Learning at the project level begins with an to incorporate existing evidence of what works into the project design and continues throughout the project lifetime, guided by the learning approach set forth in the learning section of the project’s MEL Plan. This subsection of the MEL Plan describes how the Project Team will generate and apply new knowledge and learning during project implementation. It describes gaps in knowledge identified as part of project design and outlines a plan to fill those gaps and generate useful and actionable insights to inform implementation. The learning plan should reflect relevant information from the CLA plan in the Mission PMP.
USAID's stress on learning as an critical aspect of a Mission's CDCS strategy continues in its Project Design Guidance. Learning approach at the project level is expected to help Mission employ adaptive management during project implementation. USAID also expects Missions to link project level learning approaches to broader Mission learning plans.
With a Mission-wide framework for learning in place in the learning section of the CDCS and in the CLA Plan in the Mission’s PMP, USAID anticipates that project design and management teams will find support for their efforts to incorporate evidence into project designs and develop plans for incorporating reflecting and adapting processes into the project management cycle to be used at various points throughout implementation.
ADS 201 further suggests that a project level Learning Plan plan should explain how USAID’s project team will use monitoring and evaluation to explore knowledge gaps and draw upon what is learned from these evidence gathering practices in practical activities or steps through which new knowledge is applied to improve collaboration and foster adaptation during project implementation that increases the chances of project success. The project MEL Plan’s learning section should describe processes the team will use to further this agenda, including periodic partner meetings, learning networks, pilot activities, and/or topical communities of practice—should also be described, as well as how the project will apply learning to manage adaptively.
Materials USAID has developed that may be useful to project teams as they develop their learning plan include:
In addition, USAID's draft Program Cycle Learning Guide describes processes already familiar to non-governmental organizations and developing countries for building deliberate learning into projects. One of these is action research, which is described briefly below. This learning based on evidence approach draws on operations research principles that assume that, as implementation proceeds, the situation or status of the target population will change and those changes will create new opportunities as well as foster learning if given a chance to do so.
An action research cycle, as diagramed below, actively uses routine procedures for collecting performance data to reconsider a project's design and plan. When implemented collaboratively with local partners, a model of this sort not only fosters project improvements, it also strengthens local capacity by transferring a replicable learning model to USAID's partners.