What we wish we would have known about theories of change and change theory at the beginning

Laura Muller
The Jackson Laboratory
Melissa Eblen-Zayas
Carleton College
Melissa Eblen-Zayas, Carleton College and Laura Muller, The Jackson Laboratory

published Dec 7, 2023 11:04am

Six years ago when we first met, we were two individuals who identified a common challenge on our campuses – namely supporting students who arrived with varying comfort and experience using quantitative (Q) skills in STEM and social science contexts. Talking with others, we were eager to think about how we might collaborate to do better for our students. We wanted to make a change, but change theories or theories of change? We didn't know what those were! As we have learned about change strategies and change theory over the last six years, we've repeatedly come across ideas that make us think, "Wow, we wish we would have known this when we started this project!" This post is an effort to share some of what we've learned with other practitioners who might be trying to change things on their own campuses.

Our project took place within a consortium of 10 institutions, where consortial gatherings regularly brought together faculty and staff to identify how technology-enhanced teaching and learning might offer new opportunities at these residential colleges, which prided themselves on being high-touch institutions that valued face-to-face interactions. Through these gatherings, an emerging consensus developed among participants that online modules providing review and practice of quantitative (Q) skills in multiple disciplinary contexts could potentially add to the tools we were already using to support students, and designing modules that were tailored for our liberal arts consortium is something that we could tackle collectively. A core group of faculty and staff became enthusiastic about developing online resources that could demonstrate the relevance of Q skills across the curriculum and that could be used in a variety of instructional contexts at our institutions, including introductory STEM and social science courses, peer tutoring programs, or quantitative resource centers.

Having a tangible product that we were working to develop helped catalyze action. A proof-of- concept project garnered positive responses from both faculty and students who used the modules. Having made such progress through a grassroots effort that lacked formal leadership or incentives for involvement buoyed our sense that this project was worth continuing.

So the two of us, and two others who had played significant roles in the project, applied for NSF IUSE funding, which required articulating a project theory of change. We began by considering the change strategies we might use – aided by Borrego and Henderson 's framework categorizing different change strategies, which are called interventions in the change theory literature. Instead of considering the bigger picture, we zoomed right into what we wanted to do (interventions) and how to measure impact (indicators). We now know that interventions and indicators are only two of four key elements that change agents need to think through as they make a project's theory of change explicit. As outlined by Anderson, a theory of change is project specific, accounting for how actions, or interventions taken to achieve project goals, will lead to indicators demonstrating that those goals have been met, while explicitly describing rationales and assumptions (how the actions will lead to the goals) and context (the landscape in which the project occurs) for the work. However, we were not unusual in beginning by focusing on interventions. In their 2015 work, Kezar, Gehrke, and Elrod noted that practitioners often have difficulty identifying all the elements of a theory of change in project planning, and they warn that one implicit assumption about a theory of change held by practitioners is that meaningful change can start with interventions.

Although we had thought through our interventions and indicators, we did not pay enough attention to two other elements of a theory of change: institutional contexts and rationale & assumptions. In particular, as a grassroots effort that transformed into a more formalized project, considering the positionality of various colleagues within their institutions and being more intentional about who and how many people to intentionally engage would have been helpful. Also, we had an implicit rationale for how we thought the change would happen in our project, but we did not explicitly articulate this – and associated assumptions – as clearly as we should have. Here are three unstated assumptions that caused us difficulties.

Assumption 1: After a pause, we could pick up grassroots efforts where we left off

It took many conversations over an extended period of time to slowly build a shared vision for our grassroots effort. While the proof-of-concept project was quite successful, momentum stalled during the almost two years of proposal writing and waiting for funding. As with many grassroots efforts, the people involved change over time, and we did not take a careful approach to thinking about how to restart the conversations to provide additional context for new participants and nor did we explicitly articulate the project's change strategies and rationales that were clarified through the NSF proposal process for those who had been involved in the early days, but who did not participate in proposal development.

Assumption 2: If we started by considering one element of the ecosystem, people would consider the connection to other elements of the ecosystem

We had always envisioned our focus on developing online modules to be one element of larger efforts to support student Q skill development. Although we were initially focused on collaborative development of modules, over the course of the project, we planned to bring folks together to discuss how these modules fit with other support approaches. However, we did not explicitly begin our conversations by taking stock of approaches that worked well and how the new modules might enhance what was already happening. Therefore, some people did not see this work as complementary to what was already occurring. In retrospect, using an appreciative inquiry as a formal change theory to guide us as we restarted our discussions would have been helpful as it would have reaffirmed what approaches were already working.

Assumption 3: We could explore the nuances of disciplinary and institutional context later

The institutions within the consortium had similar profiles - selective residential liberal arts colleges with similar student body demographics – so we thought we could wait to explore the effects of institutional context (and disciplinary context) on faculty choices until later in the project. We planned to build an initial round of modules in collaboration with a broad cross-section of faculty, and then to convene faculty learning communities to think about how a variety of support approaches, including the online modules, could help build a Q skills support ecosystem. We thought these conversations would be valuable in helping us uncover details about how institutional and disciplinary context impacted the support ecosystem. We now believe we should have narrowed our focus to working with fewer disciplines and really tried to dig into the subtleties of institutional context at a few institutions earlier in the project.

Beyond working through the challenges of our unstated assumptions, we also needed clearer pictures of other projects' theories of change in order to understand how the interventions or indicators from those projects might or might not be relevant for our circumstances, given differing contexts, rationales, and assumptions, as shown in Figure 1. Though we had read literature about other change projects, those papers described project frameworks, but they often did not articulate how the authors decided those approaches were the right ones for the circumstances.

We were naive enough that even if we had read about complete theories of change, we likely would not have recognized how theories of change had been informed by formalized change theories. An understanding of the broader context of formal change theories from across disciplines, such as what is outlined in this article by Reinholz, White, and Andrews, or resources on the ASCN website, would have been extremely helpful to guiding our efforts and understanding what was broadly relevant and what was unique to our project. We are looking forward to bringing what we have learned about formalized change theory and project-specific theories of changes to the next projects we undertake.

For more a more detailed discussion of our thoughts on working on this project and what we learned, see:

Eblen-Zayas, M., Muller, L. J., & Russell, J. (2023). Possibilities and pitfalls of practitioners in trying to apply change theory as viewed through the lens of Reinholz, White, and Andrews "Change theory in STEM higher education: a systematic review". International Journal of STEM Education, 10(1), 53.

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