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 2. Sample results chain for a deer hunting training program

Using deer hunting training (Figure 2) as an example, your ultimate outcome is that your participants become conservation supporters and license buyers by being independent, long-term deer hunters. However, there are numerous mid-term outcomes a person needs to achieve before he/she can become an independent, long-term deer hunter.

Sample Mid-term outcomes may include:

  • Student must believe that deer hunting meets his/her needs and matches his/her motivations; etc. (Continue to Deer Hunt)
  • Student must become safe and reasonably proficient with their hunting equipment (Learn Deer Hunting Skills)
  • Student must understand deer biology and behavior well enough to find a deer (Learn Deer Hunting Knowledge)
  • Student must be able to process a deer in the field so that it can be turned into high-quality food (Learn Next Steps)

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 the deer hunting training 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 the deer hunting training example:

  • IF “food-motivated” non-hunters attend your program, THEN they will receive deer hunting instruction, social support (from other novice hunters and instructors), or other needed support
  • IF they receive deer hunting instruction instruction support, and interact with others with similar interests, THEN they will learn deer hunting knowledge and skills and increase their comfort level with deer hunting
  • IF they have deer hunting knowledge and skills, and increase their hunting 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 deer hunting
  • IF the participants go deer hunting, THEN the participants will experience success and be more motivated to participate in other hunting-related activities
  • IF participants participate in other hunting-related activities, THEN they will continue to deer hunt in the future

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 hunting 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 gage 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 hunt 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. 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 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 deer hunting results chain is “Non-hunting locavores attend program.” For this step, an indicator of success would be whether or not your participants are: a) non-hunters, 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-hunters or who “are locavores.” Identifying the percentage of attendees that meet these two criteria will determine whether the “right audience” attended you program.

The acceptable percentage and 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 hunting (or alternatively, not have purchased a hunting license) within the past five years.”  This objective identifies and defines the measurable item (a non-hunter), and sets the goal you want to obtain. Collecting this information will determine if you have attracted the “right audience” and whether your marketing/advertising efforts are on target. 

Creating indicators for success for the second “box”  (Participants learn deer hunting 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 load and unload a firearm (a skill) or identify likely deer travel ways from a topographic map (knowledge). These items could be measured by direct observation while people are actually using a firearm or while hunting, or measured indirectly by a survey using a self-assessed “confidence scale.”  As an example, you may set an objective for deer hunting skills and knowledge as, “At the end of the program, 100% of attendees will be able to successfully safely load and unload a firearm using inert ammunition.” Or, “At the end of the program, 100% of attendees will rate their confidence in their ability to successfully safely load and unload a firearm at “very confident” or above.”  This objective identifies and defines the measurable item (load and unload a firearm),and sets the goal you want to obtain within a specified time frame.  Identifying other specific skills or knowledge to measure 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.