Do you need a change theory?

Daniel Reinholz
San Diego State University
Tessa Andrews
University of Georgia
Tessa Andrews, University of Georgia and Dan Reinholz, San Diego State University

published Apr 6, 2021 8:27am

Do you have an innovative new approach to teaching? Are you an educator who is frustrated by the lack of support for new teaching methods? Are you an administrator trying to improve education on your campus? Although research has taught us a lot about how to improve teaching and learning, actually making these improvements a reality can be much more challenging. That is where change theory comes in.

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 inquire about the underlying assumptions of efforts, shine light on the context and system in which change is sought, guide the selection of indicators used to measure outcomes, and inform the design of interventions.

In order to move beyond educational theories to real changes on the ground and to build transferable knowledge about achieving change, we need change theories. Change theories can help us navigate the complex political and systemic changes required to actually impact educational practices. Using change theory helps us capitalize on and contribute to what is known about achieving change in the context of higher education.

Many conversations within and beyond ASCN arrived at a similar sentiment: it can be hard to identify and learn about relevant change theories! Therefore, Working Group 1 has launched a new effort to develop a collection of short and informative summaries of change theories. Each summary provides:

  • an overview of the theory, including key visual representations 
  • an example of how the change theory has or could be used in the context of higher educational change
  • a brief treatment of assumptions and limitations
  • key references

This collection recognizes that we seek change in different parts of the system. Currently, each theory is tagged as addressing individual change, organizational/system change, or cultural change. As the collection expands, we may tag theories in additional ways.

You can access the collection from this page. The collection currently includes summaries of six change theories, including:

  • Teacher-centered systemic reform, summarized by Marilyne Stains
  • Theory of planned behavior, summarized by Rebecca Sansom
  • Concerns-based adoption model, summarized by Brenda Garrison
  • Four categories of change strategies, summarized by Alice Olmstead
  • Four frames, summarized by Daniel Reinholz
  • Innovation-decision model, summarized by Tessa Andrews

We are currently seeking authors who have used change theory in their own work or who are interested in writing or contributing to a summary. Contact Working Group 1 (Tessa Andrews, or Daniel Reinholz, if interested.


Reinholz, D.L., Andrews, T.C. Change theory and theory of change: what's the difference anyway?. IJ STEM Ed 7, 2 (2020).

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