Formative Evaluation

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Screenshot of Section 3 in the evaluation toolkit.This is Section 3 of the Evaluation Toolkit
for the TA & D Network. 

Read about the toolkit.

Formative evaluation can help you develop, design, and make improvements to your dissemination efforts. You might, for example, want to make changes or updates to products or materials on specific special education and disability topics; or create new materials; or even find out how you could make some improvements to the current ways you send out information and resources.

More specifically, formative evaluation can be used for:

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Needs assessment

Needs assessment involves finding out, in a systematic way, about the information and resource needs of your target audience groups – as well as the dissemination strategies (e.g., website, trainings and workshops) that are likely to best meet those needs. You might, for example, want to know more about the types of web-based and print resources parents need to better understand the types of school programs most appropriate for their children with autism; or about how a toolkit should be designed to help parents effectively navigate the IEP process; or what the essential content should include in an on-line Response to Intervention training module for special education teachers.

Who are your audiences? | Target audiences typically include the end users or consumers of your dissemination strategies and materials. For TA & D projects, these audiences (who are the direct recipients of dissemination) are often State Education Agency staff, district and school administrators, early childhood educators, teachers, and families of students with disabilities. However, your audiences could also include intermediaries such as other TA & D projects who can help to link your dissemination work to end users and consumers. And don’t forget that other partners, including your project’s advisory group, can provide helpful input about target audience needs.

How to’s | Needs assessment information can be obtained in a number of ways, including conducting interviews or focus groups with a small sample of persons who are representative or “typical” of your target audience group, or with “key informants,” that is, those who are really well informed about topics and issues of concern to you and your target audiences. Less time-intensive methods to gather feedback include posting a brief on-line questionnaire via Survey Monkey, Zoomerang, Constant Contact, etc. that you can link on your project’s website, within project newsletters, attach to products you disseminate, or send out at the conclusion of workshops and presentations.

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Assessing the feasibility of your dissemination plan and specific dissemination methods and materials

Once you have a good understanding of the information, resource, and training needs of your target groups, you will probably want to develop or make adjustments to your dissemination plan. Formative evaluation can be used to gather input and guidance – from target audience members, advisory group members, OSEP staff, or staff from other TA & D Network projects – about the feasibility, quality, relevance, and likely effectiveness of your dissemination plan and strategies.

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Content review

In this strategy, representative or “typical” target audience members or key informants review and provide feedback on your dissemination plan, strategies, materials, and products to ensure that these are appropriate, relevant, of high quality, and likely to be useful and effective.

For example, a small group of special education high school teachers could provide input on a draft webinar design (including the learning objectives, topics, content, and presentation format) on dropout prevention strategies for students with disabilities. Or, experts from each of OSEP’s Regional and National Parent TA Centers could provide feedback on an updated fact sheet regarding parents’ rights under IDEA and other federal disability legislation.

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Pilot testing

Pilot testing involves having a few target audience members – and ideally those that you believe are representative or “typical” of the larger group – participate in a “trial run” of one of your dissemination strategies – such as a webinar, workshop, on-line module, or toolkit.

Pilot test participants could provide comments about their experience using a toolkit or other dissemination product, as well as about its relevance, quality, and potential usefulness. You can use pilot test feedback to tweak and refine your dissemination strategies or products, before taking them to scale for your broader target audience group.

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Suggested citation

This webpage is an excerpt from the evaluation toolkit produced by NICHCY. The suggested citation is:

To the entire toolkit
Sawyer, R. (2012). Toolkit for the OSEP TA & D network on how to evaluate dissemination: A component of the dissemination initiative. Washington, DC: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

To this section/webpage on formative evaluation
Sawyer, R. (2012). Formative evaluation. In Toolkit for the OSEP TA & D network on how to evaluate dissemination: A component of the dissemination initiative (pp. 5-6). Washington, DC: National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

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What section of the toolkit would you like to read now?

Introduction to the Toolkit

An Approach to Evaluating Dissemination

Formative Evaluation (you’re already here!)

Process Evaluation

Summative Evaluation

Data Collection Methods

Focus Groups



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NOTICE: NICHCY is going away, but its resources are not. Find hundreds of legacy NICHCY publications, as well as our training curriculum on IDEA 2004, in the Center for Parent Information and Resources' Library at This website will remain available until September 30, 2014. After that date, web visitors will be automatically redirected to