Cheryl is a  Learning Doula--a person who supports others as they learn, unlearn and emerge into their wealth and possibilities. budding pioneer of the field of learning and development. She is an established personal accountability and self-help author and has formed her business around the principles of autonomy, authenticity, and the courageous questioning that she writes about. Her new book, The Last Evaluation (coming soon) visits these principles in the framework of genuine and seamless living and working.




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Evaluative Thinking--More Than a Growth Mindset


Learning and development is an area that needs to place more emphasis and attention on the role of thinking when it comes to behavior change. “Total Behavior” is an aspect of Choice Theory that suggests all behavior is purposeful, and all behavior is made of 4 components:

1.    Acting

2.    Thinking

3.    Feeling

4.    Physiology


All four components are present all the time, but we name our current behavior by the most obvious component. Like the wheels of a car, where when one wheel changes direction or speed, the others follow, when one component of behavior is present, the others are present too. For example, if I am instructing a class, the most obvious component is the acting component. I’m talking, walking around, writing on a board, handing out papers and talking with attendees. But while I’m instructing, I may be thinking a number of things: “Are the attendees listening?” Or, “Someone is falling asleep. I must be boring them!” I also am feeling something: panic, possibly, or confusion, or maybe even a little fear at times. Simultaneously, my physiology is working. My heart rate may be up, my muscles are working as I walk around the classroom, and I may be sweating because the classroom is hot or shivering because it’s cold. This would be my total instructing behavior. All four components are present, but we name the behavior "instruction" after the most obvious component, acting.


When we evaluate training programs, we do the same thing and remain hyper-focused on the acting and feeling components. We very rarely address the thinking and physiology components because we assume our instruction is influencing thinking so we write learning objectives that only require we measure the obvious acting component or we trust what learners tell us about the feeling components. If strict focus on the acting and feeling components worked, why do we have such an enormous problem with transfer? Why are training officers still trying to prove the value of training? If you buy into the idea of total behavior, why isn’t “learner satisfaction with the course” transferring back to the job? If total behavior is a valid theory then where and how is "satisfaction" showing up at the thinking and physiological levels?


Side Note: We need to completely do away with learner satisfaction as a measure of success because “satisfaction” tells you absolutely NOTHING about the quality or usefulness of content and design or learning effectiveness and performance. “Satisfaction” is a vanity metric that’s used for marketing and as proof of compliance with training requirements or expectations.



Something has to change. We must begin to value and purposefully incorporate the thinking and physiology components of behavior in our learning design and evaluation. This transition begins with thinking and the instrumental value we place on the thinking component of behavior.


A “mindset” is an established set of attitudes held by someone. Unlike an “autopilot mindset”, a “growth mindset” is motivated by attitudes of continuous improvement, and belief in possibility. Those with a growth mindset pursue difficult tasks and enjoy challenges. For them, failure does not provoke defensiveness, but rather encourages perseverance. As instructors we want to have a growth mindset and we want learners to have a growth mindset to increase the certainty that they will learn and apply new skills and behaviors. We should also want learners to develop evaluative thinking skills.


Evaluative thinking (ET) is a “habit of mind”. A Habit of Mind is a composite of many skills, attitudes, cues, past experiences, and proclivities. It means that we choose and value one pattern of intellectual behaviors over another; therefore, it implies making choices about which patterns we should use at a certain time (Costa & Kallic, 2008). 

Evaluative thinking (ET) is contextual and motivated by attitudes of introspection, curiosity, inquisitiveness and a belief in the instrumental value of evidence. Evaluative thinking involves: (1) Identifying your own and others’ assumptions (2) Posing thoughtful questions (3) Pursuing deeper understanding through reflection and multiple perspective taking and (4) Making informed decisions in preparation for action (Buckley, Archibald, Hargraves & Trochim, 2015)


Growth mindset is about doing more and being better, evaluative thinking is about seeing more, deciding “better”, and being authentic in every context.

One is not better or worse than the other, but the learner’s capacity to fully function in his/her/their role across contexts and decision environments will depend on the learner’s evaluative thinking skills.

As an instructor, the effectiveness of my learning event, course, intervention, etc. will also depend on my evaluative thinking skills:


Learning question example:

Do participants in my program have access to mentors?

Evaluative thinking:

What assumptions am I making in posing this question?

How would program stakeholders define “mentor”?

How am I defining “mentor”?



As instructors we and our learning team can easily begin practicing evaluative thinking by performing a knowledge risk assessment on our learning objectives. What assumptions are we making in those objectives? How have we designed the learning to mitigate risks associated with the learning objectives? How may our mindset influence the presentation of the content?


We can also design our events and content to provoke and support evaluative thinking so we can observe and measure evaluative thinking during our learning events.

How do you know if you or others have evaluative thinking skills?  You’ll know it when you hear and see some of the following:


Things you may hear:

  • What are we assuming about X?

  • Why are we assuming X?

  • How do we know X?

  • How might we be wrong about X?

  • What evidence do we have for X?

  • What is the thinking behind the way we do X?

  • How does X connect to intended outcomes?

  • Stakeholder X’s perspective on this might be Y!

Things you may see:

  • More evidence gathering and sharing

  • More feedback (all directions)

  • Reflective conversations among staff, learners, leadership, etc.

  • More diagrams/models, pictures, video and audio used to illustrate thinking

  • Program evolution

  • Sharing of insights and understanding

  • Project decisions that reflect shared interests

As instructors, we can provide our learners with an invitation to form a habit of evaluative thinking as well as promoting a growth mindset. If we can accomplish this, no matter the content, the end result will be individuals who know how to learn and who can act honestly and authentically in every context.

“When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

—Wendell Berry


Cheryl Abram is a learning, development and evaluation thought leader with radical ideas that she's not afraid to share. Read more at www.cherylabram.com

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