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from the soapbox - karen vander ven

“Evaluation forms”: Should they be proforma or reformed ?

Have you ever been winding up a workshop either as presenter or participant only to find somebody rushing into the room waving a fistful of paper and importuning, “Here are the evaluation forms. Please have everybody fill out these forms, collect them, and put them in the box on the front desk!”

The spirit of the workshop is vitiated and the flow of activity is interrupted as the forms are hurriedly distributed. Practices involving “evaluation forms” are so ingrained in conference and workshop sponsors, participants, and presenters that we don’t even feel concerned or upset. These are just the way it’s done. What is often left following the “evaluation” process are boxes of unread paper in some agency’s storeroom.

I am reminded of a panel on which I, along with five others, was given eight minutes to present. There was a full page evaluation form for each of us to be completed. It occurred to me that this would take as much time as we had to present!

A psychologist, Dr. Ellen Langer, has written about mental characteristics she calls mindfulness and mindlessness. Mindfulness is when we make planned and informed decisions. Mindlessness is, well, when we do things just because that’s the way they have always been done and because we don’t take context and circumstances into consideration.

I think we are sometimes mindless about the “evaluation“ process that we use: the forms, their content, and how we distribute and retrieve them. How is this so ?

First of all, we focus on the wrong things. The ultimate goal of any training event is to change the knowledge, thinking, and actual practice of the participants. So it would seem that these should be emphasized somewhat more than the logistic aspects of the event.

It seems discourteous to a speaker to have to interrupt the final moments of a presentation to be “evaluated”. Furthermore it alters the meaning of the training experience to the participants. They may have been enjoying and benefiting from the workshop and suddenly, with the presenter still there, they are invited to be critical.

So it’s easy to say that they didn’t think that the presenter was well organized or that the room was properly set up (often beyond a presenter’s control anyway.)

Another factor is whether or not “attendance is required”. When this is the case, some arms-folded attendees are hardly inclined to view the event favorably. Let me hasten to say that I am not against some way of assessing the effectiveness and meaningfulness of a conference or similar event, or of identifying the processes that can lead to positive an lasting outcomes. Also, my experience has been that most workshop participants are quite positive in their attitude towards the workshop itself and any paperwork they are asked to do. I am saying, however, that I think we should be mindful of how we “evaluate” and courteous to those who contribute their knowledge, time and often money as presenters, and to those who make the effort to attend.

So here are some suggestions as to how to handle “evaluations”:

Above all, be mindful. Give some real attention to the how, why, and what of the evaluation. What do you really want or need to know ? What is the best way to secure that information in a way that is dignified and respectful ?

It might help to consider the concept of feedback rather than evaluation. Evaluation is a more long term activity, involving systematically gathering data around specific objectives and processes. Feedback, information about how people construct an experience that is shared with those who provided it, can be valuable and the term has a more positive connotation. Using the feedback concept, organizers might ask presenters, if they would like feedback for their own use, that they design their own way of gathering the information they want, and integrate it into their workshop or presentation.

If organizers really feel they must have a form, then here’s an idea. Give each participant a sheet of paper (perhaps in the conference packet as many already do) and ask the following questions:

No more.

From the Soapbox,