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Formative evaluation comprises the set of evaluation steps before launch or implementation of an intervention. Formative evaluation includes defining the need for the intervention, developing a ‘best practice’ intervention using available information, consulting with the target population and bringing these stages together into a program plan.

3.1 Formative evaluation: testing methods and materials before starting a project or program of work

Chapters 1 and 2 have shown that the evaluation cycle for a health promotion program starts with the generation of ideas to solve identified public health problems. These ideas may emerge from analysis of the epidemiological information, from previously published scientific literature, from colleagues’ experiences or from other sources. The initial intervention concept needs to be tested and developed. This first stage of evaluation is described as formative evaluation, which is the set of activities designed to define the key elements of an intervention and pre-test intervention materials and methods. This is distinct from process evaluation, which is a subsequent set of activities to assess program implementation (described in Chapter 4).

Formative evaluation occurs as part of program planning and takes place before the intervention is launched; everything that occurs before the start (to the left of the launch in Figure 3.1) is ‘formative’. This comprises the stages from initial concept, through development, testing and refinement to the final planned intervention.

Figure 3.1

Stages showing formative, process and impact/outcome evaluations

In considering program planning in Chapter 1, we recognised that practitioners often find themselves under pressure to deliver an intervention quickly and may neglect the preparatory work required before a project starts. However, formative evaluation is an essential part of good practice in program development.

Formative evaluation normally occurs in consultation with stakeholders and/or with members of the target community. Formative evaluation uses a diverse range of quantitative and qualitative methods to define and test the elements likely to be effective in an intervention.

Several types of activities fall into the category of formative evaluation. These include the following.

  1. Reviewing the problem and assessing previous efforts to address it.

    This is the initial step in formative evaluation and consists of identifying that the problem is of sufficient magnitude and importance in the target population or community to warrant public health intervention. All sources of community and population data can be used here. In addition, non-health data, such as information about the physical environment, existing facilities, socioeconomic deprivation, and local cultural and linguistic groups can all contribute to planning an intervention.

    The next step is reviewing the literature to identify effective ‘good practice’ examples of similar interventions in the literature or to identify research summarising effects across studies (see Box 3.1 and also Chapter 9 for further mention of evidence summaries ...

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