Four Categories of Change Strategies for Undergraduate STEM

Sometimes referred to as the "four quadrants" or "four square"

See more Change Theories »Summary written by Alice Olmstead, Texas State University,

Rather than being a change theory, the four categories are a framework or typology for organizing different approaches to achieving change.


Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein (2011) developed a taxonomy for categorizing change strategies in undergraduate STEM, in order to reveal the strengths and limitations of existing change strategies being considered in the literature at that time. This taxonomy has since been used by change agents to describe their own approaches. It should not be considered a "change theory" in itself, but rather as a tool that can be used to characterize and identify potential relationships between change theories and/or strategies.

To develop their taxonomy, Henderson et al. analyzed 191 articles across discipline-based STEM education research, faculty development research, and higher education research journals in order to identify similarities and differences in how researchers across the U.S. were approaching instructional change initiatives for undergraduate STEM. They identified four categories of change strategy: disseminating curriculum and pedagogy, developing reflective teachers, enacting policy, and developing shared vision. They locate each of the four categories in one of four quadrants, sorting them by whether the instructional change strategies in that category focus on prescribed or emergent outcomes, and whether the strategies focus on individuals or systems/environments.

Disseminating curriculum and pedagogy focuses on prescribed outcomes for individuals. Teaching-focused workshops, specifically those that aim to increase faculty's use of existing research-based instructional approaches, are a typical example of a change strategy within this category. Many discipline-based STEM education research communities and professional societies have used this strategy extensively (e.g., Council of Scientific Society Presidents, 2012; Stanford et al., 2017).

Developing reflective teachers focuses on emergent outcomes for individuals. A canonical example in this category is a Faculty Learning Community (FLC). In a typical FLC, an interdisciplinary group of 8-12 faculty gather regularly to reflect on their teaching with guidance from a facilitator and incentives (e.g., Beach & Cox, 2009). This strategy was most prevalent within the faculty development research community.

Enacting policy focuses on prescribed outcomes for systems or environments. Changing reward structures, such as those that determine how teaching is evaluated and rewarded within an institution, is one example of a strategy in this category (e.g., Austin, 2011; Weaver et al. 2016). Such strategies do not engage most faculty directly, but rather expect faculty to shift their priorities and practices in response to a different incentive structure. This strategy was most prevalent within the higher education research community.

Developing shared vision focuses on emergent outcomes for systems or environments. Instructional change teams, i.e., teams of faculty and other change agents who are working together to create or redesign courses, are a key example within this category (Olmstead et al. 2019). This strategy was the least widely used at the time of Henderson et al.'s analysis, but has been steadily becoming more prevalent (Weaver et al. 2016; Gast, Schildkamp, & Veen, 2017).

In considering how / when to apply Henderson et al.'s taxonomy, it is important to note that the overall limitation they identified is that these four types of change strategy were often considered in isolation from one another. They argue that this siloed approach to promoting instructional change does not match the complexity of the change that is needed within higher education institutions. However, this taxonomy can be productively used to identify strengths and limitations of various change approaches and consider how they might be coordinated.

Example of Use

The four programmatic components of the NSF-funded initiative "Creating Faculty-Student Communities for Culturally Relevant Institutional Change" (NSF #1928696) in the College of Science and Engineering at Texas State University aim to coordinate change strategies from each of Henderson et al.'s four categories. First, teaching-focused workshops will engage individual faculty across the college in learning about existing research-based instructional approaches and pedagogical principles (category #1: disseminating curriculum and pedagogy). This workshop series will also create space for faculty across different disciplines to discuss complex instructional challenges and build community with each other (category #2: developing reflective teachers). Second, groups of faculty within specific STEM departments will engage in departmental self-assessments, working with project staff to learn about their students' strengths and struggles (category #4: developing shared vision). This phase will culminate in groups of faculty proposing course redesigns for specific courses. Third, teams of faculty and students will work together to carry out their course redesign work, with financial, intellectual, and logistical support from the project staff (also category #4: developing shared vision). Finally, faculty team leaders will participate in an internal advisory committee. As the project matures, these faculty leaders will participate in discussions with project staff and campus administrators about next steps for sustaining improvements (category #3: enacting policy).

Assumptions & Limitations

While Henderson et al. (2011)'s taxonomy provides a mechanism to describe how faculty can be engaged in change initiatives, it does not specify the role of students in the change process. This is particularly problematic for change agents at Minority Serving Institutions, where the students often have very different backgrounds from the faculty, as well as from the students with whom most existing research-based instructional approaches were developed. These differences make student involvement in the change process essential.

Henderson et al. (2011)'s taxonomy also does not provide direct guidance about how to apply or coordinate the various change theories that may be relevant to a given initiative. Change agents may find inspiration from this taxonomy, but will likely need to explore further if they wish to strongly apply change theory to their work.

Related Theories

Borrego & Henderson (2014) identify eight change strategies that each fit within one of these four categories. These change strategies are more closely associated with specific change theories than the overall taxonomy. The authors also directly reference some change theories such as Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations and Complexity Leadership Theory.

The overall four quadrants scheme bears some resemblance to categorization schemes in the organizational change literature, such as van de Ven & Poole (1995)'s "Process theories of Organizational Development and Change."

Original Publication of Theory

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.

Other References

Austin, A. E. (2011). Promoting Evidence-Based Change in Undergraduate Science Education. Fourth Committee Meeting on Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research, 1–25.

Borrego, M., & Henderson, C. (2014). Increasing the use of evidence-based teaching in STEM higher education: A comparison of eight change strategies. Journal of Engineering Education, 103(2), 220–252.

Beach, A. L., & Cox, M. D. (2009). The impact of faculty learning communities on teaching and learning. Learning Communities Journal, 1(1), 7–27.

Council of Scientific Society Presidents. (2012). The Role of Scientific Societies in STEM Faculty Workshops. Washington, DC.

Gast, I., Schildkamp, K., & Veen, J. T. Van Der. (2017). Team-Based Professional Development Interventions in Higher Education : A Systematic Review. Review of Educational Research Month 201X, 87(4), 736–767.

Olmstead, A., Beach, A., & Henderson, C. (2019). Supporting improvements to undergraduate STEM instruction: An emerging model for understanding instructional change teams. International Journal of STEM Education, 6(20).

Stanford, C., Cole, R., Froyd, J., Henderson, C., Friedrichsen, D., & Khatri, R. (2017). Analysis of Propagation Plans in NSF-Funded Education Development Projects. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 26(4), 418–437. de Ven, A. H., & Poole, M. S. (1995). Explaining development and change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 510–540.

Weaver, G. C., Burgess, W. D., Childress, A. L., & Slakey, L. (Eds.). (2016). Transforming Institutions: Undergraduate STEM Education for the 21st Century. West Lafeyette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.

Note: This summary is written as a secondary resource to help researchers and practitioners learn about potentially relevant change theory. We encourage authors to read the original references rather than citing this summary in published work or grant proposals.