked, formative evaluation documents reasons for the changes.

Typically an ongoing activity during the life of the project, formative evaluation usually involves qualitative measurement instrumentation such as interviews, focus groups, and observations. (Surveys can be used in both formative and summative evaluations.)

It’s about the destination
While formative evaluation addresses how change occurs, summative evaluation (aka outcome evaluation) measures the nature and/or amount of change, including:

  • progress toward desired goals, objectives, and outcomes,
  • interim impacts of a project after a specific period of operation, and
  • overall results of a project’s effort.

Summative evaluation seeks to discover, “What difference did the project make?” and typically uses quantitative instrumentation such as surveys, percentages, and test scores. Quantitative measures can be added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided; objectives or outcomes are usually addressed numerically. “Ten percent more project participants will pass their final exam, relative to baseline from the previous year.”

The summative evaluation is conducted at specific intervals, when data become available, and results may help determine whether the project receives continued funding.

It’s about both
It’s tempting to cut to the chase, concentrating on the percentages, numbers, and “hard evidence” of summative evaluation. But discounting a formative evaluation can be risky.

In its evaluation handbook, the Kellogg Foundation states, “Even well-planned projects need to be fine-tuned in the first months of operation, and … information … continually analyzed to make improvements along the way.” The handbook lists several key functions of the formative evaluation:

By documenting project development and operations, formative evaluation helps uncover what works and what doesn’t. It also facilitates potential replication, and extending operations in other contexts.

Both forms of evaluation are important — summative to document a project’s effectiveness, and formative to boost a project’s chance of success.

For more on evaluation, download our free guide on the subject.


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