I was recently rereading Robert Stake’s chapter on Responsive Evaluation in Evaluation Roots when the word “vigorous” jumped off the page at me…not “rigorous” as we are so accustomed to seeing, but “vigorous.” Stake was discussing a seminal paper, The Countenance of Educational Evaluation, published in 1967 (the year I was born!). He wrote, “It was intended to stretch the minds of evaluators toward more vigorous collection of judgments and standards to indicate the merit and shortcomings of the evaluand.” This work evolved into what we now know as Stake’s Responsive Evaluation approach.
- Vigorous is defined as “strong, active, robust.”
- Rigorous is defined as “severely exact or accurate.”
If you are familiar with Responsive Evaluation, you know that it focuses on the experiences and perceptions of program stakeholders, understanding program activities, and understanding the context and culture within which a program lives. A responsive evaluation is organized to investigate key issues and tends to rely on observations and interviews, instead of instruments, indicators, and criteria. The approach has been criticized as putting too much weight on stakeholder accounts. However, as Stake points out, “Part of the program’s description, especially that about the worth of the program, is revealed in how people subjectively perceive what is going on—Placing value on the program is part of experiencing it.”
Let those words sink in. I am still letting them sink in.
So, when considering “vigorous” in the context of evaluation, I think of programs and their evaluations as being alive. Relying on instruments to assign value with precision does not work here. Instead, vigorous evaluation requires deep understanding of program, context, and stakeholders; triangulation; and serious sleuthing. For most (all?) things we evaluate, vigor is not only more important than rigor, but is a prerequisite for it.