Having worked as both institutional researchers and external evaluators, we want to share how the relationships between the institutional researcher, grant director, and external evaluator can influence the success of an external evaluation. Our points have to do with both the process and the experiences of the evaluator and researcher.

1. Plant the seeds for fruitful relationships during the grant planning process.

We’ve seen time and again the positive effects when grant directors see the value of their institutional researchers, make it a point to know and include them, and ask for their input.

Speaking from our experience, most researchers don’t want to be relegated to the role of data provider; they want to be valued for their research expertise and given opportunities to contribute to the evaluation process. Invite the researcher to grant meetings. While they may not be able to attend all meetings, being invited and included matters.

2. Once funded, hold a kickoff meeting that cultivates collaboration and collegiality.

In this first meeting, it’s critical that all three roles-researcher, evaluator, and grant director-are present. We have also found it helpful when:

    • The grant director acts as a facilitator and makes introductions.
    • Background materials, data requests, and available institutional resources to support the grant are shared.
    • Roles, expectations, and the best ways to interact and communicate are clearly outlined.

After the kickoff, we recommend grant directors check in regularly with both the evaluator and the researcher, together and separately, to review the evaluation plan, ensure data needs are being met, and step in to assist or intervene as necessary.

3. Co-create an evaluation plan that includes as much detail and flexibility as possible, shares it early, and provides the opportunity for input.

It helps when the evaluator and grant director develop an evaluation plan that specifies not only what data are needed, but when these data are needed and for what purpose. They should then share the plan (still in draft form) with the researcher and welcome the researcher’s expertise and input. After all, researchers know the data, the best ways to collect data, and what data are available–all critical pieces for a successful evaluation. Moreover, having this plan well in advance allows the researcher to build any needed provisions into their timelines and create systems and templates to support the grant’s data and reporting needs.

4. Help the researcher understand the needs and challenges of evaluators.

External evaluators are not able to directly access the information they need and must rely almost entirely on the researchers to access and collect data. This level of reliance can be uncomfortable and frustrating for both evaluators and researchers, but especially for evaluators, because they are held responsible regardless. Researchers who are responsive and collaborative help ease those times when the evaluator must ask for updates multiple times.

As a final note, we learned these lessons after years of working together in our roles as evaluator and researcher. When collaboration, consideration, and synergy were present, the grant program benefited by having information from within and outside that informed and improved its efforts.

The icing on the cake is we’ve been able to extend our relationship into new ventures at our current organization, where we’ve worked together over the last six years to promote student success and equity across a variety of different projects.


About the Authors

Darla Cooper

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Executive Director, The Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges (RP Group)

Dr. Darla M. Cooper is the executive director of the Research and Planning Group for the California Community Colleges (RP Group). Dr. Cooper has worked in the California Community Colleges system for over 20 years, having previously held institutional research positions at three colleges. She led Student Support (Re)defined and is currently co-directing Through the Gate. Both are landmark projects that examine what supports student success. Dr. Cooper has worked on the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence and the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Pathways Project. She holds degrees from University of California, San Diego and the University of Southern California.

Alyssa Nguyen

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Director of Research and Evaluation, The Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges (RP Group)

Alyssa Nguyen is director of research and evaluation for the Research and Planning Group for the California Community Colleges (RP Group) and has worked in the California Community College system for over 10 years. Ms. Nguyen has worked on a variety of system-wide projects, including the Multiple Measures Assessment, which identified effective placement models utilizing multiple measures, and Through the Gate, a study that examines what levers promote transfer. Ms. Nguyen is a California Community College graduate, having earned an AA in liberal studies at College of the Redwoods and a BA and MA in psychology at Humboldt State University.

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