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 1. Sample results chain for an instructor recruitment and training program.

Using instructor recruitment and training program as an example, your ultimate outcome for this section is that your participants will have the right instructors to teach so that they can learn knowledge and skills.  Note that this results chain is different from the results chain for deer hunting or panfish fishing because the outcome for this results chain feeds into these other programs.

Having the right instructors is critical for participants to learn.

As a result, there are numerous mid-term outcomes a person needs to achieve before he/she can become the “right” instructor:

Examples of these mid-term outcomes include:

  • Instructors must be screened for the correct temperament so they can engage participants
  • Instructors must be trained to understand all aspects of sexual harassment in order to keep participants safe
  • Instructors must be trained to understand adult learning theory so they can enhance the participants' learning
  • Instructors must be trained to understand the motivations of the participants so that they help meet the participants' expectations

All of these items are educational outcomes that need to be achieved, at some level, in order for a participant to learn and 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 instructors are screened, THEN they will create a safe learning environment;
  • IF instructors create a safe learning environment, THEN the participants will be more open to learn knowledge and skills;
  • IF the participants learn knowledge and skills, 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' learning experience will be enhanced.

Using this thought process, while not perfect, will encourage you to think about each of these steps as a precursor to the next step.

For instructor recruitment and training, doing so will help you answer questions about what knowledge or skills an instructor needs to know, or create conditions that will enhance the participant’s learning. Taking the time to answer these questions will help you to build an instructor recruitment and training process that will ensure that participants receive the information and skills 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 material being presented. Building in time to have the participants ask questions and review the presented material is important to ensure they are progressing as planned.

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, 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” as a result of your recruitment and training program, the best way to have your instructors 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.”

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