Types of program evaluation

Formative and Summative Program Evaluation

Program evaluation can be confusing. Not only are there different types of program evaluation, but different people use different terms to mean different things – or the same thing! (As if there wasn’t enough confusion already!)

Although evaluations often share a similar purpose – to inform decision making about future program development, planning and delivery – they all differ in terms of what they cover and when they happen.

For simplicity, we’re limiting this to the two of the most commonly used terms to describe the many types of evaluations:

  • formative evaluation
  • summative evaluation.

Formative Evaluation

Formative evaluation is typically conducted during the program period to improve or assess the program delivery or implementation. With a formative evaluation, you have the opportunity to apply your learnings as you go. The term formative evaluation can also refer to evaluation activities involving the design or development of a program.

Figure 1 shows other terms which may be used to describe formative evaluation.

Summative Evaluation

Typically occurs at the end of a program with a retrospective and holistic scope that assesses all program aspects including delivery, activities, impacts and outcomes. This form of evaluation helps make judgements of the program’s overall success in terms of its:

  • Effectiveness – were the intended outcomes achieved?
  • Efficiency – were resources used cost-effectively?
  • Appropriateness – was the program a suitable way to address the needs of the group targeted by the program?

Figure 2 shows other terms which may be used to describe summative evaluation.


Which type do you need to consider?

This depends entirely on the objectives of your evaluation: are you looking at making a sudden, short-term improvement in a particular area, or a longer-term, broader impact? Many program managers find a combination of both works best for them.

Talking the same language

As you can see, there are different types of program evaluation and different terminologies to describe them. It will be up to you to choose the type of evaluation, based on your program management needs.

Whichever you choose, it’s vital that the entire project team – internal and external – is aligned on the evaluation purpose, type, and terminology being used. This way you can ensure buy-in and manage expectations from the get-go.