Understanding Adoption of New Teaching Strategies through a Behavioral Change Model

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

Todd Zakrajsek

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

For over 25 years, leaders in higher education have been suggesting educators shift the classroom focus from teaching to learning (King, 1993; Barr & Tagg, 1995; Hake, 1998). Along the way, this movement has called for the end of the lecture (Bajak, 2014) and advocated for more active and engaging teaching strategies (Major, Harris, & Zakrajsek, 2015). What has all this accomplished? There have certainly been advances in engaging students in the learning process, but lecturing continues to be one of the most frequently used teaching strategies. Why is it that so many faculty are resistant to make the shift to a more learning-centered classroom?

When faculty members resist employing, or adapting, learning strategies that engage students they are often considered "out of touch" or even accused of not caring about their students.

The message to these experienced teachers is often that they need to abandon how they have been teaching and to engage in a pedagogical pursuit different from anything they have seen previously. It seems few realize the undertaking boils down to a simple request of changing their behaviors. Ok, it may seem simple, but one thing psychologists have long known is that creating a new habit (i.e., changing behavior) is extremely challenging.

We can all agree that making New Year's resolutions are easy, but it is difficult to live up to proposed behavior changes of eating mindfully, exercising regularly, or becoming more organized. Likewise, at the start of each academic year, who does not vow to change at least one aspect of a course? How many times do we end up abandoning our proposed self-imposed teaching changes for familiar, comfortable day to day instructional routines? To change behavior requires mindfulness, an action plan, and practice to develop the habit. Perhaps that is the disconnect. To implement a social movement such as changing how we educate learners in the best possible way, each faculty member must exhibit the behaviors necessary to bring about that change.

Have we erroneously omitted the steps necessary to sustain changed behavior to reach the goal of shifting from teaching to learning? We cannot successfully adopt learner-centered teaching without an action plan. A framework for understanding how to bring about behavioral change is required. So, for this blog, let us walk through The Transtheoretical Model, a behavioral change model developed by Prochaska and DiClimente (1983), a model that is still widely in use today.

This model consists of Stages of Change that one progresses through in adopting a new behavior: Precontemplative, Contemplative, Preparation, Action, Maintenance, and Relapse.

Precontemplative Stage

The first stage of the model recognizes that individuals are not aware that a problem, or a desired behavior, even exists. One cannot change a behavior if one does not even know there is an issue.

Much of our lives are lived automatically - in the absence of mindfulness.

We do not think about how we walk, drive a car, or explain a concept. We repeatedly do the things that are the same things that we often do. This automaticity helps us to complete complex actions without expending much cognitive energy. To change those actions, or to do something differently, requires conscious thought. Faculty members in this precontemplative stage do not even think about learning or how students process information. They simply teach. These faculty also fail to recognize any adverse consequences of their actions. Examples of those who are in this stage might state that students flunk tests because they do not study, or students like lectures because they prefer to be spoon-fed information. In short, faculty members in this stage may well not be implementing more learning-centered teaching approaches because they do not know that change is needed or that another way to do things even exists.

Contemplative Stage

As the name suggests, individuals in this stage seek to change and start to see the advantages and disadvantages of behavioral change. This contemplation of costs and benefits occurs before any change occurs. The key feature of this stage is that there is an awareness of the behavior in question. A faculty member may come to realize students are struggling in a course, even though class attendance is high, and most students attend review sessions. He may wonder if there are ways to teach the course that will help the struggling students and speak to a colleague about her approaches. As a result, this faculty becomes aware of books and articles devoted to how people learn, and they may hear colleagues in the break room talking about engaged learning strategies that are associated with increased student learning. These individuals would like to teach differently but are not sure how to get started to make the necessary changes. As the name of this stage states, faculty at this point contemplate teaching differently.

Preparation Stage

This stage is represented by individuals who have decided to work on a behavioral change immediately, or at least within the next month. Concerning teaching, faculty members may have signed up for an active learning workshop, purchased a book about brain-based learning, read a blog about the challenges of changing behaviors, or registered for a conference on advancing teaching and learning. These individuals are ready to take action necessary to make a behavioral change and have begun to develop resources to make a sustained change in their life.

Action Stage

Here individuals have either just started a new behavior or been employing that new behavior through systematic processes for up to six months. The new practices are in place, and the targeted behavior is measurable. Examples for faculty members may be the use of classroom assessment techniques, teaching students metacognitive strategies, and presenting new teaching strategies at an interdisciplinary conference. These individuals have a plan in place and are seeing results.

Maintenance Stage

According to extensive research on this model of behavior change across a wide variety of behaviors, individuals are considered to be in the maintenance phase for six months to five years. A noted previously, behavior change is challenging, and behavioral patterns exhibited for several months are still very susceptible to relapse. Getting feedback from students regarding the effectiveness of teaching each week may slip after a few months. Completing quick classroom assessments at the end of each class might begin to be skipped from time to time. That said, once behaviors are in place for more than six months, these relapses are much less likely. Individuals who successfully change behavior and maintain that new action for several years do not desire to return to a previous state of teaching without taking an evidence-based approach. Faculty members in this stage may talk about how, long ago, they used to teach from a position they would never accept today.


Everyone can, and does, slip from time to time. It is important to consider relapse to an earlier behavior as a part of the process. A relapse is not a failure, but something to work through. When a relapse occurs, identify what triggered the relapse or what was the motivation for the relapse. Learn from such experiences as well. It may be that years after setting always using the first day of class to build community among students a faculty member slips and talks for the entire first class period. By identifying triggers and motivators, one may work back through action to maintenance once again, and this time with less likelihood of relapse in the future.


Changing behavior is complex and challenging. It seems helpful to keep in mind that faculty members who struggle to move from outdated continues lectures will need assistance getting to the point of a solid combination of minilectures and facilitated engaged learning activities. We can be growth-minded towards behavior change of teaching with engaged learning strategies. We expect our students to be growth-minded and watch them struggle as they change their behaviors. We give them the benefit of the doubt when they express an opinion not based on evidence and strive to help them to see another point of view. We realize that on the first day of class, students have yet to learn about the course subject. We are patient while expecting their behavior to change. It seems we should think about teaching strategies and our colleagues in this same light.

There are faculty in both the precontemplative and contemplative stages who need our understanding and support. There are emerging aspects of teaching, for which I am also in a precontemplative stage. That should not surprise anyone. None of us can know everything. For those individuals in a precontemplative stage with regard to any issue, we can help make them aware of possibilities. For those in the contemplative stages and beyond, they are starting a journey, albeit a difficult and deeply meaningful journey.

To successfully incorporate new behaviors that move us towards learner-centered environments, faculty need to support each other through the process.

Discussion questions:

1. Without using names or any identifiers, describe what it is like to be in a class of a faculty member you believe was in the precontemplative stage with respect to learning-centered approaches to teaching?

2. Identify one thing that you learned in the past year that surprised you about teaching and learning. Where did you come across this information and how has it impacted your teaching practice?

3. In the past two years what teaching strategy did you believe worked well, yet you stopped doing it? Why did you stop? Did you even realize you had stopped? Based on this reading how would you incorporate that behavior again in the future and what might you put into place to reduce the probability of relapse?

References and Additional Readings

BajakMay, A., FrederickNov, E., MoraOct, K., FrederickOct, E., FrederickOct, E., & FrederickOct, E. (2017, December 10). Lectures aren't just boring, they're Ineffective, too, study finds. Retrieved from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/05/lectures-arent-just-boring-theyre-ineffective-too-study-finds.

Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning —A New Paradigm For Undergraduate Education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning27(6), 12–26. doi: 10.1080/00091383.1995.10544672

Hake, R. R. (1998). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics66(1), 64–74. doi: 10.1119/1.18809

Howell Major, C., Harris, M., Zakrajsek, T. (2016).  Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to put your Students on the Path to Success. New York, NY: Routledge.

King, A. (1993). From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching41(1), 30–35. doi: 10.1080/87567555.1993.9926781

Prochaska, J. O., & Diclemente, C. C. (1983). Stages and processes of self-change of smoking: Toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology51(3), 390–395. doi: 10.1037//0022-006x.51.3.390

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