Overall lessons on effective change implementation in higher education 

'Good ideas with no ideas on how to implement them are wasted ideas'

Are we clear about the key lessons on how to take a ‘good idea’ for improving learning, teaching and assessment in higher education and making sure it is successfully and consistently put into practice and sustained?

Box Eleven summarises the key lessons from 30 years’ research and practical experience with effective change implementation in higher education that were reviewed during the workshops.

Box Eleven

Key lessons on effective change implementation in higher education

  • Give focus to achieving consensus around the data not simply around the table;
  • Use a process of ‘steered engagement’ in which a small number of priorities are agreed then pursued in the ways that best fit local circumstances in different faculties and units;
  • Use ‘nested ‘leadership (a process where local leaders like Associate Deans or Heads of Program work with a central leader like a Pro Vice-Chancellor or Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Learning & Teaching) to support each other in the process of ‘steered engagement’);
  • Give more focus to engaging with staff than to disseminating information to them;
  • Give particular attention to engaging the disengaged;
  • When engaging with staff first listen (with a case for change and options known to work elsewhere) to find out what staff see as the most relevant and feasible way to proceed; link together what most people favour; then leverage what you find by commissioning a subgroup of staff to try out the preferred solution under controlled conditions. Finally when a workable solution is developed you lead – scale up this version using the team which developed it as coaches.
  • Remember that there is a profound difference between ‘change’ (something becoming different) and ‘progress’ (a conclusion by individuals that this is an improvement on what went before).
  • Recognise that change is a learning & unlearning process for all concerned. It is not an event;
  • Learn by doing – start small, learn what works under controlled conditions then build on your successes as you scale up;
  • Foster networked learning & shared solutions around a shared quality framework;
  • Ensure policies, procedures, leadership structures, accountabilities, resourcing and incentives are brought into alignment to support the change;
  • Make sure meetings and processes are efficient and demonstrably ‘value add’, that they leave room to implement the desired change;


List out the key challenges you have faced in seeking to improve learning, teaching and assessment at your institution. Then discuss how best to address them. As you do this compare your views with the key lessons in Box Eleven and the challenges and ways of handling them suggested during the Fellowship workshops and summarised in Box Twelve.

Key implementation challenges & suggestions on how best to manage them

“When the winds of change blow some build walls, others build windmills”

(Old Chinese proverb)

Suggestions from Fellowship participants

Below the key change challenges identified by local Learning and Teaching leaders during the workshops are clustered into three themes: how to engage all staff; how to align the institution’s systems and culture with the change; and how to negotiate externally driven change challenges successfully. Some specific challenges associated with implementing the achievement standards and assessment agenda are also identified. When you click on a challenge area you will come to the suggested ways of handling it provided by Fellowship participants.

 Box Twelve

Implementation challenge and how to handle it


How to engage all staff not just the enthusiasts?

How to move beyond ‘preaching to the converted’ and the learning and teaching enthusiasts to engaging everyone with change –including those who are unengaged and the growing number of sessional staff who may be isolated from mainstream action.

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Seek a senior mentor in the Executive to champion the achievement standards and assessment agenda and endorse its importance.
  • Undertake a stocktake of what is currently working effectively at the local level in your higher education institution in each aspect of the six keys framework at the outset. In this way focus more on engagement and listening than on dissemination and telling. Then acknowledge that the change process is building on/scaling up this effective practice which is already underway in your college or university. This builds ownership and shows that what is proposed is feasible and already successfully underway, albeit in pockets, in the HEI.
  • This strategy is a practical example of the key change leadership strategy identified in all of the successful higher education leadership studies to date and roundly endorsed in every Fellowship workshop – effective change leaders and change capable universities always listen first (with a focus), then link, leverage and lead (scale up) in that order.
  • Include tracking items in student feedback surveys that cover the quality of learning outcomes and assessment and use the results to help those with lower ratings for their assessment approaches by linking them to those who are attracting higher ratings.
  • Recognise that change is a complex learning and unlearning process for all concerned – it is not an event like launching a new assessment policy. Because of this it is important to keep constantly in mind that everyone who is being asked to engage with the achievement standards and assessment improvement agenda will constantly be asking – what do I have to do differently? Is this relevant, desirable, feasible and clear? Will I be receiving support to help me fill in this gap in my expertise? With this in mind consider:
    • replicating customised versions of the Fellowship workshops with local staff as part of a train-the-trainer approach to staff engagement and capacity building, along with
    • the use of this self-teaching guide as a ‘just-in-time, just-for-me’ learning resource and
    • targeted involvement in external networks focused on aspects of the six keys agenda to identify successful ways to tackle any challenges.
    • In terms of sessional staff support participants suggested that reference to the BLASST Sessional Staff Standards Framework would be useful.
  • Keep in mind that there is a profound difference between ‘change’ (something becoming different) and ‘progress’ (a value judgement by the individual concerned this has been/will be ‘beneficial’).
  • If these engagement tests are not met then recognise that staff (just like students) will disengage and there will be no change in practice or consequent benefit to students. In order to support this learning, workshop participants suggest that we:
    • Give focus to this area in professional development and review programs for staff;
    • Use staff who have successfully implemented change in this area to coach staff who are just starting out;
    • Get experienced staff to help new ones by asking them to write a guide on how they manage in the same role;
    • Put in place an assessment-focused learning guide system for each unit of study and require all staff to ‘teach’ it in the first session of each unit delivery.
  • Always listen to ‘resisters’ – because this will help you find out what change implementation challenges you have to address and because, if listened to carefully, they will often come up with a positive idea that can be acknowledged to others, thereby creating a positive not a negative incentive for them to engage. Always listen to resisters before a meeting and always discuss difficult issues personally before emailing to confirm what was discussed and the actions this it was agreed would be taken.
  • Start small and build on your successes. Do this by using a small volunteer group of staff and students to try out a desired change under controlled conditions. Here the aim is to learn how best to make a desired improvement to assessment and assuring achievement standards work by trying it out in a pilot and then, once it is operating successfully, to use this pilot group as coaches for others to assist scale-up of the most workable approach. This is consistent with the ‘ready, fire, aim’ strategy endorsed at the workshops which was seen as a more productive approach than the ‘ready, aim, aim, aim’ one that has been characteristic of some change approaches in the past. It is also consistent the observation by Francis Bacon in the 17th century that in life ‘we rise to great heights by a winding staircase.’

How best to engage senior executives and key external players with the achievement standards and quality assessment agenda?

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Develop a ‘why bother’ case that shows how this initiative meets the motivators of each of these leaders and their particular priorities. Start, therefore, with the ‘why’ not the ‘what’ – and go for both the heart and the head.
  • Listen (with a menu of relevant initiatives that have worked elsewhere and ask for their feedback on whether any of these might be worth pursuing) and link (what most leaders find most relevant and feasible) into a proposed plan of action. Don’t tell.
  • Articulate both the business case for the change and how it will achieve the institution’s/nation’s key development objectives and ‘moral purpose’ ¬– demonstrate the positive benefits for reputation, demand, retention, income and graduate success.
  • Use peer pressure between senior leaders in different higher education institutions as potentially relevant extra incentive to foster engagement.
  • Give leaders the language to use – but keep it simple by using plain English and avoiding ‘eduspeak’.
  • Align the case for change with the target leader’s own policy imperatives and incentives – including the key priorities they have to deliver upon that have been set down for them by the individual or group to whom they report (e.g. the Board, Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, Prime Minister etc)

Lack of practical exemplars and case studies of success to show that action in this area is both beneficial and feasible

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Develop a searchable clearing-house of exemplars of successful implementation using the ‘6 keys’ framework as an organising system.
  • Alert academics to the relevant sections of this guide when they need ideas, tips and examples of how others have carried out a particular aspect of the six keys framework.
  • Recognise that change is a complex learning and unlearning process for all concerned – it is not an event. So apply the same engagement motivators for staff and the same active, ‘just-in-time and just-for-me’ learning methods as we use with students.
  • Foster networked learning – a key form of learning for leaders.


 Box Twelve

Implementation challenge and how to handle it


Staff say they dont have time to engage with the six keys' agenda

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Advocate for actively identifying and reducing duplicated effort or procedures that do not add value to student outcomes; avoid ‘busy work’;
  • Meet less but meet better – consider undertaking meetings by teleconference to save travel time, especially when everyone knows one another.
  • Undertake an audit of meetings to identify exactly how each of them ‘adds value’ to student outcomes and effective operation – remove or decrease the number of those that don’t meet this test.
  • Ensure that those who chair meetings are trained and hold people who agreed to undertake an action in a previous meeting to account in the next one.
  • Set a smaller number of institutional priorities for action and foster a ‘steered engagement’ strategy for implementing them in locally suitable ways.

What to do if the institutional culture is 'change averse?'

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Recognise that change capable cultures are build by change capable leaders modelling the top rating capabilities of effective leaders – especially when things go awry or an unexpected opportunity arises.

Having to operate within the 'baronial, mono-disciplinary, accountability and funding structure and systems found in some higher education institutions

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Set up a ‘nested’ leadership system to help overcome this.

  • Emphasise consensus around the data not just around the table.
  • Argue for more ‘systems thinking’ - a process in which all the key players are acknowledged for the role they play in enhancing the total student experience, retention and success; and the development of a ‘why don't we’ not a ‘why don’t you’ culture is encouraged

Not being at the 'high table' of decision-making

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Argue for and show the institutional benefits of ‘nested leadership’ and the benefits of the DVC/PVC holding ‘stocktake meetings’ with Heads of Program as well as A/Deans, Deans and Heads of School. For one model see the UWS (WSU) Head of Program initiative.

  • Put in place clear senior leadership accountabilities for the successful implementation of the agenda with appropriate support and rewards for successful implementation.

Institutional rewards are not in alignment with the six keys agenda and may focus more on research and individual success

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Put in place team-focused improvement awards for:
    • successful implementation of quality improvements in the area of assuring achievement standards, achieving a demonstrably positive impact on student outcomes and
    • the use of dilemma-based assessment, capstones and other forms of ‘powerful’ assessment that attract high levels of student satisfaction and show a positive impact on student outcomes.
  • Reward successful, collaborative action in this area in the annual VC awards and in promotion systems.

Misalignment of policies and procedures

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Suggest the adoption of an online course development and review system based on the notion of ‘flipping the curriculum’ and using the ‘six keys’ framework – align policy and procedures to this and allocate key central and local leaders to be accountable for its effective operation and support. Provide exemplars written by successful program teams for each of the ‘six keys’ in order to help teams new to the process see how it works in practice.
  • Advocate for HR promotion systems to reward demonstrable success in addressing the achievement standards and assessment quality system.
  • Set up local ‘coaches’ on the ‘six keys’ framework – people who have already successfully engaged with each element. Build these local coaches into a university wide network convened by a senior leader.
  • Review leadership promotion criteria and ensure that the top ranking capabilities for each local and central leadership role take into account the top 10 highest ranking capabilities identified in the learning leaders and other HE leadership studies.


 Box Twelve

Implementation challenge and how to handle it

Fellowship participants noted that these broader change forces are important and need to be recognised and negotiated positively as a team whenever possible 

A rapid growth in enrolments and in student diversity

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Identify and share effective strategies for alerting students from this increasingly wide range of backgrounds, abilities, needs and experience to how assessment works. 
    For example, invite successful third year students from particular groups to write a ‘lonely planet’ guide for people from the same background just entering university on how assessment works. Targeted guides can be produced for Indigenous, mature aged, first in family and international students from specific countries.

The greater focus now being given by funding agencies, governments and students on demonstrating ‘value for money’ and positive outcomes from higher education programs

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Use this as part of the ‘why bother’ case with colleagues when seeking their engagement with the achievement standards and quality assessment agenda. Show how the capabilities being developed are directly relevant to successful early career performance.

A growing emphasis in external audits and in (re) accreditation systems on confirming the quality of the outcomes of higher education not just of the inputs

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Use what external auditors and accreditors are looking for as an internal change lever.
  • Note that what auditors look for is evidence of a change capable, quality-focused university/college culture – the key attributes include: consistency, equivalence, evidence-based improvement action, accountable leadership and demonstrably positive student outcomes and impact.

External accreditation requirements that don’t align with the validated professional capability framework endorsed during the Fellowship.

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Introduce the accrediting agencies to the validated capability framework in this guide and to the outcomes of studies of successful early career graduates in the profession concerned (link to the successful graduates section in the references), with the aim of working together to further enhance and sharpen their current framework and better position the profession concerned.

‘Digital disruption’ and a tendency to modularise and disaggregate learning into discrete packages of information.

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons

  • Show that what counts for successful employment, entrepreneurship and effective early career performance is what the studies of successful, work-ready plus early career graduates have revealed : that the most effective performers are able to operate proactively, inventively and productively in a rapidly changing, transdisciplinary world where it is the effective integration of personal, interpersonal, cognitive capabilities of the type outlined earlier in the guide that count not merely the possession of high levels of current skills and knowledge (competencies).
  • Explore the use of new interactive ICT tools for dilemma-based/problem-based assessment simulations to enable scale-up in the use of this ‘powerful’ approach to assessment & learning and to put paid to the myth that ‘information is learning’.

Growing national and international competition

Suggested ways to handle it using the key change implementation lessons
  • Use this as part of the ‘why bother’ case with staff when seeking their engagement with the achievement standards and quality assessment agenda – by showing that if we are not able to retain ‘market share’ and optimise retention and success students may go elsewhere and that, as a consequence, their jobs may be under threat due to the loss of income.
  • Emphasise that for every student lost at the end of first year some $20k in government funding is lost (the amount provided by government for years 2 and 3 of an undergraduate degree).


These change challenges and the suggestions for handling them align with the specific challenges Fellowship participants said they had encountered when seeking to enhance the quality of achievement standards and assessment. These are identified in Box 13.

Box Thirteen 

Some common implementation challenges when seeking to assure the quality of achievement standards and assessment

For university students
  • Unclear expectations (c.f. use of assessment focused unit learning guides); 

  • Unclear on how each unit of study and its assessment fits into the bigger picture of where their degree program is leading; 

  • Inadequate or unfocused feedback; 

  • Different assessment loads between units of study 

  • Assessment tasks all due on the same day; 

  • Over-assessment of basic skills and knowledge out of context; 

  • Group assessment and ‘free loaders’.

For university staff 
  • Processes used to assure the quality of assessment don’t add value; 

  • Time consuming meetings without a productive outcome for students; 

  • Absence of a shared language, overall framework & clear accountabilities; 

  • Unavailability of good practice models, exemplars and ‘lonely planet’ guides; 

  • Unaligned services and rewards for improvements in QA for assessment; 

  • Limited, timely tracking and improvement data; 

  • Inadequate opportunities to benchmark for improvement; 

  • Unclear leadership and accountabilities; 

  • Limited access to peer support; 

  • Sessional staff are not always engaged or ‘in the loop’.


  • Fullan, M & Scott, G (2009): Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education, Jossey Bass, San Francisco. See in particular
    • Chapter 2: Failed strategies (pgs 25-42)
    • Chapter 4: Making it happen (pgs 73-96)
  • See the research with 500 experienced L&T leaders in the 2008 OLT/ALTC funded Learning Leaders in Times of Change project; in the ATEM LH Martin Institute study with 159 professional leaders tertiary education in Australia & NZ and in the 2013 study of 188 successful leaders of education for sustainability in universities and colleges around the world.
  • For a practical guide from Canada on this area see: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (2015): Learning outcomes assessment: a practitioner’s handbook, HEQC, Toronto, Canada. Section 3. Pgs 43ff.
  • For additional suggestions on handling implementation ‘hot-spots’ see Barrie et al (2012): Assessing and assuring Australian graduate Learning outcomes, OLT, Sydney. Simon Barrie and colleagues identify some key policy issues related to the assurance of graduate learning outcomes in Table One on pg 54 of their report. Here they identify a range of relevant policy issues and then summarise why each is an issue and make suggestions on how each might best be addressed. The issues and way of handling them which are covered include: fragmented program assessment design; policy gaps and inconsistencies; addressing grading quality and cut-offs; use of norm-referenced moderation; mandatory provision of detailed criteria and standards for assessment judgement; mandatory variety in assessment tasks; assessment balance and feedback, inclusion of non achievement factors like class attendance in grade calculations.