Evaluative thinking

Evaluative thinking is a disciplined approach to inquiry and reflective practice that helps us make sound judgements using good evidence, as a matter of habit.

The following video discusses evaluative thinking. It runs for 3:34 minutes.

Evaluation Capacity Building - Evaluative Thinking

Video transcript

A form of critical thinking

Evaluation is a form of critical thinking that involves examining evidence to make a judgement.

Evaluative claims have two parts: a conclusion and an explanation.

For example:

  • xyz was great, because?
  • xyz is disappointing, because?
  • xyz is a good way to go in this situation, because?

Drawing conclusions based on intuition is not evaluation. Neither is personal opinion, speculation or conjecture.

Each of us makes evaluative judgements every day. Sometimes these are quick assessments that don't matter much, like what to order for lunch. At other times we need to slow down our thought processes, weighing up all the factors carefully and making our deliberation transparent to others.

A disciplined approach

Evaluative thinking is a disciplined approach to inquiry and reflective practice that helps us make sound judgements using good evidence, as a matter of habit.

Evaluating a strategic direction or project in a school draws on similar thinking processes and mental disciplines as assessing student performance or recruiting a new staff member.

When we engage in evaluative thinking, we seek to:

  • suspend judgement, considering alternative explanations and allowing new evidence to change our mind
  • question assumptions, particularly about the pathway of cause and effect
  • select and develop solutions that are informed by a strong evidence base and are responsive to our context and priorities
  • value the lessons we can learn from all our experiences ? disappointments as well as triumphs
  • wrestle with questions of impact and effectiveness, not just activity and implementation
  • maximise the value of existing data sources already available to us, mindful of their limitations
  • work to improve the strength of our evidence base as we go.

Cognitive bias

Evaluative thinking helps us navigate the cognitive biases that cloud our judgement.

Cognitive bias occurs when our analysis of a situation is compromised by 'mental shortcuts' or patterns of thinking that place undue emphasis on a particular perspective.

Confirmation bias is one type of cognitive bias can easily compromise an evaluation. This is where the evaluator is already leaning towards a particular conclusion before they see the data. Without realising it, they then pay more attention to data that supports this position.

Although we may not be able to free ourselves from our cognitive biases, being aware of them is a good first step. The mental disciplines of evaluative thinking can help manage these biases, and to keep our reasoning sharp and convincing.

Read more about cognitive bias.

Develop evaluative thinking

Working openly with colleagues helps to develop evaluative thinking in ourselves and others. Evaluative thinking sometimes comes naturally, but at other times it can feel a bit challenging - even threatening. If we want to develop evaluative thinking in others, we first need to model it ourselves.

A good way to strengthen evaluative practice in schools is to engage in evaluative thinking as a group: deliberately, transparently and in a supportive context. In this way people have the time and space to reflect on their thinking. This is particularly important if we are to identify or 'unlearn' bad habits that we may have fallen into.

For example, the simple act of being asked 'What makes you think that?' prompts us to explain how we formed our judgements, including the evidence we have considered as part of this.

The importance of modelling and collaborative practice in evaluation is highlighted in the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership's (AITSL) profile relating to leading improvement, innovation and change. This profile encourages school leaders to develop 'a culture of continuous improvement' and 'a culture of trust and collaboration, where change and innovation based on research and evidence can flourish'.

As part of doing this, the Leadership Profile highlights the value of 'evaluating outcomes and refining actions as change is implemented? taking account of the impact of change on others, providing opportunities for regular feedback'.


  • Professional learning
  • Teaching and learning


  • Building capacity

Business Unit:

  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
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