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A comparison of linear and systems thinking approaches for program evaluation illustrated using the Indiana Interdisciplinary GK-12


  • Dyehouse, Melissa
  • Bennett, Deborah
  • Harbor, Jon
  • Childress, Amy
  • Dark, Melissa


Logic models are based on linear relationships between program resources, activities, and outcomes, and have been used widely to support both program development and evaluation. While useful in describing some programs, the linear nature of the logic model makes it difficult to capture the complex relationships within larger, multifaceted programs. Causal loop diagrams based on a systems thinking approach can better capture a multidimensional, layered program model while providing a more complete understanding of the relationship between program elements, which enables evaluators to examine influences and dependencies between and within program components. Few studies describe how to conceptualize and apply systems models for educational program evaluation. The goal of this paper is to use our NSF-funded, Interdisciplinary GK-12 project: Bringing Authentic Problem Solving in STEM to Rural Middle Schools to illustrate a systems thinking approach to model a complex educational program to aid in evaluation. GK-12 pairs eight teachers with eight STEM doctoral fellows per program year to implement curricula in middle schools. We demonstrate how systems thinking provides added value by modeling the participant groups, instruments, outcomes, and other factors in ways that enhance the interpretation of quantitative and qualitative data. Limitations of the model include added complexity. Implications include better understanding of interactions and outcomes and analyses reflecting interacting or conflicting variables.

Suggested Citation

  • Dyehouse, Melissa & Bennett, Deborah & Harbor, Jon & Childress, Amy & Dark, Melissa, 2009. "A comparison of linear and systems thinking approaches for program evaluation illustrated using the Indiana Interdisciplinary GK-12," Evaluation and Program Planning, Elsevier, vol. 32(3), pages 187-196, August.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:epplan:v:32:y:2009:i:3:p:187-196

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Cabrera, Derek & Colosi, Laura & Lobdell, Claire, 2008. "Systems thinking," Evaluation and Program Planning, Elsevier, vol. 31(3), pages 299-310, August.
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    Cited by:

    1. Kirsi Hyttinen & Sampsa Ruutu & Mika Nieminen & Faiz Gallouj & Marja Toivonen, 2014. "A system dynamic and multi-criteria evaluation of innovations in environmental services," ECONOMICS AND POLICY OF ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT, FrancoAngeli Editore, vol. 2014(3), pages 29-52.
    2. Guerra-López, Ingrid & Toker, Sacip, 2012. "An application of the Impact Evaluation Process for designing a performance measurement and evaluation framework in K-12 environments," Evaluation and Program Planning, Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 222-235.
    3. Hassmiller Lich, Kristen & Urban, Jennifer Brown & Frerichs, Leah & Dave, Gaurav, 2017. "Extending systems thinking in planning and evaluation using group concept mapping and system dynamics to tackle complex problems," Evaluation and Program Planning, Elsevier, vol. 60(C), pages 254-264.
    4. Gates, Emily F., 2016. "Making sense of the emerging conversation in evaluation about systems thinking and complexity science," Evaluation and Program Planning, Elsevier, vol. 59(C), pages 62-73.
    5. Morrow, Nathan & Nkwake, Apollo M., 2016. "Conclusion: Agency in the face of complexity and the future of assumption-aware evaluation practice," Evaluation and Program Planning, Elsevier, vol. 59(C), pages 154-160.
    6. Kirsi Hyytinen & FaÏz Gallouj & Marja Toivonen, 2014. "A multi-criteria and multi-actor perspective for the evaluation of sustainability services," Post-Print halshs-01133963, HAL.


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