A systematic review of change theory in STEM higher educational change efforts

Wednesday 10:35 am – 11:00 am PT / 11:35 am – 12:00 pm MT / 12:35 pm – 1:00 pm CT / 1:35 pm – 2:00 pm ET Online
Concurrent Session

Tessa C Andrews, University of Georgia
Daniel Reinholz, San Diego State University

STEM educational change projects are increasingly drawing on change theory to consider how and why change occurs. Change theory is a framework of ideas, supported by evidence, that explains some aspect of how or why change occurs. Change theory relevant to higher education comes from diverse areas and change work is often siloed by STEM discipline. Therefore, we conducted a systematic review of how change theory has been used in STEM higher educational change between 1995-2019.

Our analysis of 97 peer-reviewed articles revealed a notable lack of theoretical coherence in the relatively narrow domain of STEM higher educational change. The reviewed articles used 40 distinct change theories, more than half of which were used in just one or two articles. Eight change theories were used in three or more articles, with the vast majority using one of two change theories: Communities of Practice (n = 26 articles) and Diffusion of Innovations (n = 19 articles). Eleven articles created new theories. Though each change context is unique, this enormous diversity in theoretical grounding may be a major barrier to generalization.

We also analyzed the way in which change theories informed efforts and found that most research drew upon theory in a superficial fashion. Work that does not substantively draw on theory often cannot contribute to theory, limiting what can be transferred to new contexts. Additionally, the majority of articles focused on change at the level of individuals without considering the larger system in which individuals exist, yet changing systems may be key to achieving sustainable change.

This presentation will describe the methods and results of this review, provide space for discussing implications, and highlight a new free, online resource to help change agents and researchers learn about change theories.