Formative Evaluation

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Leslie Pal (2014, reference below) defines formative evaluation as evaluation designed to support development and improvement of a program as it is being implemented.

A more detailed definition is that by Steller et al (2006, reference below):

“Formative evaluation … is herein defined as a rigorous assessment process designed to identify potential and actual influences on the progress and effectiveness of implementation efforts. Formative evaluation enables researchers to explicitly study the complexity of implementation projects and suggests ways to answer questions about context, adaptations, and response to change.”

The Center for Disease Control (reference below) describes the role of formative evaluation as that of ensuring that a program or program activity is feasible, appropriate, and acceptable before it is fully implemented noting that it is usually conducted when a new program or activity is being developed or when an existing one is being adapted or modified.

Formative vs summative program evaluation

In program evaluation a formative evaluation can be contrasted with a summative evaluation. The Government of New South Wales (reference below) defines the difference as follows:

“The classic comparison, by Professor Robert Stake, is “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the customer tastes it, that’s summative”.

Formative evaluation refers to evaluation conducted to inform decisions about improvement. It can provide information on how the program might be developed (for new programs) or improved (for both new and existing programs). It is often done during program implementation to inform ongoing improvement, usually for an internal audience. Formative evaluations use process evaluation but can also include outcome evaluation, particularly to assess interim outcomes.

Summative evaluation refers to evaluation to inform decisions about continuing, terminating or expanding a program. It is often conducted after a program is completed (or well underway) to present an assessment to an external audience.  Although summative evaluation generally reports when the program has been running long enough to produce results, it should be initiated during the program design phase. Summative evaluations often use outcome evaluation and economic evaluation but could use process evaluation, especially where there are concerns or risks around program processes.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Evaluation and the Policy Cycle (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Cheryl B Stetler et al. (2006), The Role of Formative Evaluation in Implementation Research and the QUERI Experience, Journal of General Internal Medicine, February, 21 (Suppl 2): S1-S8 at, accessed 3 December 2018.

Center or Disease Control, Types of Evaluation, at, accessed 3 December 2018.

NSW Government, Premier & Cabinet, 2. Develop the evaluation brief, Evaluation Toolkit, at, accessed 3 December 2018.

Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified 3 December 2018.

Image: Emily Burritt’s E-Portfolio, Formative and Summative Evaluation, at, accessed 3 December 2018.