Change: It Don’t Come Easy!

By Donna Qualters, Director, Tufts Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT)

Change is difficult, and creating change in individuals and systems is complex. But what’s interesting is that organizational change can create the conditions for individual change.


Research tells us that individuals go through a cycle when they try to change (Prochaska, DiClemente, and Norcross, 1992). Let’s look at this cycle of individual change in the context of teaching.

  1. After teaching for a while we are often “Pre-contemplative.” Our classroom is working fine; we get good student feedback – there doesn’t seem to be a need to change.
  2. But, when faced with something new such as active learning, flipped classroom, or inclusive teaching we enter the “Contemplative Stage” of change. We start thinking maybe we do need to try something different or adjust our current model of pedagogy.
  3. Next, many of us enter in “Decision Stage.” We decide to try something new and preparation begins.
  4. Now we’re in the “Action Stage.” We’ve done our homework, made our preparations and are ready to go and get that problem-based class going!

Whoa! But wait – Even though we, as teachers, are ready for the change, our students may not be. Individual change theory also tells us that without support individuals feel adrift and change becomes much more difficult to undertake. As teachers, we need to help students understand change and how to adjust to it. Below are some tips for faculty to help students adjust to changing classrooms adapted from a research study “Managing Changing Classroom Expectations” (Qualters, 2003).

Prepare students for change

Often students need to be guided along the change continuum from the pre-contemplative to the contemplative stage to expand their openness to something different and minimize their resistance to change. You need to help your students examine the tacit assumptions about learning that they bring to a particular class. This can be done by stating clearly at the very beginning of the class that the expectations are going to be different this semester and, while the course may have the same name as the one their friend took last year, it will be different. Next, telling students how you made your decision as a teacher to change the course brings them into the process and lets them realize that you have given a great deal of thought to making the learning environment richer for them.

Assess the change climate

It is important to do some form of early assessment to check the climate of change. You cannot trust that the vocal reaction of a small number of students represents the majority view. To have a balanced view, it is important to establish ways for all students to express their feelings. This will help sustain the change for both you and the students. As you change how you run your class, you will need to collect more feedback from your students about the new processes at an earlier point in the semester, and more frequently during the semester. One suggestion is to adapt the one-minute paper: Ask students to comment on the class process as well as the content from the very beginning weeks of the course. You can then share the results of the class viewpoints with the all students, and respond or adjust accordingly.

Tie new expectations explicitly to course objectives

Try writing objectives that clearly express that student learning outcomes will involve more active engagement to explore higher cognitive levels. Have students relate learning exercises to the achievement of those higher level objectives. This will allow them to begin to see that much of their learning is actually achieved by the new format of the class. One suggestion is to have students keep journals about their perception of their progress toward the course learning objectives and explicitly identify what activities in and out of class they felt helped them to that goal. This kind of writing exercise allows students to clearly “see” that in order to achieve the course outcomes, they had to do these new activities.

Confront reluctance to change

Many students come to higher education with set expectations for classroom experiences. You must uncover, probe and, in some cases, alter these expectations. For some students it may be necessary to reframe what learning is, e.g., learning is not about “covering material” or “gathering facts” or “taking good notes.” Learning is about understanding, integrating and using information in a meaningful way. To reinforce this, you must take care in selecting or creating assessment tools for the course that reflect more than just the ability to regurgitate information.

Early in the term try introducing concept quizzes, where students have to answer multiple choice questions that assess understanding rather than simply recall facts. Or assign word logs, where students condense reading material into a single word and tell why they chose that word. These assignments help them to more clearly understand that the change to more active learning is not arbitrary. They also encourage students to have a more conceptual understanding of the material they are learning.

While the value of these additional activities is obvious to the faculty using them, for many of the students they are new and different. Initiating early, brief discussions in class acknowledging that the class will be different and that change can be hard, will validate students’ resistance and make them feel that their concerns are heard. Instructors can help students understand, at a metacognitive level, that changes in the classroom are being made for a specific reason by briefly surveying them about their learning, asking them to keep learning journals, and continuing the dialogue between faculty and students about the results of classroom activities. While students may not like the changes, at least the change is openly recognized. The activities create a culture of continuous communication between faculty and students which assists faculty in gauging students’ progress through the stages of change.

Appreciate and emphasize the affective aspects of the classroom

Giving students more time in the class to think and process information can also create a positive change in the affective domain of learning. Change occurs for students not only in their learning, but also in their learning environment. Students in a study on changing class environments (Qualters, 2000) stated that they enjoyed working with peers and felt a sense of achievement when they accomplished a task together. This realization reduced resistance to working in teams.

A final point is important both for teachers and those who evaluate teaching: With change, there is always some resistance. There will always be students who are less flexible learners, and, unfortunately, this resistance often manifests in the form of negative teaching reviews. As a result, it is important for evaluators to understand the role the stages of change play in the classroom. Studies on faculty who changed from a more traditional lecture based model to a more cooperative based model showed that it took three iterations of the class before teaching evaluations returned to previous high levels. The good news is that subsequent evaluations often were even higher. Evaluators who recognize that students go through stages of change that are not in sync with faculty stages will be able to support faculty during this transition period. This recognition will make it easier for faculty to continue to practice and perfect a change in classroom climate, methodologies and expectations. This, in turn, will create an atmosphere for faculty that is free from the fear that negative student evaluations will negatively impact promotion or tenure.

Photo credit: “Transition” is copyright (c) 2009 Ian Sane and made available under a Creative Commons By 2.0 Generic License.