The Promise of Internal Evaluation as a Method of Systematic Inquiry for Program and Organizational Improvement in Higher Education
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In an era of greater accountability and fiscal responsibility in higher education, there has been an urgent need for student affairs divisions to evaluate programs and to use findings to inform policy and practice. The purpose of this study was to understand how student affairs professionals conceptualize both the role and practice of evaluation in their work, and the extent to which internal evaluation might be useful as a method of systematic inquiry for program and organizational improvement. This study used the emergent design principles of grounded theory to elucidate how staff and administrators at Queen’s University have applied evaluation practices to understand the programs that support the co-curricular learning and development of post-secondary students. The findings revealed the experiences and perceptions of eight participants from stakeholder groups at various levels of the organizational structure, including those who had direct responsibility for a program and those who had decision-making authority. Participants were under increasing pressure to demonstrate program effectiveness and outcomes. This new requirement for evidence-informed decision-making and continuous improvement provided a strong basis for internal evaluation. Although the participants were starting to measure the quality and impact of programs using performance metrics, they alluded to a movement towards developing a systematic approach to inquiry; establishing the purposes of evaluative inquiry; utilizing, applying, and disseminating findings; and overcoming challenges. This study offers insight into how student affairs divisions can bring evaluative thinking from internal resources and have these resources strategically focused on organizational learning and development. Future research should investigate the ethical complexities of an embedded internal evaluation function.