Introduction: Theories of Change

Charles Henderson and Marilyne Stains

As many authors have argued, efforts to transform undergraduate education are often undertaken using an implicit change theory or no change theory at all (Reinholz & Andrews, 2020; Kezar et al., 2015). This is a serious problem for educational improvement since lack of theory makes it hard to learn from or even talk about successes and failures of change efforts.

Theory is valuable for improvement in a variety of fields. Theory shapes how we frame the stories we tell about what happened, what we pay attention to, and the variables that we monitor and report on. For the purposes of this section, we have not tried to enforce any specific meaning of the term “change theory,” and authors frame their chapters using many related terms, such as change model, change framework, and theory of change. Although the differences between these terms may be valuable to investigate, for the purposes of this volume, we place them all under the broad heading of “change theory” and seek to learn what we can about change from each of the chapters.

1 Change Theory

The seven chapters in this section seek to highlight the role of theory in transforming undergraduate education. Each chapter identifies a specific change theory (or theories) that was used to plan for, assess, and/or understand their change initiative. The chapters suggest ways that change theories can be used and also represent some of the variety in the types of change theories that have been applied in undergraduate education.

Three of the chapters describe how change theory was used to design a change initiative.

These chapters all focus on the use of one specific change theory. They demonstrate how a specific theory can help shape the design and/or evaluation of a change effort.

Earl et al. describe the CACAO change theory. According to CACAO, individual instructors will change their teaching behavior when change agents engage in four important types of activities: Specify the (C)hange, Understand (A)dopters, Organize (C)hange (A)gents, and Attend to (O)rganizational structures and cultures. The chapter describes how the CACAO change theory was used to plan for successful implementation of evidence-based instructional practices at Boise State University.

Thompson and Marbach-Ad describe the Characteristics of Dissemination Success (CODS) change theory. According to CODS, the teaching behavior of individual instructors is a result of their intentions, which are influenced by 1) their attitudes about different teaching approaches, 2) the perceived departmental and disciplinary norms (subjective norms), and 3) the degree to which they believe they are able to successfully implement particular teaching approaches (self-efficacy). These three aspects of instructor beliefs are influenced by a larger set of individual and contextual factors. The chapter describes how CODS was used to design and evaluate the implementation of active learning instruction in a series of four core biology courses at the University of Maryland.

Biscotte and Mouchrek describe Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) change theory. According to ABCD, positive institutional change will emerge when change agents conduct the following five steps: 1) map individual assets, 2) build relationships between community members and stakeholders, 3) mobilize identified assets and share useful information among the constituencies, 4) bring the community together in ongoing discussion to develop a plan and mission for the future, and finally 5) leverage outside resources to support local initiatives. The chapter uses general education reform at Virginia Tech as an example to guide the reader through the process.

Two chapters describe emerging theories of change.

Working with 12 departments at 24 institutions to implement undergraduate research, Malachowski et al. were able to identify six specific conditions that support the systemic institutionalization of undergraduate research that align with the Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) recommendations. These six conditions comprise their emerging change theory and, as with other chapters in this section, can be used to plan for, assess, and improve change initiatives.

Ngai et al. describe a theory of change for the Departmental Action Team (DAT) model. Drawing on existing change theories, prior research, and their experiences developing the DAT model, they have constructed a theory of change that specifies how implementing the DAT model leads to departmental change. This underlying theory accounts for relationships among stakeholders, the expected outcomes from engaging in the DAT model, and separates the change process into stages. The authors emphasize that change is an iterative process involving many moving parts and that change theory helps to identify and understand different outcomes, stakeholders, and the relationships between them. Developing the theory of change was important for refining and implementing the change process in the DAT model.

One chapter identifies an important perspective for understanding change.

Bangera et al. do not focus on a specific change theory, but rather identify an important aspect of change that is not usually discussed. They introduce the concept of Idea Flow that they used to understand their change initiative after the fact. Idea Flow is a process of paying attention to the messiness of what actually happens in a change initiative (what they call the “squiggly line”) rather than the more simplified story that is often told afterwards (what they call the “straight line”). It is important to pay attention to the messiness in order to fully understand the change and what it will take to sustain it, as well as to better understand the current system and plan future changes. This way of thinking is not currently featured in common change theories, but is important for change agents to understand and may eventually lead to the development of more robust change theories.

One chapter emphasizes the value of using more than one change theory.

Pilgrim et al. describe the use of three different change theories—Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 2003), Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), Four Frames (Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018)—to better understand aspects of their change initiative. They argue that the use of multiple change theories may be productive for enacting successful change: “No theory captures all the components of the complex system of higher education at once. However, using multiple theories provided a glimpse into different components of the system” (Pilgrim et al., Conclusion).

2 Common Themes across the Seven Chapters

Despite the apparent differences in the type of change targeted and the variety of change theories leveraged across the seven chapters, we noted several common themes. We describe these themes below.

2.1 Unit of Change

Two units of change are apparent across the six chapters that described an intervention: departments and curricula. Three of the change projects focused on enhancing practices in a subset of departments either within an institution (e.g., CACAO) or across institutions (e.g., DAT, CUR). Departments have been identified as a potentially effective target for instructional change (Austin, 2011; Corbo et al., 2016; Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018) since many of the factors influencing the teaching practices of faculty members revolve around departmental norms and practices (Lund & Stains, 2015; Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018). Studies have demonstrated that these norms and practices vary across departments (Lund & Stains, 2015; Shadle et al., 2017) implying that one uniform change approach is likely to be unproductive. Instead, change initiatives need to consider the unique culture and climate of each department. The three department-focused studies in this section provide examples of strategies that can be implemented to address and leverage departmental characteristics.

The other three chapters that described an intervention were aimed at transforming a set of courses spread across multiple departments (CODS, ABCD), a college (Idea flow, ABCD), or a program (ABCD). Interestingly, all three projects had broad goals such as enhancing coordination of biology introductory courses or infusing service learning into courses. The details of the actions to be implemented to achieve these goals were developed by participants (primarily faculty members) rather than being dictated by the change agents. This emergent approach to change recognizes the value and the importance of taking into account the knowledge, belief systems, and experiences of the instructors in order to attain the overarching goals of the change projects (Henderson et al., 2011).

2.2 Type of Change Efforts

We leverage the change strategies framework developed by Henderson et al. (2011) to identify commonalities in the type of change projects described in this section. This framework is based on an extensive review of the literature on instructional change in higher education and includes two criteria for classifying change strategies.

The first criterion focuses on whether the change aims at transforming individuals, such as faculty behaviors, or structures, such as policies or classroom layouts. All projects described in this section targeted both individuals and structures. For example, several of the projects engaged faculty in some sort of faculty learning communities (CACAO, Idea Flow, CODS, ABCD). Several of the projects also aimed to change departmental norms around teaching (CACAO, Idea Flow, CODS, CUR, DAT).

The second criterion aims to assess whether the outcomes of the change project will emerge during the project or are predefined prior to the implementation of the project. Four of the projects had an emergent approach as described in the previous section (ABCD, CUR, CODS, Idea Flow). Two projects (CACAO, DAT) used a mixed of prescribed and emergent outcomes. These two projects aligned emergent activities proposed by department members to the prescribed visions for their change projects.

The Henderson et al. (2011) literature review found that typical change strategies only focused on one aspect of each dimension, and that this was a weakness. Thus, the set of chapters in this section that focus on individuals and situations as well as having a mix of prescribed and emergent outcomes suggests that change theory is becoming stronger.

2.3 Inclusion of Context

The importance of considering and leveraging the context for change is highlighted in all seven chapters. Context is a part of most change theories, but is not usually prominent. The emphasis on context in these chapters suggests that attention to context has previously been underdeveloped within undergraduate instructional improvement. In particular, the projects commonly assessed needs and current states of affairs from the perspective of faculty members and/or students prior to the implementation of the change projects. This information was then leveraged to inform the design of activities and/or identify important stakeholders. For example, the CUR project, which aims to infuse research experiences throughout the undergraduate curriculum, required departments to collect, analyze, and reflect on students’ assessment data throughout the change process. These data were leveraged to identify gaps in the curriculum where research experiences could be embedded. In the CACAO project, the leadership team requested feedback through conversations at faculty meetings and surveys about the constraints and affordances in implementing the vision for change. These data informed the selection of project activities and strategies to enhance faculty experience through the change project. These processes are essential to ensure that the projects are not based on misguided assumptions about the system and to enhance buy-in from the targeted population.

2.4 Role of Change Theories

Several of the chapters in this section commented on the messiness of change processes. The Idea Flow chapter highlights this messiness and argues for the importance of capturing and learning from instances of forward and backward progress. In most of the chapters, change theories were described as essential guides to change agents. Using a change theory helped them stay focused on critical features of the change process throughout the project even and especially when setbacks were experienced. For example, the CACAO project saw a decrease over time in the quality of proposals for curriculum transformation developed by faculty members. They reflected on the potential causes for this through the lens of the CACAO model. This led them to realize that the faculty submitting proposals early in the project were better informed and had more extensive experiences with evidence-based instructional practices than faculty who submitted proposals in the later stage of the project. This realization informed the development of new resources and support for faculty interested in submitting proposals.

3 Missed Opportunities

As discussed above, the seven chapters in this section suggest that change theory is being used more and in much more effective ways than was found in the past (Henderson et al., 2011). However, there still remain many opportunities to improve the use of change theory.

3.1 Lack of Diversity in Change Theories Leveraged

Several of the change theories leveraged in these seven chapters align with or directly build from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Theory (Figure 1). This stage-based change theory has been fruitful in discipline-based education research to guide and study instructional change processes (e.g., Andrews & Lemons, 2015; Henderson et al., 2012; Lund & Stains, 2015). However, this theory assumes a linear process of adoption and emphasizes individual decision-making as a key mechanism for change. Several of the chapters in this section recognized that change processes are cyclical and adapted their programmatic activities accordingly; however, none of the change theories are able to fully support cyclical change. In addition, for most chapters, there was only one change theory used to guide the change projects. Pilgrim et al. describe valuable insights about the change process that resulted from leveraging three different change theories. This approach has also been advocated elsewhere (Kezar & Holcombe, 2019). Moving forward, the implementation and study of instructional change processes ought to be pursued through the lens of multiple and diverse change theories.

Figure 1. Practice-Adoption Process, adapted from Rogers’ Innovation-Decision Process
Figure 1. Practice-Adoption Process, adapted from Rogers’ Innovation-Decision Process

3.2 Uncertainty about Sustainability of Change

Many of the change theories were focused on individual-level change (e.g. change courses, or instructors within a department), with the exception of DAT, which was focused on systemic departmental change. Moreover, the change projects described in these chapters provided no information about whether or how the changes would be sustained. It is unclear in these chapters whether the progress achieved to date by these projects will eventually translate into systemic change or will regress to norms and practices experienced prior to the implementation of the project. Although the funding associated with instructional change projects is typically short lived (i.e., five years, at best), it is important to monitor long-term outcomes of these interventions and the role that the change theory played in sustaining (or not) the progress made during the implementation of the project.

3.3 Unanswered Questions about How to Use Change Theory

The chapters in this section provide some insight about the role of theories in transforming undergraduate education. However, across all seven chapters, there are still questions left unanswered regarding the use of change theories to inform change projects. For example, it is unclear, except in the CACAO chapter, who the leaders of the change efforts were and to what extent the theories guided the selection of these leaders. Moreover, none of the chapters describe the timing, process, and criteria used to select the change theory, whether other theories were considered, and who the people involved in this decision were. It was also not always clear if the theories were leveraged for planning change activities (e.g., CACAO), for evaluation of the change project (e.g., CODS), or for both. While a description of the strengths and shortcomings of the theories was often lacking, Pilgrim et al. do discuss affordances and limitations of three change theories. The answers to these questions are extremely valuable for the creation of stronger change theory.

3.4 Lack of Student Input

It was noticeable that except for two chapters (CUR, DAT), students were seemingly not involved in the change projects and their assessments. Since students are a key stakeholder group impacted by these change efforts, it is reasonable to think that they should be consulted during the process. However, most of the change theories described in this section are silent about possible roles for students. Without guidance from these theories, it is unclear how and when students should be involved.

4 Suggestions for Change Researchers

The analysis of the chapters presented in this section led us to identify several lines of research that could advance our understanding of the role of change theories in change processes.

  1. The Pilgrim et al. paper highlights the potential benefits of leveraging multiple change theories to guide and study change processes. Use of multiple theories is an emerging idea and little is yet known about how different theories are best leveraged. Future research should explore productive techniques for applying multiple change theories, what types of theories work best together, and whether projects based on multiple theories have better outcomes than those based on a single theory.
  2. It was unclear whether or how the change theories resulted in the sustainability of project outcomes. Longitudinal studies monitoring these outcomes over a significant period of time (e.g., ten years) and exploring the role of the change theory in the maintenance or lack thereof of these outcomes overtime could help address this question.
  3. As in this volume, most accounts of change are from successful change projects. However, the role of the change theory in achieving this success is unclear. Much could be learned from studies exploring unsuccessful change efforts or more carefully coordinating measurements with aspects of the theory (the CACAO paper is a good example of this type of work). Retrospective studies on the role of the change theory in navigating the change process and achieving positive and negative outcomes would also advance change research.

5 References

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Andrews, T. C., & Lemons, P. P. (2015). It’s personal: Biology instructors prioritize personal evidence over empirical evidence in teaching decisions. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 14(1), ar7.

Austin, A. E. (2011). Promoting evidence-based change in undergraduate science education. National Academies National Research Council Board on Science Education.

Bangera, G., Vermilyea, C., Reese, M., & Shaver, I. (this volume). “On the RISE: A case study of institutional transformation using idea flow as a change theory.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 6). Pressbooks.

Biscotte, S., & Mouchrek, N. (this volume). “Bringing an Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) framework to university change work.” In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead (Eds.), Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education (ch. 3). Pressbooks.

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Henderson, C., Beach, A., & Finkelstein, N. (2011). Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: An analytic review of the literature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(8), 952–984.

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