What We're Thinking

Learning about Learning Questions

In this post, the Evaluation & Learning team at the Packard Foundation wanted to share some basics about learning questions: What are they? How should they be crafted? How can you make sure they are useful?

At the Foundation, grant makers write learning questions about their grantmaking strategies. These questions are a critical opportunity for reflection. Here’s some of the advice we give to grant makers at the Foundation about learning questions. How might you use learning questions in your work?

What are Learning Questions?

Learning questions are questions we know we will need the answers to, or will at least need to try to uncover, in order to do our work better and have more impact.

Learning questions help us assess context, emergent issues, factors outside of our control, how the work is being done, and any other information that might help us do our work better and more effectively.

At the Foundation, in addition to learning questions we also ask monitoring questions, like ‘how many children were reached?’ And we evaluate our work to answer questions like ‘how many children are now reading at grade level?’

Answering learning questions often requires multiple data sources and more often than not conversations with grantees and other partners.

Here are some examples:

  • What is the local context in which our grantees operate, and how is it changing (county/region)
  • What types of national and state level capacity are needed to advance strategic solutions to emerging issues?
  • How will we continue to develop and share messaging on the benefits the things we are advocating for?

Why Learning Questions?

Crafting learning questions allows you to consider what you want to learn through the course of your work. Teams at the Packard Foundation have said that the process of creating and re-visiting learning questions allows them space to reflect and learn together. We hope that this process is one of many tools and resources that help put teams in a learning mindset—unafraid to ask hard questions, make hypotheses, and uncover new information.

When should you develop them?

Early! At the Foundation, we encourage grant makers to identify key learning questions at the outset of their work. Some teams come together once a year to further refine and prioritize their learning questions for the coming year.

How should you use them?

Learning questions, when they are collaboratively and thoughtfully written by a team, should become part of the ongoing work of the team. At annual meetings or quarterly meetings, teams can reflect on the questions and how they are formulating answers to them. Many teams find it helpful to write their learning questions at the top of meeting agendas or on other key documents as reminders.

This is all very vague, how about some real examples?

Below are a few more example learning questions:

  • To what extent are the conditions in place that make longer-term success possible in these geographies, including: political environment; successes and challenges with partners and organizations; and operational structure?
  • How do organizations and providers ensure that standards of quality are maintained when expanding access to services
  • How much impact does each type of intervention (i.e., capacity building, research, convening) have?
  • What makes services youth friendly and effective?
  • How is our work leveraged and connected across multiple programs?
  • Have there been any unintended outcomes and if so what specifically drove this success or failure?
  • Which external stakeholders have also contributed to key results and what could improve collaboration enhance and/or accelerate progress towards change?

Think about how you might integrate learning questions into your work. What are the big questions that you and your team need to answer?

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