Unveiling the Power of the Theory of Change: A Comprehensive Guide.
In the realm of strategic planning and development, one concept has been making waves and sparking discussions across various sectors - the Theory of Change. For Higher Education it has become particularly relevant in light of the new approach to regulating equality of opportunity and evaluating interventions as part of Access and Participation Plans.
At its core, the Theory of Change is a dynamic framework that empowers organisations to not only conceptualise their goals but also map out the intricate pathways towards achieving them. In this article, we delve into the depths of the Theory of Change, its significance at the University of Greenwich, and how it can revolutionise your strategic approach.
Understanding the Theory of Change
The Theory of Change is not merely a concept; it's a structured methodology that acts as a blueprint for organisations to achieve their desired outcomes. It goes beyond simplistic cause-and-effect relationships, instead focusing on a more nuanced and interconnected approach. This methodology compels organisations to identify the long-term impact they aim to create, breaking it down into smaller, actionable steps. Each step is meticulously planned, ensuring that every action taken contributes to the overarching goal.
The Centre for Theory of Change (2021) define a theory of Change (ToC) as:
“A comprehensive description and illustration of how and why a desired change is expected to happen in a particular context. It is focused in particular on mapping out or “filling in” what has been described as the “missing middle” between what a program or change initiative does (its activities or interventions) and how these lead to desired goals being achieved.”
Outlining the Vision: The Theory of Change begins with a clear and compelling vision. It's the North Star that guides every subsequent decision and action. Crafting a vision statement that resonates with your organisation's values and aspirations is paramount. This starts by identifying the current context of the situation and the problem(s) to solve. Then, what are the short term outcomes and long-term impact you are trying to achieve.
Mapping the Pathways: Once the vision is established, the Theory of Change identifies the pathways to transform this vision into reality. It examines the sequence of events, resources, and activities required to achieve the desired change.
Inputs and Outputs: The framework also emphasises the importance of outputs: what are you measuring at each stage? Then comes the inputs: what resources are necessary and who is involved? This meticulous planning streamlines the journey towards your ultimate goal.
Assumptions and Dependencies: An integral part of the Theory of Change is recognising the underlying assumptions and dependencies that influence the success of each step. This critical analysis ensures that no stone is left unturned, minimising the risk of unforeseen obstacles.
The Theory of Change in Action: a Real-world Example
To bring the theory to life, let’s dig into the outstanding work of Tania Struetzel and the Student Engagement and Success team at the University of Greenwich.
Outlining the Vision:
At Greenwich we started our peer mentoring journey with Vygo in 2021 to support the transition of first year students at all levels, increase their sense of belonging and improve continuation. The scheme connects first-year students with a second-or third-year student via the Vygo platform and helps to build a community even before students arrive on campus. This is particularly relevant for students who are first-in-family to go to university, or students who have moved to London for university and need to establish new support networks. Alongside this, we also wanted to ensure that any scheme we put in place was user-friendly for the students and easy to administer for staff, removing any additional burdens, while still having relevant data at our fingertips.
Mapping the Pathways:
In line with our values to make our interventions as inclusive and accessible as possible, any student can become a mentor as long as they have completed the relevant training. All our mentors get paid for their time with mentees, receive a comprehensive induction and further skills development throughout the year such as public speaking and networking. New students can connect with a mentor through the platform and start chatting with them straight away. They can also schedule 121 meetings online or in person, attend group sessions or events such as mentor/mentee socials. Mentees receive tailored support according to the time of the academic year around time management, goal setting, and academic skills including assessment support.
Inputs and Outputs:
Assumptions and Dependencies:
As for any student engagement intervention, buy-in from key stakeholders is essential. That is of course first and foremost students themselves seeing the value of peer support, as well as academic staff teaching them and the wider Professional Services teams making the scheme a success including communications and IT.
The scheme is ever evolving so student feedback from current mentors and mentees is essential to further improve it, and supports a high conversion of mentees to mentors at the end of their first year.
Finally, our close working relationship with Vygo enables us to draw on additional resources supporting the running of events and most importantly having a clear understanding of the data to evaluate whether the scheme is achieving the vision we have set out to improve student success.
By providing a peer contact from day one, we ensure that students have someone they feel comfortable going to with any questions or concerns and who shares their lived experience. Mentors are trained in effective signposting to relevant university services and play an important role in ensuring that interventions are made as early as possible and students are linked in with relevant support when needed.
So, what were the outcomes?
The output numbers indicate good participation and engagement, with a key focus identified as reducing the drop-off in the number of students registering who then don’t go on to join a programme or connect with a mentor. Vygo has taken this data and feedback to develop an auto-join and auto-connect feature which has since helped 86% of users join a programme and 95% of those going on to connect to a mentor.
Student continuation with their studies
By analysing end of year surveys and student registration data, Vygo users saw a:
- 27% increase in continuation
- 33% decrease in interruption
- 51% decrease in withdrawal
Both mentors and mentees are asked at the beginning and end of the academic year to rate their confidence and knowledge of certain skills. 85% of students felt they gained new knowledge and skills. The word cloud below displays skills that were mentioned more frequently in a larger font.
Communication was one of the most improved skills. We recognised this was an area for improvement and put on additional workshops, including working with Big Wheel Theatre Company to deliver a workshop for mentors to improve their communication and public speaking skills.
Confidence and active listening skills also improved. Students felt more able to set goals and expectations in peer relationships.
Sense of belonging
Students feeling more connected to the university community and their peers is a key aim of the scheme. Again, we ask mentors and mentees at the beginning and end of the academic year to rate their sense of belonging:
- Sense of belonging/fitting in ratings of “completely” or “quite a lot” increased by 16%
- Feeling of contributing to the university community ratings of “completely” or “quite a lot” increased by 38%
- Feeling part of the university community ratings of “completely” or “quite a lot” increased by 10%
Something we would like to investigate deeper this year is the impact of the programme on students from underrepresented groups to access, succeed in and progress from higher education (further reading on APP from the OfS).
Embracing the Theory of Change for Success
The Theory of Change is not a static framework; it's a dynamic tool that evolves with your organisation's growth. By adopting this methodology, you not only streamline your efforts but also enhance accountability and transparency. Remember, the Theory of Change is not confined to a specific industry like Higher Education; its versatility makes it applicable across sectors, from nonprofits to corporations.
The Theory of Change is a transformative approach that enables organisations to chart their course towards impactful and sustainable change. By mapping out clear pathways, addressing assumptions, and focusing on inputs and outputs, you set yourself up for success in a world driven by results able to evaluate what impact your interventions have.
If you are looking to adopt the Theory of Change model in a Higher Education context, TASO provides a range of resources to support you in developing your framework.
EMEA Senior Partner Success Manager, Vygo
Head of Student Engagement and Success, University of Greenwich