Using Theory of Change in Teaching and Learning

Theory of Change (ToC) is usually associated with large-scale humanitarian interventions (see for instance, UNDAF – Guidance on Theory of Change(opens in a new window), or UNEP Theory of Change(opens in a new window)). However, as a method for planning, implementing, and evaluating projects of change, ToC provides a powerful and flexible toolset that can be used at small or large scale to drive change in higher education.

Theory of Change is often conceptualised within Program Theory(opens in a new window), which seeks to explain how a program or intervention will effect the change it intends to. This approach equips such program developers with indicators that that can be measured to determine the impact of their program.

Theory of Change is usually aimed at behavioural or organisational change, changing what people do, the way they make choices, or engage with a service—it’s often focused on cultural change for long-term, sustainable change.

How does Theory of Change work?

There is no single theory of change; the theory is specific to the intervention, though it should be informed by research and relevant theoretical work. A Theory of Change helps provide structure and usually explains most of, if not all, the features of a given intervention.

A Theory of Change should explain:

  1. Why an intervention is needed (i.e., what the problem is);
  2. What the intervention is (including any theoretical sources);
  3. What the expected result of the intervention will be;
  4. What activities the intervention will contain;
  5. How those activities lead to the desired change;
  6. What indicators will be used to measure the impact of those activities.

We can potentially condense these elements down to three questions:

  1. What are you trying to change?
  2. Why is it a good idea to make this change?
  3. How will you know if the change worked as intended?

As with action research, ToC provides scope for iteration and refinement. By capturing intermediate results, you can refine your intervention, implement and measure again. Theory of Change and Action Research(opens in a new window) can, in fact, be complementary tools for quality enhancement in teaching and learning.

So how would you use ToC to enhance teaching and learning?

Developing a Theory of Change requires intentional design. Whether it’s a quality enhancement, an innovation, or a complete restructure of whole curricula (e.g., Chadha et al, 2022(opens in a new window)) identifying the problem (or opportunity), articulating the intervention needed and establishing the pedagogical or theoretical foundations that inform that intervention are critical components of any ToC.

Outlining the actions your intervention will take, what you expect their effects to be, and how you will know they are having those effects (i.e., the indicators or metrics), help you put your plans into action. Your choices should stem from the pedagogical foundation—but there is always room for creativity and experimentation, especially if you are engaging in SoTL research.

By way of example, you might have difficulty with student engagement in an online subject and decide to use a Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Community of Inquiry Hub article(opens in a new window)) to improve the quality of synchronous and asynchronous engagement. You might use a select set of learning analytics to measure any increase in activity, along with other instruments (surveys, interviews, etc.). There might be a specific asynchronous activity you want to encourage students to complete (for example, a reflective task in a discussion board), which is then picked up in a synchronous class activity. You might frame this approach in terms of the social and instructor presences of the CoI framework. This process may culminate in a reflective assessment task designed to embedded reflective practice in subsequent activities and assessments.

Using Logic Models to develop a Theory of Change

One ToC tool that might be useful for articulating the steps of your intervention is a logic model. A logic model can be a simple representation of the steps of the planned intervention--logic models can also be quite complex; it depends on the complexity of your intervention. Logic modelling is sometimes used in primary and secondary education as a part of the design of program or initiatives within School: Logic Modelling (NSW Education)(opens in a new window)

A logic model is usually presented as a diagram--a simple version might just just be a pipeline diagram, where one segment leads to the next. There is a causal relationship between the segments--or at least there is a causal assumption that connects each segment of your logic model; your pedagogical theory or theoretical framework is a key component in establishing a robust causal connection.

Below is a simplified example of what a pipeline logic model might look like:

Logic Model - Pipeline Model

The language of "outputs" and "outcomes," might be understood as "intermediate outcomes" and "ultimate outcomes," or "short-term outcomes" and "long-term outcomes." As you dig deeper into the Theory of Change literature, you will notice there is no definitive terminology in this space.

You can view an extended version of the above logic model here: Pipeline Logic Model (Extended) (PDF, 97.8 KB)(opens in a new window)

Selected Reading List
Amundsen, C., & D’Amico, L. (2019). Using Theory of Change to evaluate socially-situated, inquiry-based academic professional development. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 61, 196-208. ScienceDirect(opens in a new window)
Armitage, D., Arends, J., Barlow, N. L., Closs, A., Cloutis, G. A., Cowley, M., ... & Wiens, C. (2019). Applying a “theory of change” process to facilitate transdisciplinary sustainability education. Ecolog(opens in a new window)y and Society, 24(3). JSTOR(opens in a new window)
Chadha, D., et al. (2022). Engaging students to shape their own learning: Driving curriculum re-design using a theory of change approach. Education for Chemical Engineers, 38, 14-21. ScienceDirect(opens in a new window)
Funnell, S. C., & Rogers, P. J. (2011). Purposeful program theory: Effective use of theories of change and logic models. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. ProQuest eBook Central(opens in a new window)
Mayne, J. (2017). Theory of change analysis: Building robust theories of change. Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 32(2). CJPE (PDF, 497 KB)(opens in a new window)
Petit, E., & Ballet, J. (2021). Habit and emotion: John Dewey’s contribution to the theory of change. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 45(4), 655-674. Oxford University Press(opens in a new window)