Grounded Theory: A Simple Guide to Understanding Its Use in Program Evaluation

Grounded theory is a powerful tool used in various fields, especially in program evaluation. But what exactly is it? In simple terms, grounded theory is a method of research that starts from the ground up. Instead of beginning with a theory and then testing it, this approach collects data first and then develops a theory based on that data. It’s like putting together a puzzle; you start with individual pieces (data) and work towards seeing the whole picture (theory).

How is Grounded Theory Used in Program Evaluation?

Program evaluation involves assessing the effectiveness of a program, like an educational curriculum or a community health initiative. Here’s where grounded theory comes in handy.

  1. Starting Without Preconceived Notions: Evaluators using a grounded theory approach a program without any fixed theories. This open-mindedness helps in gathering unbiased data about the program’s real-world impact.
  2. Data Collection: Evaluators collect data through interviews, surveys, and observations. This could involve talking to participants, observing the program in action, and gathering stakeholder feedback.
  3. Data Analysis: Next, evaluators analyze this data by identifying patterns, themes, and relationships. This is where the ‘grounding’ happens – theories start forming based on the collected data.
  4. Developing a Theory: The final step is to develop a theory explaining how and why the program works (or doesn’t). This theory is grounded in real-world observations, making it highly relevant and practical.

Advantages of Using Grounded Theory in Program Evaluation

  • Flexibility: Grounded theory is adaptable. It allows evaluators to modify their approach as they learn more from the data.
  • Depth of Understanding: This method can provide a deep understanding of the program’s effects and the reasons behind its success or failure.
  • Practical Insights: Theories developed from grounded theory are directly tied to real-world data, making them highly practical for improving programs.

Challenges of Grounded Theory

While grounded theory is beneficial, it’s not without challenges. It requires skilled evaluators who can interpret data accurately and is time-consuming due to the detailed analysis required.


Grounded theory is a unique and effective approach to program evaluation. It starts with data and builds towards a theory, offering insightful and practical conclusions about the effectiveness of programs. By understanding and applying grounded theory, evaluators can significantly contribute to improving various programs and initiatives.