Using “Results Chains” and understanding your program's "theory of change"

Thinking critically about your program and what you want to accomplish is time well spent. Using “results chains” is an excellent way to focus your thinking in a logical manner. The results chains process also will help ensure that you do not skip important steps when providing knowledge and skills to your participants.

 “Results chains” are visual ways to depict your program’s “theory of change” -- that is, the outcomes you would like to see in your participants as a result of participating in your program. Specific outcomes are similar to well written objectives -- they identify the “desired future condition” for your participants.

Don’t be overwhelmed by these terms. Both the terms, and the processes, are useful in helping you plan effective programs by assisting you with systematically thinking about what your program seeks to accomplish.

Figure 3. Sample results chain for a pan fish training program

Using panfish training as an example, your ultimate outcome is that your participants become conservation supporters and license buyers by being independent, long-term anglers. However, there are numerous mid-term outcomes a person needs to achieve before he/she can become an independent, long-term angler.

Examples of fishing related mid-term outcomes include:

  • Participant must believe that fishing meets his/her needs and matches his/her motivations
  • Participant must become reasonably proficient with their fishing equipment
  • Participant must understand panfish behavior well enough to find fish
  • Participants must be able to process panfish in the field so that it can be turned into high-quality food

All of these items are educational outcomes that need to be achieved, at some level, in order for a participant to advance to the next educational outcome.

In this example, your program’s “theory of change” is the combination of all of your mid-term and long-term outcomes rolled up into a sequence of learning.  A “results chain” visually shows your program’s “theory of change” and identifies skills, knowledge, or other conditions that need to be met along the way in order to achieve your desired long-term outcomes (such as having the “right instructors,” and having the program meet the needs and motivations of the participants).

Results chains are best read, and/or thought of, in an “IF…THEN” manner.  In this example:

  • IF “food-motivated” non-anglers attend your program, THEN they will receive pan fishing instruction, social support (from other novice anglers and instructors), or other needed support
  • IF they receive pan fishing instruction and support, and interact with others with similar interests, THEN they will learn pan fishing knowledge and skills and increase their comfort level with fishing for panfish
  • IF they have pan fishing knowledge and skills, and increase their angling confidence, THEN the program meets the needs and motivations of the participants
  • IF the program meets the needs and motivations of the participants, THEN the participants will go fishing on their own
  • IF the participants go fishing, THEN the participants will experience success and be more motivated to participate in other fishing-related activities
  • IF participants participate in other fishing-related activities, THEN they will continue to fish

Using this thought process, while not perfect, will encourage you to think about each of these steps as a precursor to the next step. Doing so will help you answer questions about what knowledge, skills, or other support a person needs. It is critical to understand if participants need additional skills and knowledge, social support, and/or if they are confident enough in their own angling abilities, so that they can advance to the next step. Taking the time to answer these questions will help you to build a curriculum and identify the content of each session to ensure that participants receive the information, skills, or other support they need. 

In addition, results chains also help identify where (and what) you should measure to gauge your participants' progress (i.e., evaluate your program) so that you know that they are learning the necessary content and skills, and gaining the necessary confidence to be able to fish on their own. Build in time to have participants ask questions and review content, as well as to interact with instructors and each other, to ensure they are progressing as intended. See Key concepts of adult learning for more information.

It may be helpful to design your program in reverse. In other words, think about what you want to accomplish as your long-term outcomes first. And then, think about what will need to happen, or what a person needs to know, or be able to do, or understand right before they reach that long-term outcome. Continue your program planning by thinking about what the precursor is to the particular outcome you want to achieve at each step along the way.

For example if you want to achieve “Z” at the end of your program, the best way to have your participants achieve this step is becoming proficient in “Y.” To achieve “Y” they need to become proficient in “X,” and so on. When the pieces are put together, teaching and learning “X” is a precursor to teaching and learning “Y,” and teaching and learning “Y” is a precursor to teaching and learning “Z.” Remember, achieving proficiency for any one of these steps involves participants building confidence in their skills and knowledge, within a nurturing social support system. 

For additional information about creating and using results chains, see Conservation Measures Partnership’s The Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation.

Using Results Chains to Identify Measurable Objectives And Indicators Of Success

One of the advantages of using results chains to plan your program and your program outcomes is that this process also helps identify “indicators of success,” which in turn helps you identify the types of questions you will need to ask to evaluate your effort.

For example, the first “box” in the pan fishing results chain is “Non-angling locavores attend program.” For this step, an indicator of success would be whether or not your participants are: a) non-anglers, and b) if they are locavores. By focusing on these two criteria, you would be able to determine the “Percentage of attendees who are non–anglers or who “are locavores.” Identifying the percentage of attendees that meet these two criteria will determine whether the “right audience” attended your program.

What an acceptable percentage of these two criteria and what the specific definitions of these two criteria are is up to you. As an example, you may set an objective for the “right audience” as, “ 70% of attendees will not have gone fishing (or alternatively, not have purchased a fishing license) within the past five years.”  This objective identifies and defines the measurable item (a non-angler), as well as sets the goal you want to obtain. Collecting this information will determine if you have attracted the “right audience” and whether you marketing/advertising efforts are on target.  

Creating indicators for success for the second “box”  (Participants learn pan fishing skills and knowledge) is more complex because there are more elements involved, but the process is similar.  In this situation, you may select items such as the ability to tie a certain fishing knot (a skill) or identify likely fish habitat (knowledge). These items could be measured by direct observation while people are actually fishing, or measured indirectly by a survey using a self-assessed “confidence–scale.”  As an example, you may set an objective for fishing skills and knowledge as, “At the end of the program, 70% of attendees will be able to successfully tie “X” knot.” Or, “At the end of the program, 70% of attendees will rate their confidence to be able to successfully tie X knot at “very confident” or above.”  This objective identifies and defines the measurable item (tying a knot), as well as sets the goal you want to obtain within a specified time frame.  Identifying other specific skills or knowledge will allow you to measure the outcomes of providing this training. Asking similar questions before the program (pre-survey) and at the end of the program will allow you to determine the impact of your program and whether it is meeting its objectives.

Each of the “boxes” along the chain is treated in a similar manner. While you are designing your indicators of success, do not forget about the ultimate outcomes of creating license buyers and conservation supporters and make sure you create measures for these outcomes as well.

The first step in your program evaluation process is to improve your program so that it meets your participants' needs. The questions asked do not need to be perfect; you are not trying to publish a peer-reviewed paper. You will learn an immense amount about the types of questions to ask and how to ask them during the first iteration of your survey process. However, getting help from a survey designer/human dimensions specialist is advised.

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