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Layered Learning and Evaluation Anxiety

By Emily Becher, Research Associate

Throughout my brief career as a student, academic, researcher and evaluator, one theme has emerged: I’m not as smart as I thought I was!

When I was younger, I thought that intelligence or smarts was measured by my ability to grasp complex ideas and thoughts. If I wasn’t able to grasp an idea quickly and easily, it meant that I wasn’t gifted in that particular area and I should move along to something else. A quote my dad my often shared with me would bubble up at the back of my mind: “Genius manifests itself.” I took this to mean that if I was good at something, it would be obvious from the beginning.

However, over the years, I’ve learned that this just isn’t true — at least for me.

I need context to apply learning and often the type of learning that I’m pursuing requires layers: I learn something new, I think about it, I apply it, I reflect on it, and then and only then can I learn something that builds upon that previous layer.

It doesn't take me a literal geologic age to learn new things, but sometimes it feels like it!

I think evaluation falls into this “layered learning” category. I think many people are intimidated by all they don’t know about evaluation. This anxiety about not knowing when we think others expect us to “have the answers” has stopped me in meetings from asking a question about something that I feel like I should have learned long ago. But then this traps me and I get stuck in a layer of learning and I can’t level up even though I so badly want to. Then I get discouraged and I can start thinking, “I’m just not good at this,” “This isn’t where I’m meant to shine,” “This isn’t for me” — and I stop growing.

I share this because I’m on a journey to learn and grow, and maybe you are too. And now I’m going to share something that feels kind of shameful: I’ve never taken a class on evaluation! I have a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy degree and a Ph.D. in Family Social Science. I learned lots about research and clinical interventions in my academic training. However, everything I know about evaluation has been hands-on training starting in 2011 as a graduate student on the Applied Research and Evaluation Team with Mary Marczak, director of evaluation.

So to the point of leveling up in my chosen profession, I’ve taken on a professional development goal of reading and digesting some of the great evaluation texts of our time. Not just reading a chapter here or there, but the whole thing. And I’m going to share some of what I’m learning with all of you! I invite anyone out there with evaluation anxiety to come along on this journey with me. Let’s be vulnerable about what we don’t know and when we don’t understand a term or acronym that someone throws around in a meeting (including me!). Let’s challenge our colleagues to help us understand in greater depth their thinking, and let’s go back to the beginning to learn more, even when we feel we should have started this journey long ago.

We're all on this life adventure together. Let's help each other out.

The first book I’m reading is Essentials of Utilization-Focused Evaluation (2012) by Michael Quinn Patton. I’ll be writing a blog post about this book for the beginning of April. If you want to join me in my reading and thinking, send me an email at and we can start a little evaluation book club. Let me know!

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