When it comes to understanding the effectiveness of programs or initiatives, two terms that are often used interchangeably are “research” and “evaluation.” While both are important for gathering information and making informed decisions, their differences are not always clear. Whether you're a program manager, academic researcher, or just interested in learning more about these concepts - this article is sure to provide valuable insights.
Research vs evaluation: What's the difference?
The largest difference between research and evaluation projects are the questions you intend to answer. Research is often focused on experimental and exploratory questions, while evaluation questions are broader & focus on overall effectiveness and impact of an effort. Traditionally, research involves collecting more quantitative data (i.e., numbers), while evaluation often leans more heavily on collecting qualitative data (i.e., narrative). However, the best research and evaluation projects involve both qualitative and quantitative data.
What is research?
Research is used to develop knowledge or theories about a particular subject. A “research study” investigates a question, problem, or phenomenon. Research uses many different data collection methods, such as surveys, observations, interviews, and more. Research can be conducted in various fields or sectors, including public health, social science, psychology, education, and more! The primary aim of research is to expand knowledge & generate new insights into a particular area to make more informed decisions.
What is evaluation?
Evaluation, on the other hand, is used to assess effectiveness, impact, or value of a program, policy, initiative, or service. An evaluator collects and analyzes data to determine whether the program or initiative achieved its intended goals or outcomes, its cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and if it was implemented correctly. The primary aim of evaluation is to provide feedback and recommendations for planning, implementing, and improving programs and initiatives. At Strategic Prevention Solutions, evaluation is approached by working alongside an agency and rooted in understanding the context of the project & community, and values using local expertise to inform best practices and recommendations for the project.
Data collection methods for research and evaluation
Research and evaluation often use similar methods to collect data. However, as stated above, whether you’re conducting research or evaluation is mostly determined by the questions you intend to answer. Some common methods (with examples) for research and evaluation include:
Method of Data Collection
Gathers frequency of experiences from individuals
Gathers feedback from participants on their experience in a program
"How often do individuals with lack of transportation visit the doctor?"
"To what extent was the program useful for participants in achieving their goals?
Interviews & Focus Groups
Provides an understanding of experiences within a group of people
Provides insights into the impact of an initiative
"Why do some individuals have a lack of access to transportation?"
"To what extent did the program change participants behavior?"
Reviews reports and written documents to understand experiences or events
Reviews comment cards to improve presentations
"What level of servity in health conditions do individuals without transportation visit the doctor?"
"What feedback do participants have on the presentation topic or speakers?"
Observes the behaviors of a group of people
Observes the facilitation of a pilot program
"What is the participants experience like in the doctors office?
"What are the interactions between facilitators and participants like?"
Examples of Research and Evaluation
The following examples can help illustrate the differences between research and evaluation:
Research: A researcher is interested in understanding following question: What is the impact of fatigue and burnout in social workers, such as staff turnover and negative client outcomes? They conduct a survey and host interviews with social workers who provide insight into their scheduling, workplace environment, staffing, client experiences, and their physical and mental health. The researcher analyzes the data to pick out themes across experiences. After analyzing the qualitative and quantitative data, they can determine whether staffing and workplace environment have an impact on fatigue and burnout – which may lead to staff turnover and negative client outcomes.
Evaluation: A program manager is interested in assessing the following question: What is the effectiveness of a new job training program to reduce staff turnover? They gather feedback from program participants through surveys and interviews to assess their experiences and opinions in the training program. They also consider program outcomes, such as job placement rates, salary increases, performance reviews, and duration of employment to determine whether the program is achieving its intended goals.
In both of these examples, the approach used is tailored to the specific questions being asked. Research is used to answer a specific scientific question, while evaluation is used to assess the effectiveness of a program or initiative.
Understanding the importance of research and evaluation in decision-making
Research and evaluation evidence are critical to help decision-makers understand a problem and make adjustments to better address needs. Utilizing research and evaluation in decision-making can help with the following:
Determining the need for funding and other resources
Deciding how to allocate funding, resources, programs, and services
Eliminating ineffective activities
Creating and adjusting policies and procedures
Planning and Improvement
Developing Continuous Quality Improvement Measures
Directing future efforts and initiatives