Overview of Change Theories


The goal of this resource is to provide summaries of change theories, how they have been used in the context of STEM higher educational change, and key information and references. These summaries are just a few pages and are meant to be a jumping off place.

Intended Audience

Individuals interested in or currently involved in change efforts in higher education. This may include people who are developing a grant proposal, starting a change effort, conducting research on a change effort, and many more.


A change theory is a framework of ideas, supported by evidence, that explains some aspect of change beyond a single initiative (Reinholz & Andrews 2019). Change theories represent generalized knowledge about how and why change occurs in higher education. Change theories can inform the reasoning behind change efforts, help you inquire about the underlying assumptions of efforts, shine light on the context and system in which you seek change, guide the selection of indicators used to measure outcomes, and inform the design of interventions.

Change theories relevant to STEM higher education come from diverse fields. It can be hard to find relevant theories and key references. We designed this resource because we needed help learning about theories.

Summaries are organized by the target of the change you seek to enact.

  • Are you trying to change individuals? See these theory summaries
  • Are you trying to change organizations or systems? See these theory summaries
  • Are you trying to change culture (in a department or institution)? See these theory summaries
  • Do you want to know what change theories have been used in other work? This systematic review identifies which change theories have been used in STEM higher educational reform efforts and how theory informed the work (Reinholz, White, and Andrews, 2021).

What's the difference between change theory and a theory of change?

We aim to build this collection over time and we seek authors who have used these theories in their own change work. Are you interested in authoring or contributing to a new summary? Contact Tessa Andrews (tandrews@uga.edu) or Dan Reinholz (daniel.reinholz@sdsu.edu).

Search the Collection


Results 1 - 10 of 14 matches

Six Change Perspectives in Higher Education
Tessa Andrews, University of Georgia
Rather than being a singular change theory, the six perspectives on change in higher education represent different categories of change theories and different lenses for thinking about how change can be accomplished. These six perspectives on change are described in How Colleges Change (Kezar, 2018).

Target of Change: Cultures, Organizations or Systems, Individual

Theory of Planned Behavior
Rebecca Sansom, Brigham Young University
The theory of planned behavior explains individual behavior as resulting from intentions, which in turn are influenced by attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control.

Target of Change: Individual

Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM)
Brenda Garrison, Community College of Denver
The Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM) is a theoretical model for facilitating change that helps leaders and researchers understand, lead, and monitor the complex process of change in education.

Target of Change: Individual

Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform (TCSR) Model
Marilyne Stains, University of Virginia
The teacher-centered systemic reform model focuses on the instructional change of individual faculty within a larger system. A teacher's thinking is central to their practice, and both occur within a larger context of personal factors and contextual factors.

Target of Change: Organizations or Systems, Individual

SECI Model of Knowledge Creation: Socialization, Externalization, Combination, Internalization
Charles Henderson, Western Michigan University; Kadian Callahan, Kennesaw State University
The SECI model describes how organizations grow and manage knowledge through four processes that involve the interplay between explicit and tacit knowledge.

Target of Change: Organizations or Systems

Ecological Models of Behavior Change
Rebecca Sansom, Brigham Young University
Ecological models have been widely used in public health. Ecological models focus on changing personal behaviors while accounting for the influences of social, physical, and political environments. The underlying principle is that if we can change the person's environment, we can change their behavior. Therefore, there is an emphasis on policy and structural changes to produce new behavior while maintaining an individual's agency.

Target of Change: Individual

The 4I Framework of Organizational Learning
Lucas Hill, University of Wisconsin-Madison
The 4I Framework of Organizational Learning describes learning processes at different levels of an institution and the critical overlap between individual, group, and institutional mechanisms of learning.

Target of Change: Organizations or Systems

CACAO Change Model
Karen Viskupic, Boise State University; Brittnee Earl, Boise State University; Susan Shadle, Boise State University
The CACAO model focuses on four elements that are important to any change process: the Change, the Adopters, the Change Agents, and the Organization. Individuals working to enact change follow a process to identify the change, meet the needs of individual adopters in different stages of adoption, and enact changes within an organization.

Target of Change: Organizations or Systems, Individual

Four Frames
Daniel Reinholz, San Diego State University
The four frames model focuses on organizational culture, defining different lenses for making sense of an organization's culture. Recent work suggests applications of this theory to undergraduate STEM education.

Target of Change: Cultures

Expectancy-Value Theory
Jessica Spott, Texas Tech University
Expectancy-Value Theory is a motivational theory that researchers use to study how a person believes they will perform on a specific activity and why they think it is worth it to do so. EVT addresses motivation and attainment of their goals within a specific domain or area.

Target of Change: Individual