Evaluation

to evaluate: v. to ascertain or fix the value or worth of; to examine or judge carefully.

Evaluation is often a part of interpretation. To evaluate implies judgment, finding the merits and faults of something. Like the other operations described here, evaluation should be based on some analysis or interpretation already performed in the same essay. Evaluation is crucial, at some level or other, to every academic discipline: you evaluate one theory against another; one set of facts against another; one piece of art or music against another; or you evaluate against criteria.

In other words, you can evaluate in several ways, just as your teachers do when they must arrive at student grades. In one case, evaluation is against an absolute standard—each student in a class could theoretically get an A or an F In another case, you evaluate by comparison/contrast— the best students get high marks, the weakest fail, regardless of absolute standards. Some evaluation is carefully quantitative—points for everything are totaled; other evaluation is highly subjective—impressions determine all.

Evaluation necessarily draws on many other activities such as analysis, definition, explanation, etc. In writing evaluations of colleagues, schools, proposals, book manuscripts, and students, I usually lead off with the most objective statements first, both pro and con, and work up to an overall evaluation that makes a recommendation in one direction or another. This procedure allows those reading my evaluations to see the criteria on which I made my recommendation and answers in advance many possible questions—a good suggestion for student writers.

It should be obvious by now that categories described here often overlap: William's interpretation of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is also a tacit evaluation about the profundity of the story he has read. Let's look at other occasions where deliberate acts of evaluation are called for.

Here are two concluding paragraphs from essays my students wrote reviewing a collection of essays entitled Models for Writers by Eschholz and Rosa. Kyle writes:

If you pick up this book and read just one story you will see for yourself why this collection of essays is so good. It may be used for pleasure or as a text. This not only makes for enjoyable reading, but also provides a learning experience for the reader. By combining these two types of reading in one book, the editors produced a book that can be enjoyed by all.

Kyle's statement comes at the end of an essay where he has looked at specific contents of the book in some detail. Nevertheless, he takes greater liberties than I'd recommend with his closing generalization that "the editors produced a book that can be enjoyed by all." Obviously enough, few experiences can be enjoyed by all. Here is a useful suggestion for college writers: Avoid ending with a meaningless little flourish. Quit a line early instead.

Betsy writes a summary evaluation of the same book this way:

I feel the editors have put this book together well by picking authors and essays that will appeal to college students. Who would ever think that Steve Martin would have an essay in an English book as a model of good writing? I think by having such authors the student will be more willing to turn to this book for help. I find this book has many enjoyable essays and would recommend it to anyone who has to write papers.

I prefer Betsy's conclusion because she works in at least one concrete reference (Steve Martin) and also raises an amusing question. There's a liveliness here. She too, however, tacks on an unlikely last line, recommending the anthology "to anyone who has to write papers."

Evaluation is often in order when you find these direction words: compare, contrast, choose, evaluate, rank, measure, judge, justify, agree, disagree, argue, prove, or make a case for in the assignment. In writing an evaluative essay, it's a good idea to establish what exactly you are evaluating, describe it thoroughly, assess its strengths and its weaknesses, and be fair in the language of your final recommendation, avoiding obviously emotional or biased terms as much as possible.

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