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  • Published: 08 June 2021

Change theory in STEM higher education: a systematic review

  • Daniel L. Reinholz 1 ,
  • Isabel White 1 &
  • Tessa Andrews   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7008-6853 2  

International Journal of STEM Education volume  8 , Article number:  37 ( 2021 ) Cite this article

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A Commentary to this article was published on 05 September 2023

This article systematically reviews how change theory has been used in STEM higher educational change between 1995 and 2019. Researchers are increasingly turning to theory to inform the design, implementation, and investigation of educational improvement efforts. Yet, efforts are often siloed by discipline and relevant change theory comes from diverse fields outside of STEM. Thus, there is a need to bring together work across disciplines to investigate which change theories are used and how they inform change efforts. This review is based on 97 peer-reviewed articles. We provide an overview of change theories used in the sample and describe how theory informed the rationale and assumptions of projects, conceptualizations of context, indicators used to determine if goals were met, and intervention design. This review points toward three main findings. Change research in STEM higher education almost always draws on theory about individual change, rather than theory that also attends to the system in which change takes place. Additionally, research in this domain often draws on theory in a superficial fashion, instead of using theory as a lens or guide to directly inform interventions, research questions, measurement and evaluation, data analysis, and data interpretation. Lastly, change researchers are not often drawing on, nor building upon, theories used in other studies. This review identified 40 distinct change theories in 97 papers. This lack of theoretical coherence in a relatively limited domain substantially limits our ability to build collective knowledge about how to achieve change. These findings call for more synthetic theoretical work; greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and more formal opportunities for scholars to learn about change and change theory.


Decades of research have shed light on changes that can improve teaching and learning in STEM higher education environments (Freeman et al., 2014 ; Laursen, 2019 ; Thiry et al., 2019 ). However, actually translating these discoveries into widespread reform remains challenging (Fairweather, 2008 ; Kezar, 2011 ). Recently, there has been increased attention to understanding how theory can be used to sustain change in STEM higher education. This shift in focus has been driven by a number of factors.

One major political factor relates to workforce development within the US economy. In particular, a report highlighting a shortfall of one million STEM graduates helped spring the community to action (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012 ). The report highlighted that increasing STEM retention from 40 to 50% would address the projected shortfall. The report highlighted that while much is known about effective STEM learning and teaching environments, less is known about how to translate this knowledge into widespread change.

Second, considerable empirical evidence shows that “documentation and dissemination” approaches rarely achieve widespread change (Henderson et al., 2011 ; Kezar, 2011 ). This work has built community awareness of the limitations of developing new teaching techniques and curricula without attending to the complex systems, culture, and processes of change (Kezar, 2014 ; Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018 ).

Third, funding priorities for STEM education research reflect growing recognition for a systemic approach to change. Agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are now requiring an explicit theory of change to explain how a project will achieve its desired results. These agencies expect researchers to draw on prior theory and research to inform their work (Reinholz & Andrews, 2020 ).

Beyond the above concerns, other pressures for change include concerns for equity, diversity, and inclusion; rapidly changing technology; and an increasingly global economy. Thus, while there is increased funding and support for STEM education research in the US, there are also increased expectations. Educational improvement does not happen in a vacuum, but in complex, historical, and evolving contexts (Kezar, 2014 ).

Catalyzing widespread change requires knowledge of how change happens. Specifically, researchers are attempting to develop collective knowledge by contributing to what we call change theory . For this manuscript, we define a change theory as a framework of ideas, supported by evidence, which explains some aspect of how or why systemic change in STEM higher education occurs, and is generalizable beyond a single project (Reinholz & Andrews, 2020 ).

Traditionally, scholarship about systemic change has happened in the domains of organizational change, business management, and higher education. Yet scholars of these fields typically do not have the same levels of entry and access to STEM learning environments that STEM Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) scholars do. They also lack intimate knowledge about the differences between STEM disciplines and the resulting implications for change (Reinholz, Matz, et al., 2019 ). As such, DBER scholars have played a primary role in initiating and sustaining change efforts in STEM higher education, but many lack formal training in educational or organizational change. This has limited the field’s ability to productively use theory to build generalizable knowledge. Thus, DBER fields would benefit from an analytic review of relevant change theories. Such a review would enable DBERs to productively use one or more theories to guide their work to promote change and to study how it occurs.

Building upon theory is especially important in the study of change because most investigations of change in STEM higher education focus on a single initiative. Consequently, many investigations must be synthesized to identify larger patterns. These comparisons would be facilitated if researchers investigated common factors and used compatible change theories. Indeed, different theories can provide very different insights into a project’s outcomes, but secondary analyses of existing studies are difficult to perform due to lack of public access to the necessary details of a project and limitations of data collected from a particular theoretical perspective (Pilgrim et al., 2020 ). Moreover, STEM disciplines remain highly siloed. For example, many leading journals and conferences for disseminating research on change in STEM higher education are discipline-specific, limiting the degree to which new work builds on prior work. Thus, we see a need to bring together work across STEM disciplines to investigate which change theories are used and how. We hope to facilitate cross-disciplinary conversations, learning, and collaboration.

Goals and organization

Our overarching goal for this manuscript is to characterize how change theory is used in the growing body of research about systemic change in STEM higher education. We aim to support STEM-DBER scholars to make informed decisions about the design, development, implementation, and research of their educational improvement efforts. This will support DBER scholars who are actively researching change, and also newer scholars, by providing an accessible entry point. Currently, there are few succinct resources that can provide a general overview of change theory for newcomers.

The manuscript is organized as follows. We begin first by summarizing two major change research syntheses that precede this work. Then, we elaborate on the concept of theory of change (Anderson, 2005 ) to organize the systematic review of change theory that follows. After describing our methodological approach, we summarize change theories used to guide studies in STEM higher education. Our summary of each change theory begins with a brief overview of the theory itself, followed by a review of how the theory has been used. We close with emergent themes and implications for research and practice.

Background and framing

Prior work to synthesize research about change in stem higher education.

We build on two prior efforts to organize research relevant to change in STEM higher education. We briefly recount this prior work and articulate the novelty of this review.

Based on an analytic review of literature about facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices, Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) proposed a system to categorize strategies for achieving change in STEM higher education. They grouped change strategies along two dimensions: the aspect of the system to be changed (individual or environments/structures) and the nature of the intended outcome of change efforts (prescribed or emergent). The resulting four categories describe how change agents have aimed to reform instruction: disseminating curriculum and pedagogy, developing reflective teachers, enacting policy, and developing shared vision (Henderson et al., 2011 ). This organizational framework has been used as a guide to help researchers and practitioners think deeply about what different strategies can and cannot accomplish, to encourage efforts to use more than one strategy to achieve change, and to help the community employ common language and concepts to communicate about their change initiatives (Besterfield-Sacre et al., 2014 ; Borrego et al., 2010 ; DiBartolo et al., 2018 ).

Characterizing the use of change theory was not the focus of the Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) analytic review. Additionally, the four categories of change are not themselves a change theory as they do not explain how or why change occurs. Borrego and Henderson ( 2014 ) expanded upon the 2011 analytic review by describing the goals, assumptions, and logics that underlie the four change strategies. Their work was an important step toward focusing attention on the importance of explicit change theory to reform STEM higher education. We aim to build on this formative work. Our contribution uniquely focuses on the ways that researchers are using change theory to inform systemic change efforts and research.

Kezar ( 2014 ) also provides an extensive synthesis of research that is relevant to change in higher education. This work brings together decades of research in organizational learning, social sciences, and higher education, and describes six overarching change perspectives: scientific management, evolutionary, social cognition, cultural, political, and institutional. Each of these perspectives encompasses a broad body of research and theory, as well as particular approaches to achieving change. One key contribution Kezar ( 2014 ) makes is to extract fundamental principles about different perspectives. This makes dense scholarship from many different disciplines accessible to change agents who are making plans for action, but does not illuminate particular change theories that researchers can use to predict and study how change occurs. Our contribution describes specific change theories that have proven useful to change initiatives in STEM higher education and the ways in which these theories have contributed to reform efforts and research on these efforts.

Theory of change

We use the framing of theory of change to bring coherence to the numerous change theories used to guide systemic work in STEM higher education. A theory of change—a concept first developed in the evaluation literature—is an approach to design and evaluation that makes explicit how a particular project is actually supposed to make change happen (Anderson, 2005 ). A theory of change is tailored to a single change initiative by the project team and may be revised throughout a project’s lifecycle; in many ways, it is similar to a logic model. In contrast, the scope of a change theory goes well beyond a single change initiative and is designed to contribute to collective knowledge about how change occurs (Reinholz & Andrews, 2020 ). By engaging in projects with a well-developed theory of change that is grounded in change theory, it becomes easier to contribute to generalizable knowledge.

Developing a theory of change involves the following: determining the ultimate goals of the project, identifying shorter-term goals that need to be reached before the ultimate goals can be achieved, designing interventions to meet goals, honing rationales about how particular interventions will lead to desired goals, accounting for the context of change, determining how to evaluate the success of an initiative, and interrogating underlying assumptions. In this analytic review, we focus on four fundamental components of a theory of change: rationale and assumptions, context, indicators, and interventions.

Rationale and assumptions

Rationales describe ideas about how to actually make change happen. Rationales are the glue that brings together the other fundamental components of a theory of change. Rationales link interventions or experiences (if a directed intervention has not occurred) to the desired outcome. They also describe why particular interventions should be measurable with particular indicators, given the underlying context. Related to rationales are underlying assumptions. For instance, some projects may orient towards solving existing problems, while others focus on building a shared vision towards an imagined future that capitalizes on organizational strengths (e.g., Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001 ). The latter assumes that building and sustaining momentum for change requires an abundance of positive feelings like hope, excitement, and inspiration (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001 ). As another example, a project may attempt to leverage data to convince a department to change their practices, which assumes that faculty and departments are rational decision-makers. Alternatively, a project could anticipate an emotional response and the need for ongoing sense-making. These underlying assumptions have implications for the rest of the project. Articulating assumptions is necessary to avoid relying on implicit ideas and hunches about how change occurs, especially in contexts that feel familiar (Kahneman, 2011 ).

The context of change in education is typically a complex and multifaceted landscape of actors and stakeholders, policies and practices, and the existing political climate (i.e., change efforts are context-specific; Lewis, 2015 ). Change theories can help describe how systems work, such as by explicating interactions between the parts and the whole of a system. They can also provide insights into specific parts of a change effort, for instance, by describing aspects of the particular system (e.g., a Historically Black College or University would function differently from a Primarily White Institution). Understanding the context is part of what makes STEM educational change unique from other types of change.

In a theory of change, a number of shorter-term goals—or preconditions—serve as waypoints to larger ultimate goals. Typically, a team develops indicators to assess progress towards these goals. Suppose a team is engaged in department-wide cultural transformation to increase the success of minoritized students. To measure progress toward the shorter-term goal of cultural transformation, the team might administer climate surveys, conduct student focus groups, or analyze departmental communications. Measuring achievement of the ultimate goal—increased student success—would require other indicators, such as course grades, persistence rates, or job placement after graduation for the target student population.

Importantly, the choice of indicators necessarily embodies a set of underlying values or assumptions. These example indicators of the ultimate goal (e.g., course grades, persistence) are but one metric of success. Alternative indicators include students’ quality of life, satisfaction with the program, and alumni engagement, each of which indicates another type of success.


Interventions are the concrete things a project does to achieve its desired outcomes. A project may begin with a particular set of interventions and iteratively revise its approach in response to empirical data. Thus, a theory of change embodies a dynamic, rather than a static, approach to change. Research shows that disseminating curriculum and teaching techniques is common, but typically does not lead to widespread change. Thus, common intuitions about how to achieve change (e.g., simply show someone “the data”) are suspect and change agents need interventions grounded in change theory and research that can be customized to their particular goals and local context. There is no one-size-fits-all model, but particular interventions may be much more likely to succeed than others. Researchers continue to develop new interventions, and as the interventions are studied across contexts, they can be improved and better understood.

We followed a careful, methodological approach to identifying and reviewing articles to ensure that this systematic review would have valid results. We aimed to identify all peer-reviewed journal articles that drew on change theory to study systemic change in STEM higher education. We outline our process here. Given our goal to extend prior work, we used the methodological approach of Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) as a starting place.

Identifying articles

We limited our search to journal articles for a variety of reasons. First, journal articles represent peer-reviewed work deemed to be of sufficient quality for publication. Second, as a practical matter, it was most feasible to systematically survey journal articles, given the existence of databases. Journal publication also ensures that the work is accessible to academics, who are typically leading and studying change in STEM higher education. This decision compliments our goal of building a resource for researchers in this area. We note now, and elaborate later, that peer-reviewed articles do not fully represent the existing scholarship.

We used four approaches to build a collection of potentially relevant peer-reviewed articles. Our first corpus was the 191 articles published between 1995 and 2008 that were reviewed by Henderson et al. ( 2011 ). These articles were identified by the authors by searching Web of Science, PsychInfo, and ERIC. The original search terms included combinations of: “change,” “development,” “teaching,” “instruction,” “instructional,” “improvement,” “higher education,” “undergraduate,” “college,” and “university.”

We added a second corpus of potentially relevant articles published after 2008. We used the databases Web of Science, PsycInfo, ERIC, and Google Scholar. Our search terms included a combination of “STEM”, “change,” “reform,” and “higher education,” with each search engine producing hundreds of results. We set the date range of inclusion from 2008 to 2019 because our search was completed in January 2020. Given the recent proliferation of work in STEM educational change, we deliberately chose a more focused set of search terms related to STEM education to increase our likelihood of finding relevant articles. For Web of Science, Psych Info, and ERIC, we did an exhaustive search. We terminated searches in Google Scholar when the majority of the articles listed on a page did not focus on change in STEM higher education. We read titles and skimmed abstracts to determine if the articles identified in the search focused on change in STEM higher education. This second corpus yielded 198 potentially relevant articles.

We collected a third corpus through a reverse citation search of the Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) synthesis. Given the prominence of this work and the alignment between their goal of reviewing scholarship about how to promote instructional change in undergraduate STEM and our goal of reviewing the use of change theory in the same domain, we expected work that cited Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) to be highly salient. This approach, sometimes referred to as referential back-tracking (Alexander, 2020 ), yielded 12 additional articles.

A fourth and final corpus of potentially relevant articles was added by directly scouring (from 2008-2019) journals that publish DBER in one or multiple STEM disciplines (see Table 1 ). Our goal was to capture the premier journals in which STEM-DBER scholars publish their work in higher education. In addition, we included some potentially relevant journals mostly focused on K12 and science/STEM-general journals to broaden our search. We used more general terms for this narrower search, including “change” OR “reform” because the journals were already limited to STEM and often to higher education. This search resulted in 8 additional articles.

These four approaches produced an extensive collection of 409 articles on which to perform more in-depth analysis, including the original 191 from Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) published through 2008, and 218 published between 2008 and 2019.

Inclusion and exclusion of articles

We analyzed each paper to determine if it met our inclusion criteria. We read abstracts and skimmed and read papers as necessary. We worked collaboratively to make all inclusion determinations. We included peer-reviewed articles that were empirical, theoretical, or reviews. We excluded opinion pieces and essays, even if they were peer-reviewed, and methods papers presenting instruments and protocols. Essays can provide useful perspectives, but do not rely on change theory to inform change efforts or the investigation of change. Similarly, methods papers may describe valuable research tools and approaches, but generally are not grounded in theory and do not actually investigate change. We also excluded all conference proceedings, white papers, reports, and book chapters.

We included articles focused on change in STEM higher education. We excluded articles addressing change at the K12 level, articles studying preservice K12 teachers, articles that broadly examined faculty work or development (but not specifically teaching), and articles that were not specific to STEM environments. We considered an article focused on STEM if the authors explicitly named this focus or if the participants in the study were mostly STEM faculty or faculty in a particular STEM discipline (e.g., chemistry). In contrast, Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) included articles that were not STEM-specific, in part due to the dearth of STEM-specific studies at the time. Given that change efforts specific to STEM have become much more common in recent decades, we narrowed our focus to STEM higher education.

We excluded work that did not draw on change theory because our central goal was to analyze the use of change theory. We defined change theory broadly as a framework of ideas, supported by evidence, that explains some aspect of how or why systemic change in STEM higher education occurs, and that is meant to be generalizable beyond a single project. Terms like “theory,” “theoretical framework,” “framework,” and “model” are not consistently used in DBER communities or across the scholarly disciplines that contribute useful change theories. Thus, we could not rely on the terminology used by the developers or users of change theories to make distinctions. We erred on the side of inclusion, looking for evidence that a theory informed the design and study of systemic change.

In a few cases, we included papers that described work implicitly informed by change theory. For example, projects describing Faculty Learning Communities draw on prior work that is grounded in the Communities of Practice change theory, but not all of these articles cite this theory. We included these articles if they examined how faculty changed, as they provided insight into the use of theory in practice. We noted that only the most commonly used change theories (Diffusion of Innovations and Communities of Practice) seemed to implicitly influence projects, which likely results from the broad use of these theories in other contexts (e.g., Rogers, 2010 ; Tight, 2015 ).

We also excluded articles that only used learning theory (not change theory) to support faculty development. While these articles may be useful for considering faculty as learners, they do not take a systemic view of change that considers factors beyond individual instructors. For example, we excluded Trigwell and Prosser ( 1996 ), because it focuses narrowly on the relationship between an instructor’s intentions and their teaching strategies, without accounting for teaching in a broader context.

Applying these inclusion and exclusion criteria yielded 97 articles that were systematically analyzed. This included 81 articles published between 2009 and 2019 and 16 published between 1995 and 2008. The sharp decrease from 191 to 16 papers from the Henderson et al. ( 2011 ) review was primarily due to the exclusion of articles that did not use change theory or were not STEM-specific. Our final collection of 97 articles included some that investigated change interventions and others that examined change separate from a specific intervention.

Analyzing articles and synthesizing results

We collaboratively analyzed each article to characterize the use of change theory. At least two authors reviewed each paper to determine which change theory or theories informed the work and how. Specifically, for each article, we determined whether and how change theory had informed the rationale and assumptions about how change occurs, the way that the context of change was conceptualized and examined, any interventions undertaken, and the indicators that researchers used to determine if change had occurred. After analyzing all articles, we split the corpus of articles into separate groups by underlying theory. Then, one or more authors reviewed each group in its entirety and began drafting a written summary for each manuscript in the group. We limited our analysis to what the article authors described in their published work, to avoid excessive inferences, even though change theory may have informed their work in ways not explained in publications.

We ultimately generated detailed summaries for every change theory ( N = 8 change theories) that was used by three or more articles ( N = 66 articles), created a list of every theory used just in one or two articles ( N = 23 articles), and determined which papers created their own change theory ( N = 11). These numbers total to more than 97 because 3 papers used a theory from two of the above categories. Finally, after summarizing all of the articles under each change theory, we performed a synthesis across theories to identify emergent themes. Table 2 provides a list of all theories used and their prevalence across the 97 analyzed articles.


As with any systematic review, we cannot ensure that we found every relevant article, but we are confident that we have been able to identify the most commonly used theories and other less commonly used theories that may have value for future work. By focusing on STEM higher education, we have omitted potentially relevant theories from other contexts. Thus, we encourage DBER scholars to draw on research beyond that in STEM higher education.

We frame our review using a theory of change framework to attend to how change theory can inform change efforts and research. This framing also compliments the expectations of funding agencies, which increasingly call for initiatives to build a project-specific theory of change that is informed by existing knowledge about how to engender change (i.e., change theory). Nonetheless, we recognize that using a different framework may have led to different insights.

Lastly, we reviewed peer-reviewed articles, which do not fully represent the existing scholarship. Given the lag time between project funding, practical implementation, and scholarly publication, it is not possible for us to document the latest cutting-edge examples of change efforts and research. Rather, our approach centers on existing scholarship and privileges researchers who have access to shepherd their work to this type of publication. Important work leveraging change theory is also present in reports, white papers, dissertations, books, and conference proceedings. Although we do not review books or reports specifically, a number of theories that we reference in this review were actually written about most extensively in books, such as Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 2010 ) or Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998 ). Thus, our review provides insight into whether potentially relevant theories published in books or reports actually impact the scholarship published in peer-reviewed journals.

Here, we present the eight theories most commonly used to support STEM higher educational change research. We begin by summarizing each theory, to provide an introduction for those new to the theory, and then describe how the change theory informed projects’ rationales and assumptions, conceptualizations of context, indicators of change, and intervention design. Table 3 provides a brief overview. We also briefly discuss rarely used theories and cases where authors generated their own theories, but we do not summarize these articles in depth. Although we describe each theory separately here, we do not advocate that a project relies on only one theory. We return to this point in our discussion.

Community of Practice (CoP; 26 articles)

Communities of Practice (CoPs) was the most commonly used theory (Wenger, 1998 ). This change theory views learning as situated and participatory (Lave & Wenger, 1991 ). A CoP is a group of people—with a common interest—who regularly interacts to more deeply engage with their practice. A CoP is defined by (1) a shared domain of interest, (2) a community of joint engagement, and (3) a shared repertoire of practices (Wenger, 1998 , p. 73). These factors constitute a social network through which ideas and expertise are collectively developed and shared. CoPs have cultures and ways of belonging to the community, including practices, norms, values, and discourses (Wegner & Nückles, 2015 ). Members of a CoP tend to start as legitimate peripheral participants, and as they deepen their expertise, they become more central. Individuals may participate in multiple CoPs and thus may act as brokers of knowledge between CoPs.

A typical lifecycle of a CoP has five stages: (1) potential, (2) coalescing, (3) maturing, (4) stewardship, and (5) transformation (Wenger et al., 2002 ). The potential phase involves initial conversations about forming a community. Coalescing is the official formation of a CoP. Maturation occurs as the CoP develops formal structures and organization. Stewardship occurs as the CoP responds to changing circumstances, technology, and challenges. Finally, transformation can result in a radical shift or disbandment of a CoP. While change in a CoP is inevitable, the nature of such change is shaped by the response of community members.

Researchers have also extended the theory of a CoP to think specifically about change. A Community of Transformation , or CoT, works across institutions and is characterized by (1) a compelling philosophy that deeply rethinks STEM education, (2) particular events and structures to help members interact, and (3) mentorship structures that support faculty back at their home institution and foster leadership within the community (Gehrke & Kezar, 2016 ). In this way, a CoT is a particular type of CoP with structures designed to support instructional change for faculty who have less-than-supportive conditions in their home departments.

Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs) are a form of teaching professional development that are often based on Communities of Practice. Specifically, FLCs assume that learning is socially constructed and situated within a particular context, a foundation of CoP as a change theory (Wenger et al., 2002 ). An FLC is formed with the particular focus of improving pedagogical practices (Cox, 2001 ). An FLC may focus on a particular course, technology, or teaching techniques, or it may be a more general space focused on pedagogical improvement. An FLC meets for an extended period of time, typically at least a year. Through regular meetings, faculty members build community, deepen their teaching practices, and engage in sustained professional learning. Unlike a disciplinary CoP (e.g., the community of mathematicians), an FLC is temporary, often facilitated through a Center for Teaching and Learning, and designed to improve instruction on a given campus.

The vast majority of articles that used CoPs drew loosely on the theory, typically centering on the idea of learning through participation (Dalrymple et al., 2017 ; Herman et al., 2015 ; Pelletreau et al., 2018 ). These articles did not focus on particular features of a CoP that may support or inhibit change. Most likely the broad use of CoPs as a change theory was in part because it is flexible, at times loosely defined, and could seem relevant in a variety of situations (e.g., Tight, 2015 ). This flexibility also meant that many articles invoked the concept of a CoP without a deep connection to theory.

There were a few exceptions, where researchers drew upon explicit features of a CoP to support and understand change. For instance, Tinnell et al. ( 2019 ) considered what features of a CoP could support pedagogical improvement. Their design built on the emergent nature of a CoP to support faculty by providing them with a sense of ownership, continuous communication, reflection, and expertise building (Tinnell et al., 2019 ). Other studies also aimed to understand the features and design considerations that contributed to positive outcomes in CoPs (e.g., Gehrke & Kezar, 2019 ; Kezar & Gehrke, 2017 ; Ma et al., 2019 ). In one study, the five stages of a CoP lifecycle were used to understand how a CoP operates (Bernstein-Sierra & Kezar, 2017 ). Yet another article drew on the concept of brokering to look at the intersections between disciplinary and pedagogical communities (Clavert et al., 2018 ). Finally, other work focused on CoTs in an attempt to build a richer theoretical base for a particular type of CoP. CoTs create spaces for faculty to substantially transform their teaching with support from outside of their local context (Bernstein-Sierra & Kezar, 2017 ; Gehrke & Kezar, 2016 , 2019 ).

Because of its community focus, theory around CoP does not necessarily draw attention to institutional structures, or how to change them. Projects using CoPs often conceptualize context in terms of the community and its three defining features: (1) domain of knowledge, (2) community of individuals, and (3) shared repertoire of practices (Bernstein-Sierra & Kezar, 2017 ; Clavert et al., 2018 ). This conceptualization helped projects define the membership boundaries of the CoP. While some articles acknowledged that change takes place within institutional contexts (e.g., Addis et al., 2013 ; Clavert et al., 2018 ), these contexts were not thoroughly conceptualized. The one exception was Gehrke and Kezar ( 2017 ), who examined how CoTs contributed to departmental and institutional STEM reform, including the CoT design features most important for these larger contextual changes.

A sizeable proportion of work utilizing CoPs studied the impact of an FLC on faculty thinking and teaching (e.g., Nadelson et al., 2013 ; Pelletreau et al., 2018 ; Tomkin et al., 2019 ). These studies used observation protocols, teaching artifacts, surveys, interviews, and custom assessments. Typically, authors did not explain whether or how CoP theory informed indicators.

Another set of studies used Social Network Analysis (SNA) to look at interactions among faculty. Some papers examined the relation between a CoP’s structure and efficacy (Ma et al., 2019 ; Shadle et al., 2018 ). One study used SNA to examine which faculty communicated with each other about teaching and what they discussed. What they learned informed the interventions they designed for the CoPs they aimed to build (Quardokus Fisher et al., 2019 ). These studies were loosely connected to the importance of community in a CoP but did not draw on specific features of a CoP to guide their analysis. A few studies, however, did draw on particular CoP constructs to guide data collection and analysis. For example, one survey study drew on previously researched desirable design features of a CoP (Gehrke & Kezar, 2019 ). Finally, one study used CoP constructs (practice, meaning, identity, and community) to analyze community development (Clavert et al., 2018 ).

There were essentially two categories of studies that drew upon CoPs to inform interventions. Most studies focused on the creation of an in-person or online CoP (typically in the form of an FLC) to create some desired change (e.g., Addis et al., 2013 ; Dancy et al., 2019 ; Elliott et al., 2016 ; Hollowell et al., 2017 ; Mansbach et al., 2016 ; Marbach-Ad et al., 2010 ). These studies drew loosely on CoP theory to design interventions (e.g., learning through participation). In fact, some studies did not discuss CoPs at all, drawing instead on literature about FLCs (Cox, 2004 ), which itself draws only loosely on CoPs.

A smaller subset of articles did not focus on creating an intervention, but rather studying CoPs that had already existed for some time (e.g., Bernstein-Sierra & Kezar, 2017 ; Gehrke & Kezar, 2016 ; Shadle et al., 2018 ). These studies tended to draw more extensively on CoP as a change theory.

Diffusion of Innovations (DoI; 19 articles)

Diffusion of Innovations (DoI; Rogers, 2010 ) was another commonly used theory. DoI describes how new ideas, technologies, or other innovations become more widely used. The theory posits that innovations spread amongst adopters over time through particular communication channels that exist within a social system. Each of these constructs is conceptualized within the theory.

DoI describes how change unfurls as a process over time rather than a one-time event. Rogers ( 2010 ) outlines five stages in this process: (1) knowledge, (2) persuasion, (3) decision, (4) implementation, and (5) confirmation/continuation. In the knowledge stage an individual develops awareness of an innovation, how it is used, and what its impact might be. This knowledge typically develops either through formal communication (e.g., media, publications, workshops) or personal interactions. The theory distinguishes between awareness, how-to, and principles knowledge. Awareness knowledge is simply knowing that an innovation exists. How-to knowledge allows an individual to correctly use an innovation. Principles knowledge goes deeper and involves how and why an innovation works. An adopter could use an innovation successfully without principles knowledge, but might also adapt an innovation in a way that undermines its utility. During the persuasion stage, an individual decides whether or not to adopt an innovation. The adopter’s perception of an innovation’s characteristics influences how likely they are to adopt it. The next stage involves a decision about whether to use an innovation. The fourth stage involves implementing an innovation, which may be done with fidelity, or adaptation. Finally, in the fifth stage, an individual reflects on the implementation of the innovation, seeking reinforcement for the decision to implement. If they encounter conflicting information or experiences regarding the innovation, they may discontinue use.

DoI proposes specific innovation characteristics that influence adoption: (1) a relative advantage over current practices; (2) compatibility with existing beliefs and practices; (3) simplicity; (4) a low barrier for “trialability,” which allows one to see if they like it or not; and (5) observability of use before adoption. Importantly, DoI has evolved over time and now it is widely accepted that many users reinvent an innovation rather than adopting it wholesale (Rogers, 2010 ). This phenomenon has been further theorized in the context of STEM higher education by Henderson and Dancy ( 2008 ), as described below.

DoI also hypothesizes conditions related to adoption (Rogers, 2010 ). Previous practice with an innovation; needs, problems, and dissatisfactions that might be addressed by the innovation; and the norms of the social system that align with an innovation may all make an adopter more likely to enter into the stages of adoption.

Lastly, there are different categories of adopters: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Each group has different characteristics. For example, innovators are most willing to take risks to try new things. This contrasts with a late majority or laggard, who is only likely to adopt an innovation after the majority already has. Given these categories, different strategies may be used depending on the target of the desired change. Typically, once enough people have begun to adopt an innovation, the spread is assumed to be self-sustaining without external effort.

Different research projects drew upon various aspects of DoI, and none drew upon the theory as a whole. Most commonly, researchers used the stages of innovation adoption to analyze faculty adoption of evidence-based instructional practices (e.g., Andrews & Lemons, 2015 ; Foote, 2016 ; Henderson, 2005 ; Lund & Stains, 2015 ; Marbach-Ad & Hunt Rietschel, 2016 ) or the current status of adoption in a larger population (e.g., Borrego et al., 2010 ; Henderson et al., 2012 ; Lund & Stains, 2015 ). Building on the stages of change, a handful of research projects aimed to better understand the prior conditions for STEM faculty to consider change. This work focused exclusively on the role of dissatisfaction with existing teaching strategies as a prerequisite to change (e.g., Andrews & Lemons, 2015 ; Marbach-Ad & Hunt Rietschel, 2016 ; Pundak & Rozner, 2008 ). Only one study considered whether faculty had appropriate how-to and principles knowledge and observed the consequences of lacking this knowledge (Foote, 2016 ). This study also considered different types of adopters (Foote, 2016 ). Finally, some researchers drew upon yet another aspect of DoI, the idea that innovations that were highly likely to diffuse had particular characteristics or “innovation attributes” (Foote et al., 2014 ; Henderson, 2005 ; Macdonald et al., 2019 ).

Separate from stages of change, a handful of studies relied on communication channels and the role of these channels in STEM faculty awareness of and adoption of evidence-based practices. Researchers particularly focused on faculty social networks as important informal communication channels for learning about evidence-based instructional practices (e.g., Andrews et al., 2016 ; Knaub et al., 2018 ; Lane et al., 2019 ). Other researchers investigated the role of both formal and informal channels (e.g., Borrego et al., 2010 ; Lund & Stains, 2015 ).

Despite, or perhaps as a result of, the widespread use of DoI, there is also a body of research criticizing this paradigm and suggesting new and revised change theory. Researchers offered an alternative, the propagation paradigm, which builds upon and extends diffusion for the context of STEM higher education (Froyd et al., 2017 ; Khatri et al., 2015 ; Stanford et al., 2016 ). The fundamental argument for propagation is that design and diffusion is insufficient. Rather, to increase the likelihood that a new innovation or pedagogical practice is taken up broadly, there are particular considerations: design needs to take place in communication with stakeholders, spreading the innovation requires action, and innovation adopters need support (Froyd et al., 2017 ). Moving beyond the idea that faculty adopt a new teaching strategy as is, Henderson and Dancy ( 2008 ) proposed an adoption-innovation continuum that recognizes the role of both an original developer and an adopting instructor in the change process. Similarly, two papers emphasized an iterative version of the stages of change in which faculty make a small change, reflect on it, seek new knowledge, adapt their approach, reflect, and again seek new knowledge (e.g., Andrews & Lemons, 2015 ; Marbach-Ad & Hunt Rietschel, 2016 ).

Context was mostly absent from studies that used DoI, since this theory focuses primarily on individual actors. Nonetheless, some articles acknowledged the relevance of local context (Froyd et al., 2017 ). Still, this acknowledgement was not always coupled with a deep characterization of that context or its role in change. Researchers may draw on other theories in addition to DoI to provide a lens for examining context, such as the teacher-centered systemic reform model (e.g., Lund & Stains, 2015 ) or the influence of social networks on norms (Lane et al., 2019 ).

A primary goal of DoI research was to understand the process by which new pedagogical innovations were actually being taken up. Thus, the indicators used focused on faculty practices. Some studies created surveys to track awareness and use of pedagogical strategies (Borrego et al., 2010 ; Henderson & Dancy, 2011 ; Lund & Stains, 2015 ) and others used interviews to query the experiences of faculty (e.g., Andrews & Lemons, 2015 ; Foote et al., 2014 ; Henderson, 2005 ; Marbach-Ad & Hunt Rietschel, 2016 ). The adoption-innovation continuum, an extension of DoI, was sometimes used as an analytic lens for making sense of how innovations diffused (Foote, 2016 ; Henderson et al., 2012 ). Although less frequent, some researchers used SNA to operationalize constructs like “opinion leaders” or “champions,” from DoI (Andrews et al., 2016 ; Knaub et al., 2018 ).

DoI as a theory does not highlight a specific intervention or type of interventions for spreading innovations. Accordingly, most of the reviewed research focused on tracking the use of existing pedagogical innovations, rather than trying to actively spread new innovations (Borrego et al., 2010 ; Lund & Stains, 2015 ). Still, there were a few examples where research projects used DoI to inform their interventions. For instance, a handful of studies used the idea that interactions between colleagues spread ideas as a part of their rationale/strategy for spreading ideas (Froyd et al., 2017 ; Khatri et al., 2015 ). One project planned teaching professional development based on the innovation characteristics that facilitate adoption (Macdonald et al., 2019 ). At least one study drew on the theory more extensively to plan and carry out a college-level initiative to change instruction, focusing especially on how to raise awareness and persuade faculty to make a mandated change (e.g., Pundak & Rozner, 2008 ).

Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform (TCSR, 6 articles)

Teacher-Centered System Reform (TCSR) focuses on the interrelation between a teacher’s practices and thinking as embedded within a larger system (Woodbury & Gess-Newsome, 2002 ). Thinking and practices relate to teaching and teaching roles, students and learning, schooling and schools, the content being taught, and dissatisfaction with current practices (as a catalyst for change). The larger context includes personal factors (i.e., the demographic profile, teaching experience, preparation, and continued learning), contextual factors (cultural context, school context, department/subject area context, and classroom context), as well as general context of reform. TCSR posits that this system as a whole, and its individual parts, requires attention.

Despite its attention to the larger system and its interacting parts, TCSR is fundamentally about teacher change as the source of larger changes within a schooling system. Thus, teacher thinking and practice are the primary focus of TCSR. Teaching thinking is posited to have three key characteristics: (1) it is comprised of interconnected cognitive (knowledge) and affective domains (beliefs), (2) knowledge and beliefs may not always be precisely disentangled, and (3) beliefs are resistant to change, even in the face of disconfirming evidence.

Most papers using TCSR used teacher thinking as a mechanism to change practices (Birt et al., 2019 ; Ferrare, 2019 ; Stains et al., 2015 ). Individual instructors—not broader systems—were the primary unit of change. Thus, although TCSR attends to the broader systemic context as a major influence on teacher thinking and practice, this was not used extensively by researchers. Nonetheless, some papers explicitly nested teacher thinking and practice within a larger context and operated under the assumption that context is key to change (e.g., Lund & Stains, 2015 ).

Although TCSR attends to contextual factors at multiple levels of change, not all papers used this central aspect of the theory. In some studies, the contextual factors of TCSR were largely ignored. In these cases, although it was acknowledged that thinking and practices are embedded in larger contexts, the context was peripheral, not central, to the study (Ferrare, 2019 ; Stains et al., 2015 ). Other studies focused extensively on the contextual features of the classroom environment but had less of a focus on broader structures (Birt et al., 2019 ). Three studies drew on TCSR to define and investigate the nested contexts in which reform occurs: classroom, department, university, disciplinary culture (Enderle et al., 2013 ; Gess-Newsome et al., 2003 ; Lund & Stains, 2015 ).

Studies generally relied extensively on TCRS to from data collection and analysis. Most commonly, the indicators used by these studies were particular changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices. Because TCSR does not have specific instruments designed to measure its constructs, research projects used aligned measures. For example, some projects used existing surveys and classroom observation protocols to capture instructor beliefs and practices (Ferrare, 2019 ; Stains et al., 2015 ). When engaging in qualitative analyses, projects developed broad codes related to themes coming from TCSR (Birt et al., 2019 ; Enderle et al., 2013 ; Gess-Newsome et al., 2003 ).

TCSR does not prescribe any particular interventions and was not used to deeply inform interventions. In some studies, TCSR was used as an analytic framework to make sense of other, unrelated interventions (Enderle et al., 2013 ; Ferrare, 2019 ). In other studies, authors described only general relationships between TCSR and their intervention, for instance, changing instructor thinking and practices (Birt et al., 2019 ; Stains et al., 2015 ). In these projects, the interventions focused on individual instructors, not on larger systemic factors.

Appreciative Inquiry (4 articles)

Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider et al., 2008 ) is a change theory that assumes change should start with what is positive in an organization. Appreciative Inquiry is organized around a 4D cycle: Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny, which supports a change team to build a results-oriented vision (Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001 ). In contrast to a typical problem-solving approach, Appreciative Inquiry is guided around what outcomes a group hopes to achieve. An outcome focus draws attention to “what is wanted,” in contrast to a more typical focus on the problems or “what is wrong.” A typical outcome-focused cycle has four steps: (1) determining values, (2) developing a vision, (3) setting goals, and (4) taking actions and sustaining improvements. Although these steps are listed in a linear fashion, these processes are interrelated, and individuals may revisit many steps of the process in a nonlinear fashion.

Appreciative Inquiry draws attention to positive outcomes to achieve rather than problems to be solved. This guiding rationale could be seen in all articles that utilized Appreciative Inquiry (Nemiro et al., 2009 ; Quan et al., 2019 ; Reinholz et al., 2017 ; Reinholz, Pilgrim, et al., 2019 ). For example, in the Departmental Action Team (DAT) project, this focus on positive outcomes was used to help a science department to create new, ongoing instructor positions to guide curricular integration, rather than attempting to “solve” the problem of a disjointed curriculum through a singular event or process (Reinholz et al., 2017 ).

None of the articles reviewed used Appreciative Inquiry to consider the context of change. This absence is not surprising because this change theory does not set clear boundaries for the key contextual factors for an organization.

Appreciative Inquiry only provides loose guidance on what data would be collected and analyzed, relating to the positive visioning process. For example, Nemiro et al. ( 2009 ) reported on the results for 4D focus groups to discuss the strengths of recruiting STEM women faculty. None of the other three articles utilized the theory to support indicators.

Appreciative Inquiry is an intervention for organizational change. This is consistent with how it was used by STEM educational change researchers—primarily as a tool to support change. For example, Nemiro et al. ( 2009 ) used Appreciative Inquiry 4D cycles as a guiding strategy for improving the retention and recruitment of women faculty on one campus. Appreciative Inquiry was also a guiding principle for the Departmental Action Team (DAT) project (Quan et al., 2019 ; Reinholz et al., 2017 ; Reinholz, Pilgrim, et al., 2019 ). While the DATs did not utilize the 4D cycle directly, they used their own modified approach to visioning, goal setting, and implementation, based on Appreciative Inquiry principles.

Expectancy-Value Theory (4 articles)

Expectancy-Value Theory is a theory of motivation that explains why faculty may choose to change their instructional practices. Expectancy-Value Theory posits that individuals engage in a given task if they expect to succeed (expectancy) and see value in the task. Expectancy is closely related to self-efficacy and deals with individuals’ perceptions of their ability to successfully complete the task (Eccles et al., 1983 ; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002 ). The overall value an individual anticipates for a task may consider multiple components, including interest value, which is the enjoyment an individual experiences or expects to experience by engaging in the task; utility value, which is the direct benefit of the task for the individual’s goals; attainment value, which captures the importance of doing well on the task to an individual’s identity; and perceived cost, which is what the individual has to give up to complete the task (e.g., time).

Researchers have used Expectancy-Value Theory to investigate what influences STEM faculty decisions about instruction, especially the adoption of evidence-based strategies (e.g., Finelli et al., 2014 ; Matusovich et al., 2014 ; Riihimaki & Viskupic, 2020 ) and to explain their motivation to participate in long-term teaching professional development (McCourt et al., 2017 ). This work characterized how the factors that faculty report influencing their decisions align with expectancy and values and tended to draw heavily on theory. For example, faculty desire more opportunities to develop knowledge in order to feel like they can succeed using new teaching strategies (e.g., Finelli et al., 2014 ; Matusovich et al., 2014 ).

All papers using Expectancy-Value Theory to study faculty motivation discovered contextual factors influencing motivation. Most commonly, faculty reported that the culture and environment in which they worked did not encourage changing instructional practices (e.g., Riihimaki & Viskupic, 2019 ). Because these tasks were not valued nor rewarded, faculty perceived low utility value. Investing time to use evidence-based teaching strategies would not help them achieve key goals like tenure (Finelli et al., 2014 ). Thus, Expectancy-Value Theory was useful in considering the influence of context on individual decision-making.

Expectancy-Value Theory outlines components that contribute to motivation to act. In two of the studies, researchers described their indicators as being informed by Expectancy-Value Theory (Finelli et al., 2014 ; McCourt et al., 2017 ). Specifically, Expectancy-Value Theory informed the questions researchers posed to faculty in interviews and focus groups. The other two papers reviewed described Expectancy-Value Theory only as a lens used to interpret data (Matusovich et al., 2014 ; Riihimaki & Viskupic, 2019 ).

Just one of the reviewed articles described designing an intervention that was informed by Expectancy-Value Theory. Finelli et al. ( 2014 ) drew on insights about faculty motivation in their local context, discerned from focus groups, to create a plan for supporting faculty pedagogical change. For example, researchers discovered that faculty were concerned about student reaction and would value evidence-based practices to which students responded positively (Finelli et al., 2014 ). Therefore, they planned to include an opportunity for participants to review and act on midterm student feedback in their faculty development program.

Four Frames (4 articles)

Four Frames helps make sense of issues in an organization from four different lenses: structures, symbols, people, and power (Bolman & Deal, 2008 ). Structures are the formal roles, practices, routines, and incentives that guide and limit interactions within an organization. Symbols are language, beliefs, and ways of sensemaking that provide a common language for members of the organization. People are individuals who have their own goals, needs, and agency. Finally, power relations within an organization exist as a result of status, hierarchies, and political coalitions. From the perspective of a change agent, each of these frames outlines a set of possible levers that can be used to enact change. Bolman and Deal ( 2008 ) assume that most leaders typically use a single frame through which they view most issues. This leads to a level of inflexibility, and often missing the bigger picture. To address this issue, leaders can explicitly attend to multiple frames simultaneously.

The Four Frames change theory assumes it is necessary to use multiple perspectives (i.e., frames) to understand or design a change process. This theory was taken up by a common set of researchers, who used Four Frames as a way to operationalize culture, and thus inferred that culture is a key construct to attend to as a part of an organizational change process (Rämö et al., 2019 ; Reinholz, Matz, et al., 2019 ; Reinholz, Ngai, et al., 2019 ; Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018 ).

Four Frames drew attention to various features of an organization (i.e., the organizational context). In a number of projects, the department was conceptualized as the unit of change, and thus the frames were used to operationalize the department’s culture (Rämö et al., 2019 ; Reinholz, Matz, et al., 2019 ; Reinholz, Ngai, et al., 2019 ; Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018 ). Across the research articles, the ability to make sense of a complex institutional/organizational context was a strength of the Four Frames change theory.

Four Frames characterizes key aspects of change broadly but does not provide particular indicators to attend to. Perhaps then, it is not surprising that none of the articles reviewed used the four frames to guide their data collection. Nonetheless, all of the articles that did include data analysis used four frames as an analytic lens for interpretation (e.g., Rämö et al., 2019 ). Again, one of the key strengths of Four Frames was providing different lenses for making sense of particular change-related phenomena.

As a change theory, Four Frames does not prescribe particular interventions, and none of the articles reviewed used Four Frames to guide the development of their interventions.

Paulsen and Feldman’s General Change Model (4 articles)

Paulsen and Feldman proposed a “General Change Model” of instructional improvement that placed the process of change within a teaching culture. Their model is grounded in work by Lewin ( 1947 ) and Schein ( 2010 ). Lewin is credited with the idea that achieving meaningful and sustained change requires three components (unfreezing, changing, and refreezing), though there is dispute about whether this credit is warranted (Cummings et al., 2016 ). Unfreezing involves recognizing an incongruence between the outcomes of one’s current thinking and behavior and the outcomes that one sees as aligning with their self-image. This often involves feelings of guilt, anxiety, or inadequacy. Therefore, unfreezing also relies on an individual feeling safe and being able to envision a change they can make that will re-establish a positive self-image (Paulsen & Feldman, 1995 ). In short, unfreezing creates motivation to change, which leads to the next stage, actually engaging in change. Change involves searching out new ideas and information, developing new attitudes and behaviors. This is a stage of learning, trying new things, and reflecting. Teaching professional development is often best suited to support instructors in this stage. The final stage is refreezing, which ensures that change is sustained. This stage recognizes that new behaviors are most likely to be maintained when they align with an individual’s identity and restore a positive self-image and when they are validated by others because they sufficiently align with the culture (Paulsen & Feldman, 1995 ). If the local culture does not support the change, an instructor may need a new community to provide ongoing information, ideas, support, and validation. Lewin’s studies ( 1947 ) suggested that changes resulting from group discussions last longer than changes resulting from individual actions.

The stages of change adapted by Paulsen and Feldman ( 1995 ) share clear similarities with the Diffusion of Innovation model, involving early stages of dissatisfaction, actions to learn and act, and then confirmation to solidify new changes. Paulsen and Feldman ( 1995 ) tailor their model specifically to college faculty, emphasize what it takes to motivate change (unfreezing), and consider refreezing to be key to sustained change. Researchers could easily synthesize these two models to inform studies of individual change.

Paulsen and Feldman ( 1995 ) place these stages of change in the context of interpersonal relationships and organizational culture. They outline relationships that may provide feedback that informs the change process, including those with students, colleagues, consultants, chairs, and one’s self. They also emphasize that teaching culture can influence all stages of change.

Notably, this change theory was developed specifically for STEM higher education, which is not true of any of the theories described above. One limitation of its specialization to STEM higher education is that it has not been refined and expanded in other domains. As a result, this theory provides fewer details on which researchers and change agents can draw.

Studies that relied on this change theory focused on understanding what contributes to instructors moving through the three stages of change: unfreezing, changing, and freezing. Two studies of the same teaching professional development program aimed to understand unfreezing, especially what helped instructors envision how they might change their teaching in a way that was consistent with their self-image (Hayward et al., 2016 ), and how a group email listserv supported refreezing (Hayward & Laursen, 2018 ). Thus, this work operated with the rationale that motivation to change is necessary to transition from stagnation to action.

Though Paulsen and Feldman ( 1995 ) place the stages of change within the context of the larger teaching culture, this was not a central focus of the reviewed studies. Most did not consider the context of change in light of the theory. One study recognized the role of a listserv in creating a community supportive of changed practices for faculty lacking a supportive local community but did not consider context more extensively (Hayward & Laursen, 2018 ).

None of the four articles reviewed used General Change Model to support the selection of indicators of change. This may result from the fact that the theory, as described by Paulsen and Feldman ( 1995 ) lacks clear guidance on what indicators are important to measure.

The general change model has very loosely been used to inform change interventions. One project aimed to improve upon typical teaching professional development by continuing to work with faculty through the refreezing stage (Sirum & Madigan, 2010 ). Though Paulsen and Feldman’s ( 1995 ) version of the model provided this focus for their intervention, the project relied on another change theory (Communities of Practice) to design their intervention. Another project aimed to create a more positive climate for female faculty. Latimer et al. ( 2014 ) drew on Lewin’s idea that behaviors in groups are frozen in place due to informal and formal factors and that moving away from the status quo required unfreezing. Thus, they envisioned their challenge as challenging the status quo, but did not draw on the theory further.

Systems Theory (3 articles)

Systems thinking has been written about fairly extensively in the organizational change work. We found the work of Senge ( 2006 ) to be widely used in articles outside of STEM, but such articles were excluded from this analysis. One article in the synthesis used Senge’s work (Quan et al., 2019 ). There were also articles that used alternative conceptions of Systems Theory (Meadows, 2008 ; Wasserman, 2010 ). Senge’s theory of systems thinking focuses on the idea of creating a learning organization (Senge, 2006 ). A learning organization focuses on the ongoing learning of its members to support continuous improvement and transformation. A learning organization has five characteristics, also called five disciplines: (1) systems thinking, (2) personal mastery, (3) mental models, (4) building shared vision, and (5) team learning.

Of these five disciplines, systems thinking is presented as the most powerful “fifth discipline” that brings all of the other disciplines together. A key idea in systems thinking is that structure influences behavior. Despite prevailing ideas in society about individual autonomy and control, typically, different individuals in a similar situation tend to be influenced and behave similarly, given the strong shaping power of a system. The structures in human systems are often subtle and include norms, rules, policies, and procedures—invisible structures that govern how people interact. Although individuals often describe outcomes by looking at events (reactive) or patterns of behavior (responsive), a focus on systems focuses on causation at the level of the system, to allow for prediction and greater flexibility in response to a challenge.

Meadows’ ( 2008 ) work on systems considers the role of the parts and the whole of the system, and how feedback loops can have an impact on how a system functions. When thinking about effective systems, she highlights three characteristics: resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy. Meadows also highlights “leverage points,” or particular parts of the system, where a change might have the largest impact on the system as a whole. Similarly, Wasserman ( 2010 ) highlights the interacting parts of a system, relationships between them, and the importance of multiple perspectives.

Research from a systems thinking perspective attended to both the idea of a system as a whole and the interconnection between parts of the system. Thus, an underlying assumption was that to understand change, one needs to understand both the parts and the whole (Quan et al., 2019 ) Drawing from the work of Meadows, another project built on the idea of particular leverage points within the system as tools for change, to support the implementation of a Green Chemistry curriculum (Hutchison, 2019 ). A final project focused on the role of STEM Education Centers as a larger system of improving undergraduate STEM education on a campus (Carlisle & Weaver, 2018 ).

Systems thinking was useful for making sense of the context of change, because it focused on the system as a whole, its interlocking parts, and connections to other systems. For example, researchers used the notion of systems thinking to understand how departmental change is embedded within the university in a larger social context (Hutchison, 2019 ; Quan et al., 2019 ), or how a STEM center is embedded on a campus (Carlisle & Weaver, 2018 ).

Only one article of three used Systems Theory to inform measurement. Systems Theory drove the pursuit of multiple perspectives and interviewing a variety of stakeholders on a campus to study STEM Education Centers (Carlisle & Weaver, 2018 ).

Articles did not often use Systems Theory to support the design of an intervention, perhaps due to the general lack of empirical work using this theory. Nonetheless, there was one article that used Meadow’s ( 2008 ) concept of leverage points within a system to help target their curricular change efforts (cf. Hutchison, 2019 ).

Other change theories

We found 21 other theories used in only one or two papers. These range from models focused on the individual’s thinking, such as Weick’s sensemaking model, to models of organizational change, such as the 4I model. Some of these change theories are highly prescriptive and have been used to plan interventions, including Kotter’s 8 stages of change. Others have been drawn on only very generally as a concept relevant to change in STEM higher education, such as double-loop learning and intersectionality.

Homegrown change theories

There were also 11 instances where researchers created their own theories. Generally, these “homegrown” theories did not arise from a lack of awareness of existing theories. Instead, researchers drew on diverse existing theories to develop a synthetic and novel framing for their work. Rather than attempting to summarize each of these theories, we provide an example of how such theories were constructed. Consider the Science Education Initiative, which constructed its own model for department-level change (Chasteen et al., 2015 ). The model is organized around discipline-based educational consultants, Science Teaching Fellows, typically postdoctoral researchers who receive support from a Science Education Initiative central hub. The Science Teaching Fellows support faculty to utilize active learning, construct learning goals, and transform their courses using backwards design. These particular actions are then conceptualized as a larger change effort focused on student learning, department culture, and institutional norms. Thus, the Science Education Initiative model constitutes its own approach to change, but also posits theoretical relationships about how change happens, for instance, with its focus on conceptual assessments as a driver for change.

Emergent themes and implications

This article systematically analyzed the use of change theory in STEM higher educational change initiatives and research. In addition to the summaries of individual theories and how they are used above, here, we provide an overarching discussion of emergent themes and implications.

Theme 1: research focuses on individual change

The majority of articles reviewed focused on change at the level of individual instructors and their teaching practices. The two most common theories—Communities of Practice and Diffusion of Innovations—were leveraged to think about how individuals could change. While communities of practice could be used as a theory to think about how a community changes, it was rarely taken up this way by researchers. Thus we conclude that, to date, STEM educational change researchers have thought about improving STEM education primarily as an issue of supporting individual instructors. However, as many of the other theories in our synthesis highlight, the goal of improving postsecondary STEM education requires careful attention to many interlocking systems and parts of systems. We found more articles in our original searches that used systems thinking, but many were excluded from this synthesis because they were not STEM-specific.

Theories that view instruction as a part of a larger system tended to be used infrequently. Given that some researchers were able to use these theories productively, we believe this approach could be productive for improving STEM education. For instance, the Four Frames defines components of a culture, helping change agents and researchers consider what in a department or university culture needs attended to and measured (Reinholz & Apkarian, 2018 ). Similarly, systems thinking emphasizes that organizational structures influence behavior, including norms, policies, and practices (Senge, 2006 ). A project grounded in systems thinking as a change theory would attend to the interlocking parts of the university system.

There are also a few change theories that have been rarely used in work on STEM higher education, and that have potential to help move our efforts beyond individual change. We briefly highlight two here: CHAT and the 4I framework of organizational learning. Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), born in the discipline of psychology, provides a variety of tools for thinking about change by linking what people think and feel to what they do (Cole, 1996 ; Engeström, 2001 ). CHAT has its roots in social learning theory, which focuses on the mediating role of artifacts in thinking (Vygotsky, 1978 ). Building on this idea, CHAT introduces the concept of an “activity system,” which is often represented as an Activity Triangle. Six components, each with cultural and historical dimensions, contribute to the desired outcome (Foot, 2014 ). All of the interacting parts of an activity system must be considered in the pursuit of change, and individual components of the system are considered important, but secondary, units of focus. CHAT recognizes that there are multiple perspectives within a single system, which can be a source of both trouble and innovation. It also considers how activity systems develop over time, and how any system must be understood with respect to its history. Contradictions, or historically accumulated structural tensions, are often a source of change. CHAT is an extensive theory with untapped potential for work in STEM higher education. For example, CHAT provided a useful theory for understanding how a Departmental Action Team (DAT) aims to achieve sustainable changes in a given department (Reinholz et al., 2017 ).

Another discipline that has built theory relevant to change in STEM higher education is business management. Specifically, the concept of organizational learning broadly refers to how organizations create, retain, and transfer knowledge within the organization. The 4I framework of organizational learning distinguishes among levels of an organization that can learn (individuals, groups, and the organization as a whole) and four processes that occur to contribute to learning (Crossan et al., 1999 ). The 4I’s refer to these processes: intuiting, interpreting, integrating, and institutionalizing. Individuals can intuit (recognize patterns and possibilities based on their own experiences) and interpret (explain ideas to one’s self and others). Groups can interpret and integrate (developing shared understanding and taking coordinated actions). Organizations can institutionalize (create organizational mechanisms to ensure certain actions occur). The 4I model also recognizes a tension between new learning “feeding forward” from individuals to organizations and leveraging what has already been learned at the organizational level in the work of groups and individuals (feedback). Hill et al. ( 2019 ) capitalized on the 4I framework of organizational learning to frame investigations of a multi-institutional STEM reform network, providing an example of how to examine change beyond individuals.

Of course, there are likely other useful theories that are beyond the scope of this review. In general, theory that attends to larger systemic and structural issues can help sustain change in STEM higher education. Ultimately, a research team need not worry about choosing a single “best” theory for a project. Such a theory most likely does not exist. Rather, it is important for researchers to be thoughtful about the theories they choose and how different theories provide different insights. For example, some of the scholarships we reviewed on Diffusion of Innovations might have reached different outcomes if it had simultaneously used a more systemic perspective, such as the CHAT theory or the 4I framework. Ultimately, we imagine that a given project could benefit most from multiple theories tailored together to meet its goals.

Theme 2: research often draws upon theory in a superficial fashion

We found that the ways in which particular research projects drew upon theory varied dramatically. Consider Communities of Practice as a change theory. On one end of the spectrum, research projects utilized the idea of a Community of Practice to support a particular intervention (typically a faculty learning community) as a mechanism for change. These projects were largely atheoretical with their use of Communities of Practice, even though there is a relatively rich conceptualization of how a faculty learning community can function as a community of practice (Cox, 2001 ). In contrast, others drew on specific aspects of the theory that posit how change would happen (Gehrke & Kezar, 2019 ).

We propose that research on change in STEM higher education has reached a point of maturity where substantially drawing on existing theory is part of making a valuable scholarly contribution to the field. This includes explicitly framing change efforts, studies, and papers with one or more theoretical frameworks relevant to change. Drawing on change theory involves more than briefly summarizing a theory in the introduction of a paper. Using a theory to frame scholarly work involves using the theory as a lens or guide that directly informs specific components of the work, including interventions, focus, research questions, measurement and evaluation, data analysis, and data interpretation. Readers benefit when researchers explicitly describe how the theory informed their work and whether their findings confirm the utility of the theory in their context or suggest modifications to the theory for a specific context. In this way, the trustworthiness and utility of a theory is improved over time.

Why does it matter how we ground our work in STEM higher education in change theories? To build generalizable knowledge about change, we must consider how theory is being used and refined. Theory has the potential to encompass our best current understanding of how to achieve and sustain change. Continuing with the example of Communities of Practice, even though this was the most common change theory used across the synthesis, many of the research projects had a limited ability to contribute to a generalized understanding of how change works, because they were not guided by the underlying assumptions of the theory. Thus, it is not just which theory is used, but how it is used. Unless a number of projects draw substantially on the same theoretical principles, reports on their findings will be difficult to compare and learn from collectively. In summary, drawing on theory is how we generate and build upon knowledge as a field. Otherwise, work may be published but will do little to meaningfully progress our understanding or our ability to actually enact and sustain critical changes in STEM higher education.

Theme 3: most research is theoretically disjointed

Perhaps our most striking finding was that researchers are using a wide variety of theories, but most change theories were used in less than a handful of papers. In total, our review identified 40 distinct change theories used in 97 papers. This is a striking lack of theoretical coherence within a relatively narrow domain of STEM higher educational change. Researchers are not often drawing on, nor building upon, theories used by other studies. We found that only two theories were used in more than six articles—Communities of Practice and Diffusion of Innovations. It is not surprising then, that these were the two theories that STEM education researchers extended beyond their original conceptualizations. Researchers whose work we reviewed developed new ideas, such as the adoption-innovation continuum (Henderson & Dancy, 2008 ), the propagation paradigm (Froyd et al., 2017 ), and Communities of Transformation (Gehrke & Kezar, 2016 ). Multiple projects drawing on the same theories also create opportunities for research findings to coalesce around valuable insights that also suggest how theory can be tailored to the context of STEM higher education. For example, DoI lays out a largely linear process of innovation adoption, but multiple studies of change in higher education have demonstrated that, for faculty adoption of new teaching strategies, repeated cycles of change and significant adaptation of a strategy are the rules rather than the exceptions (e.g., Andrews & Lemons, 2015 ; Froyd et al., 2017 ; Henderson & Dancy, 2008 ; Marbach-Ad & Hunt Rietschel, 2016 ). Such insights came from the repeated use of the same theories across different contexts. We suspect that similar insights could be developed for other theories in our synthesis, as they become more widely and repeatedly used. However, most theories were used in four or fewer papers, which was not enough to draw strong generalizations or enhancements. Additionally, there were 21 theories that were only used in one or two papers and 11 homegrown theories that have yet to be taken up broadly by the field.

Of course, there is no “perfect theory” that a project should adopt, and the ways to be most effective will depend on the local context. We are not suggesting that there are solutions or approaches to change that will be relevant across all contexts. All contexts are unique and educational systems are extraordinarily complex. It is also possible that different theoretical approaches may work better during different stages in the lifecycle of a project. Furthermore, we suspect that most change efforts will benefit from multiple change theories to consider what actions will lead to the intended outcomes and why, to shine a light on implicit assumptions, and to troubleshoot when change does not go as planned.

This wide proliferation of different theories, like the superficial use of theory, acts as a barrier to generalization. In STEM higher education change, scholars are working across different disciplines, institutional contexts, and regions. When we add on top of that the use of myriad different theories, it becomes nearly impossible to learn something relevant beyond a single context when it comes to promoting change in STEM higher education. Existing theory can never specify exactly how change will happen. However, if we understand why something worked in one context, we can make reasonable hypotheses about what will work in another context. Drawing on change theory to understand how and why change occurs will facilitate the transfer of ideas from one context to others. Our aim is for this review to provide the basis for this type of work to happen. By taking stock of what theories are being used by STEM education researchers and how they are using them, we hope to provide a starting point for building on what is known to create a more robust and generalized knowledge base.

Conclusions: call to action

We close with a number of calls for action in STEM higher educational change research.

More synthetic theoretical work

We found that STEM educational change researchers are in fact using a wide variety of high-quality theories, many developed in non-academic settings, and some designed for STEM higher education. However, the wide diversity of theories used to guide research makes it hard to compare studies across contexts. Additionally, researchers are rarely making explicit connections between the change theories that guided their work and theories guiding related work, making it very challenging for readers to synthesize across work done in different contexts.

Thus, we see a need for the same theories to be used across contexts, and the results shared in a way that research projects can be synthesized together. In this manuscript, we offer a potential framework for moving this forward—theory of change. We believe that future researchers can be more explicit about exactly how they are using change research to inform their rationale and assumptions, conceptualization of context, selection of indicators, and design of interventions. Such an approach allows a research team to generate hypotheses before they begin an intervention. The testing of those hypotheses through analyzing the project’s implementation will then speak back to the predictions originally made by the theory. Theory of change provides a framework for teams to deeply consider whether and how their work is grounded in change theory, which will improve our work and prepare us to explicitly communicate to readers what aspects of a change theory we have opted to use and what aspects we set aside. This could help us avoid a situation where different teams are using different parts of a theory or ignoring parts of the theory altogether.

Funding agencies can continue to promote the deep use of change theory in STEM educational change work. One potential approach is to encourage collaboration with theorists in other disciplines by requiring proposals to include co-PIs who specialize in the change theories guiding a project. Another avenue for encouraging theoretical cohesion is prioritizing proposals that draw on the same change theories to enact and measure change in multiple contexts.

Similarly, organizations like the Association for American Universities (AAU) and the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), who actively support change in STEM higher education, can set the expectation that work they support and feature draw deeply on change theory and capitalize on theory specialists’ expertise. These organizations also aim to educate their members and may seek to lead in “change education” (defined below).

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

We found a relatively modest focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. From this, we concluded that equity scholarship and change scholarship in STEM higher education appear to be two relatively disconnected fields. However, collaborations between scholars in these two areas have great potential to achieve the urgent goals of actually improving equity in practice and prioritizing equity and inclusion in instructional change. One way this can be achieved is by hosting meetings in which change scholars and equity scholars could meet to exchange ideas. This could lead to a number of fruitful outcomes, such as collaborative teams using equity perspectives to analyze existing change efforts. It could also catalyze new, joint efforts that more closely attend to equity from the offset. Given the lag time between changes in funding to prioritize Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work and the existing published literature, we recognize that some efforts towards greater collaboration may already be underway.

Opportunities for scholars to learn about change

We see a need for explicit conversations about how researchers and practitioners learn about change in STEM higher education, including change theories. Much of the work we do as DBER scholars begins with an underlying premise that things need to change in STEM higher education. For example, scholars who do not study change explicitly often investigate students to better understand learning and development with the hope that their results will eventually be translated into changes in STEM learning environments. Yet these scholars may have had few opportunities to develop expertise in change. We refer to opportunities to learn about change as “change education,” a term coined by Mark Connolly (personal communication). This term brings attention to the fact that there is scholarly literature about the processes that result in and sustain change that should guide change agents and researchers.

Based on our experience and this review, we wonder if much of the change education experienced by STEM-DBER researchers happens on an informal basis and is cultivated through years of experience working on change projects, typically at the level of individual course transformations. We suspect, at least in part, that this contributes to the lack of coherence in the use of change theory for STEM educational change. Given the need to generalize across research projects, we believe such an enterprise would be enhanced as the field considers how to enact effective change education and who needs this education. Organizations like AAU, AAC&U, the Accelerating Systemic Change Network (ASCN), and DBER disciplinary societies may be well-positioned to lead change education initiatives. Our hope is that this synthesis can provide a starting point for such efforts, as change researchers consider the existing state of what is known in the field and aim to move forward from there.

Availability of data and materials

A complete list of analyzed papers is included in the supplemental materials .


Association of American Colleges & Universities

American Association of U

Association for American Universities

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

Community of Practice

Community of Transformation

  • Discipline-based education research

Diffusion of Innovations

Faculty learning community

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

Teacher-centered systemic reform

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We are grateful to Naneh Apkarian, Noah Finkelstein, and Paula Lemons for their feedback on an earlier draft. We also thank Mark Connolly, Susan Shadle, Charles Henderson, and attendees of the Breaking Down Silos Working Meeting for discussions and questions that ultimately led to this review. The authors began their collaboration after meeting at the Transforming Research in Undergraduate STEM Education (TRUSE) Conference. We have also benefitted from the support of the Accelerating System Change Network (ASCN) and the STEM-DBER Alliance. Lastly, we thank three anonymous reviewers and the monitoring editor for feedback that improved this manuscript.

Support for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation’s Improving Undergraduate STEM (IUSE) program under awards 1830897 and 1830860. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Systematic review article, reputation in higher education: a systematic review.

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  • Business School, Universidad del Rosario, Bogotá, Colombia

Published research on corporate reputation has increased in the last 10 years in various sectors. The higher education sector is no stranger to this growth; however, theoretical developments and empirical research have been conducted across various disciplines of knowledge and theoretical approaches, which has made it difficult to theorize about it. In addition to this, the dimensionality of the construct, its dependence on the perception of public interest, and the difficulty of its measurement have made it a challenge for universities. This article develops a systematic review of reputation in higher education institutions. While there is evidence of contributions in the development of the theory and its conceptualization, these have occurred in other sectors such as banking, service industries, retailing, tourism and hospitality, and are not specifically focused on the higher education sector. As such, we seek to identify and characterize how reputation has been studied in this sector, highlighting conceptual and theoretical approaches that have supported the studies, which will help to overcome the fragmentation of the same from an integral definition applied to the education service.


The concept of corporate reputation dates back to the 1970s when the relevance of the different assessments made by stakeholders of the company's reputation began to be identified ( Spence, 1973 ) and the importance of public reputational signals for company performance and competitiveness became evident ( Caves and Porter, 1977 ). Reputation is beginning to be understood as a group of attributes and characteristics of an organization that are the result of its past actions ( Weigelt and Camerer, 1988 ), of the evaluation of the organization's performance ( Rao, 1994 ; De Quevedo et al., 2005 ) and the perceptions that stakeholders have of them ( Fombrun, 1996 , p. 72), through a process of legitimization ( Miotto et al., 2020 ).

Thus, a positive reputation can impact financial performance, customer behavior ( Jung and Seock, 2016 ), competitiveness ( Fombrun, 1996 ), stakeholder decision-making ( Hemsley-Brown, 2012 ), corporate survival and success ( Christensen and Gornitzka, 2017 ) as well as the integration of general management functions ( Goldring, 2015 ). As such, it is important to know how to manage reputation and better invest resources to improve stakeholder perceptions ( Lafuente-Ruiz-de Sabando et al., 2018 ).

Within the university context, reputation is defined as the sum of the impressions received by stakeholders from the communication and interaction they have with the university ( Rindova et al., 2005 ), therefore it is evaluative, reflects consensus judgments ( Roberts and Dowling, 2002 ), is related to a “strong tradition” ( Chevalier and Conlon, 2003 ) and, like organizational reputation, it takes time to consolidate a positive reputation in its stakeholders and therefore requires an institutional commitment to excellence in educational processes and results, as well as in research results ( Roberts and Dowling, 2002 ; Arambewela and Hall, 2009 ; Delgado-Márquez et al., 2013 ). Although reputation is linked to research productivity, this indicator is widely criticized because of its limitation, in addition, as expressed by Nicholas et al. (2015) , reputation is evaluated with only one activity, which is research, the product of which are articles and the product of these articles, citations.

Reputation is built through the student's experience with the university ( Chen and Esangbedo, 2018 ), and influences student attraction ( Plewa et al., 2016 ), student selection of the university ( Lafuente-Ruiz-de Sabando et al., 2018 ), faculty attraction ( Christensen and Gornitzka, 2017 ), the knowledge held by stakeholders ( Vogler, 2020a ) both internally and externally ( Verčič et al., 2016 ), as well as the valuation and rating of universities ( Del-Castillo-Feito et al., 2019 ). In addition, previous studies have found that reputation requires management and has an important impact on the internal processes carried out by the university, including university reforms ( Steiner et al., 2013 ), which have a significant effect on the quality of the university's educational service. Within such management, the media play an important role, because they provide the channel and space where stakeholders know, identify, give their opinion and discuss the reputation of an institution ( Deephouse, 2000 ). This is why more and more universities faced with a competitive context, turn to marketing to improve the perception of their image and reputation, in order not only to attract students, but also teachers and financial resources ( Wilkins and Huisman, 2014 ).

From this perspective, as stated by Reznik and Yudina (2018) , reputation is a public evaluation, product of the opinion that stakeholders have of the university, and that can be divided into internal and external, the internal referring to the faculty, administrative staff and students, and external referring to representatives of the external environment. Therefore, reputation management implies an important knowledge of how it is built, and how the different stakeholders (both internal and external) perceive and evaluate it ( Ressler and Abratt, 2009 ). In short, it is essential to know how to respond and meet the expectations and needs of each stakeholder and make it a strategic priority for university managers.

However, inconsistencies have been evidenced in the conceptualization of reputation in the higher education sector given the rules of operation in the education sector are different to those in the other corporate sectors ( Verčič et al., 2016 ) and the absence of a consensus in the literature ( Plewa et al., 2016 ; Del-Castillo-Feito et al., 2019 ) in management research ( Ali et al., 2015 ; Veh et al., 2019 ), as well as its proximity to other terms such as identity and image ( Alessandri et al., 2006 ; Lafuente-Ruiz-de Sabando et al., 2018 ) which are different but interconnected constructs. The identity is a multidimensional construct composed of communication and visual identity, behavior, culture, and market conditions ( Melewar and Akel, 2005 ), and image is also a higher order multidimensional concept that can be managed to influence other variables such as student satisfaction and loyalty ( Lafuente-Ruiz-de Sabando et al., 2018 ). Additionally, other factors that make its definition difficult are intangibility ( Nguyen and Leblanc, 2001a ), given the reputation of the university is the result of the provision of the education service that is essentially intangible and difficult to evaluate in advance. The multidimensionality ( Verčič et al., 2016 ) since the reputation is composed of multiple dimensions such as performance, product, service, leadership, governance, workplace, citizenship, and innovation ( Vidaver-Cohen, 2007 ), especially with regard to origins of corporate reputation research ( Veh et al., 2019 ), and the assessments of the different stakeholders ( Plewa et al., 2016 ) that respond to their different expectations ( Vidaver-Cohen, 2007 ).

Although the contributions found in the systematic review conducted by Lafuente-Ruiz-de Sabando et al. (2018) who have sought to differentiate the concepts of image and reputation in higher education institutions (HEIs), the analyses carried out allowed them to conclude that the stakeholders of a university's academic offerings, such as teaching and research resources, graduate education, and affective image have a positive and significant influence on the image of the university, and that this assessment varies to the extent that the various perspectives of the stakeholders are adopted, and even more so when citizens of other countries are included. The contributions of Rashid and Mustafa (2021) who have studied the background of corporate reputation of higher education institutions by recognizing it as an intangible asset in all types of organizations, including HEIs, from the employees' perspective, and Prakash (2021) who conducted a literature review on the concept of service quality in higher education institutions where he inquired among several things on the methodologies to measure quality, and found that in some of them, reputation is an important dimension to measure to operationalize it. However, it is necessary to continue investigating its conceptual development, characteristics, tools and relationships with other variables within the context of higher education.

Given the above factors, and the diversity and fragmentation of this concept specifically in the context of higher education, where the contributions are still insufficient ( Watkins and Gonzenbach, 2013 ; Del-Castillo-Feito et al., 2019 ), it is necessary to conduct a systematic review on reputation in universities (HEIs) with three objectives. First, to understand how empirical reputation research [these studies might be quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods studies ( Creswell, 2014 )] in these institutions has been characterized. This will be conducted through a bibliometric analysis using the SciVal tool of Elsevier; second, to identify the variables and/or constructs related to reputation. This will be performed through an analysis using the VOSviewer tool and a direct review of the documents; third, to determine how reputation has been conceptualized in HEIs. This will also be approached through a direct review of documents using the four-eyes principle to avoid bias. These objectives will provide an overview of the construct, and a comprehensive picture to improve the understanding of the university's reputation.

This article begins with a description of the methodology used, then presents the characterization of the articles reviewed, followed by an analysis of the relationships found concerning reputation. This is followed by a compilation of the definitions of corporate reputation—specifically those applied to higher education—and its benefits and weaknesses. Finally, the conclusions, limitations of the research, and the agenda for future research are presented.

This paper will use a systematic literature review based on previous studies, as a method of analysis of empirical research conducted on reputation in HEIs. This allows a broad and continuous review of the literature, providing a frame of reference to compare the results of this study with previous ones ( Creswell, 2014 , p. 60). Such a study is also used to find relevant information in the selected context ( Aveyard, 2014 ) and is fundamental in academic works ( Lunde et al., 2019 ), and scientific activities ( Mulrow, 1994 ) in management. Among the benefits of conducting a systematic literature review is understanding the theoretical relationship between the problem to be investigated, the objectives and, the discussion ( Rocco and Plakhotnik, 2009 ). It also facilitates the identification, evaluation, and summary of findings of relevant studies on the topic, providing a strong foundation for the research, which will result in better development of the different investigations and their relationship with the conclusions ( Centre for Reviews Dissemination, 2008 ).

Petticrew and Roberts (2006) propose a methodology for developing systematic reviews, consisting of the following steps: (1) define the question driving the review, (2) determine the types of studies that need to be addressed to answer the questions, (3) conduct a comprehensive literature search, (4) examine results with inclusion and exclusion criteria, (5) develop a critical appraisal of the studies included to ensure that key aspects of the study are addressed, (6) synthesize the studies and assess the heterogeneity of the findings, and (7) disseminate the conclusions of the review.

Question Formulation

Step 1. define the question that directs the review.

For the development of the first step, the questions posed that will direct the review are: How have empirical studies of reputation in higher education institutions been characterized? Based on this characterization, with which variables and/or constructs has it been related? How has reputation in higher education services been conceptualized? The results will contribute to the identification of a comprehensive overview in order to improve the academic and administrative community's understanding of the implications of reputation management. Figure 1 presents a summary of the methodological steps, the questions guiding the work, and the results of the analysis that respond to the questions posed.


Figure 1 . Research design.

Article Selection

Step 2. determine the types of studies to be addressed.

To comply with the second step, the types of studies included in this review are empirical research articles and systematic reviews applied to the higher education sector and published in journals categorized in quartiles 1 and 2, which represent a higher impact factor and quality ( Marín and Arriojas, 2021 ). Critical analyses, editorials, or essays are omitted.

Step 3. Conduct an Exhaustive Literature Search

In this step, a search is performed in Scopus and Web of Science (WoS) over a period of 10 years (2010–July 2020), as it is considered sufficiently extensive for the review and is consistent with the indicator of obsolescence of the scientific literature ( Price, 1965 ). Also, these years show the highest number of publications on the subject as will be seen below. The language selected for the review of the articles is English because it is the most recurrent language in the documents of the selected databases considering as keywords: reputation, higher education, university(ies).

In the WoS database, two searches were performed, the first with reputation and higher education, the second with reputation and university; for the Scopus database, reputation, higher education, or universities or university 1 was used. Subsequently, we proceeded to search and download the documents in the WoS and Scopus databases, of which only five could not be accessed.

Step 4. Examine the Results With Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

For the development of the fourth step, Figure 2 shows the result of the screening and consolidation of the two searches and the selection process of the articles, indicating the inclusion and exclusion criteria that were taken into account following the PRISMA methodology.


Figure 2 . Search results in Scopus and Web of Science.

Step 5. Develop a Critical Appraisal of the Studies Included

Once the selection process is completed a critical and taxonomic assessment of the 62 selected articles is carried out. This provides relevant information to answer the research questions posed, evolved from the review of the definitions on which the studies are based; the variables with which they are related; the theories on which the studies are based; the measurement methods identified; as well as the benefits and weaknesses found in reputation management. To present the characterization of the 62 articles found from the process described above, this research performs a bibliometric analysis through Elsevier's SciVal tool, used to analyze the behavior of research in a particular field, make comparisons, associations, identify trends and create reports ( Elsevier, 2022 ). We also use the VOSviewer, which is a program created to build and visualize bibliometric networks ( VOSviewer, 2022 ). In addition, we perform an analysis of texts collected by a reviewer and verified by another researcher, using the four-eyes principle, to reduce the risk of bias ( Hiebl, 2015 ).

How Have the Empirical Studies of Reputation in Higher Education Institutions Been Characterized?

Using Elsevier's SciVal tool, in March 2022, we analyzed the publications per year within the time range addressed in the study (2010–July 2020), the citation behavior, the Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI), which is the impact of citations obtained compared to the average number of citations expected in the subject field ( Elsevier, 2020 ), citation behavior data by year, publications by journal quartile, and an analysis of the institutions, their type, country of publication and journals.

The number of articles on reputation in higher education institutions has been increasing in the last 10 years, as shown in Table 1 , where it is evident that the year with the highest number of articles is 2018 with 13 publications, followed by 2019 with 12 publications, and 11 publications as of July 2020.


Table 1 . Citations, FWCI, and international collaboration, by year of publication.

It is observed that the years with the highest number of citations were 2011 (219 citations) and 2016 (191 citations), as shown in the table. This trend had an impact on the weighted citations per field, which are 3.88 in 2011, and 3.89 in 2016, the highest evidenced in the period studied. This shows the importance of reputation in the field of study, which may be due to the international collaborations that occurred in those years, as can also be seen in Table 1 .

In turn, a review of the impact of the quartiles in the publications analyzed within the period studied was carried out, showing that 90.3% of the articles on their date of publication were in journals categorized within the Q1 and Q2 quartiles 2 (37 and 19 articles, respectively). It should be clarified that on the date the quartiles of the publications were searched, some of them had improved their performance, placing them in the first two quartiles. Since 2018 there is a growth in the number of articles published on this subject, and in 2016 all published articles are in the Q1 category, as evidenced in the results presented in Figure 3 .


Figure 3 . Publications in Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4 Journal quartile by SJR vs. publication year.

In contrast, the institutions with the highest academic production, citations, and authors researching and writing on the subject of reputation were reviewed, and it was found that the University of Turku in Finland, the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Spain, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the United States had the highest academic production with three articles each. However, the articles from the University of Michigan are the most cited of the three universities. It also had the highest number of citations among the institutions analyzed, followed by the University of Notre Dame with 227 citations, and Rice University and the University of Georgia with 116 citations each, as shown in Figure 4 . In terms of the number of authors per institution publishing the most on reputation are Florida State University with five authors, and Mount Royal University, University of Salerno, Indonesia University of Education and, Zhejiang Sci-Tech University with four authors each.


Figure 4 . Institutions, scholarly output, and citations. C, Total citations; SO, Scholarly output.

Within this same analysis, a review was made of the publications by each country, their academic production, and the Field-Wide Citation Impact (FWCI). Figure 5 shows 26 countries where research has been done on reputation in higher education institutions, with the most representative in terms of academic production being the United States (32), United Kingdom (17), Spain (8), and China (6). The two countries with the highest impact factor are Iran (7.15) and the United Arab Emirates (3.47), which may be related to academic production or its quality, followed by Finland (2.60), Ireland (3.56), and Australia (2.52). It is worth mentioning that of the 98 institutions that participated in the publication of the articles analyzed, 94 correspond to higher education institutions, three to governmental entities and, one to independent corporate research entity.


Figure 5 . Academic production and FWCI by country.

Finally, a review of the journals with the highest number of articles on reputation in higher education was carried out, and it was found that Studies in Higher Education (Q1), Corporate Reputation Review (Q2), Higher Education (Q1), International Journal of Educational Management (Q2), Journal of Business Research (Q1) are the journals that have published the highest number of articles. The four most representative journals that have published at least three articles on the subject of reputation are Corporate Reputation Review, Higher Education, International Journal of Educational Management, and Journal of Business Research.

Synthesis of the Articles Reviewed

Step 6. synthesize the studies and assess the heterogeneity of the findings.

To synthesize the content of the articles found, ( Table 2 ) below summarizes their structural characteristics in terms of the methods used to approach the research, the types of variables or the way of analyzing reputation, the units of study used in the articles, the theories that underpinned the research and the collection tools.


Table 2 . Characteristics of the articles reviewed.

With Which Variables and/or Constructs Has It Been Related?

To evaluate the heterogeneity of the findings, a descriptive analysis of the concept of reputation is carried out. First, to understand the main relationships and co-occurrence of the terms found in the articles, the co-occurrence map of the VOSviewer tool was used, where the titles and abstracts of the 62 articles were reviewed. The program helped visualize four different but interrelated clusters. Each of the terms found is represented by a node and its size corresponds to its relevance. Each node has a color; in this case, the red node will be called cluster 1, the green node cluster 2, the blue node cluster 3, and the yellow node cluster 4. The intensity of the color will reflect the relevance of the relationship ( Cantos-Mateos et al., 2013 ). Based on this score, 65% of the most relevant terms were selected (5% more than suggested by the system to increase the number of items), with a total of 18 terms grouped as follows: cluster 1, higher education institution, image, legitimacy, relationship, reputation, stakeholder. Cluster 2, academic reputation, college, impact, institution, ranking. Cluster 3, effect, information, news medium, university, university reputation. Cluster 4, reputation management, use. Figure 6 shows the co-occurrence map.


Figure 6 . Co-occurrence map.

From a detailed analysis of the composition of each of the clusters based on the thematic focus of the articles, it can be inferred that the articles in cluster 1 (red) focus on highlighting the importance of the relationship with stakeholders, the projected image and legitimacy; the articles in cluster 2 (green) analyze the impact of rankings on institutions and academic reputation; those in cluster 3 (blue) study the effect of information and the media on university reputation; and cluster 4 (yellow) includes the management and use of reputation. The following is a proposal that groups the articles reviewed in each of the four clusters found.

Cluster 1: Relationship With Stakeholders, Projected Image, and Legitimacy

In this cluster, we find studies such as the relationship of proximity, stakeholders, and reputation ( Finch et al., 2015 ); the multidimensionality of reputation through stakeholders ( Verčič et al., 2016 ); the use of social networks, reputation, and stakeholders ( Carrillo-Durán and García, 2020 ); the influence of university identity, image on reputation ( Steiner et al., 2013 ); identity and image management on reputation ( Maduro et al., 2018 ); the relationship between image, legitimacy, and reputation ( Del-Castillo-Feito et al., 2019 , 2020 ); co-creation of value, image and reputation ( Foroudi et al., 2019 , 2020 ); reputation and image ( Lafuente-Ruiz-de Sabando et al., 2018 ).

Cluster 2: The Impact of Academic Rankings and Reputation on Institutions

In this cluster is the influence of rankings on reputation ( Bastedo and Bowman, 2010 ; Bowman and Bastedo, 2011 ); the Google Ngram viewer and reputation ( Stergiou and Tsikliras, 2013 ); athletic rankings and reputation ( Bouchet et al., 2017 ); the average h-index as a predictor of reputation as measured via the U. S. News & World Report ( Smith et al., 2018 ); reputation as a result of citation networks via PageRank ( Massucci and Docampo, 2019 ); the influence of ranking, credibility signals and reputation on student selection ( Haas and Unkel, 2017 ); the impact of reputation and rankings on teaching income ( Wolf and Jenkins, 2018 ).

Cluster 3: The Effect of Information and Media on University Reputation

The following papers are part of cluster 3: university resources, public relations and news content ( Lee et al., 2015 ); communication strategy and reputation ( Sataøen and Wæraas, 2016 ); the importance of media on reputation and stakeholders ( Vogler, 2020a ); university mergers influence reputation ( Aula and Tienari, 2011 ); research-related activities and reputation ( Jamali et al., 2016 ); reputation as a source of information influences managers' ( Martin et al., 2018 ) and students' ( Brewer and Zhao, 2010 ; Priporas and Kamenidou, 2011 ; Munisamy et al., 2014 ; Lee et al., 2018 ) decisions; reputation, tribalism, use of Facebook in relationship building ( Liu et al., 2017 ); effects of reputation in the media on third-party funding ( Vogler, 2020b ).

Cluster 4: The Management and Use of Reputation

Finally, this cluster is formed by reputation and risk management ( Reznik and Yudina, 2018 ); the identification and management of reputation risks ( Suomi and Järvinen, 2013 ); university performance, reputation and professional staff ( Baltaru, 2020 ); university resource management - multidimensionality of reputation ( Suomi, 2014 ; Plewa et al., 2016 ; Chen and Esangbedo, 2018 ; Esangbedo and Bai, 2019 ); performative, moral and professional symbols as categories of reputation management ( Christensen and Gornitzka, 2017 ).

Relationships Found in the Review of the Articles

To deepen the relationships found in the papers reviewed, an analysis of the typology of the variable reputation or the direction of influence attributed to reputation was performed. In addition, the variables commonly studied together with university reputation were grouped by similar themes. Figure 7 shows the variables that influence reputation and Figure 8 shows the variables on which reputation has some type of influence.


Figure 7 . Variables influencing reputation.


Figure 8 . Variables are influenced by reputation.

The following are the variables on which reputation has an influence or impact:

The papers also found other variables to which reputation was related: career prospects ( Munisamy et al., 2014 ); entry standards ( Drydakis, 2015 ); motivation to study abroad ( Lee et al., 2018 ); tribalism ( Liu et al., 2017 ); voice-to-voice ( Harahap et al., 2018 ); quality of life ( Alter and Reback, 2014 ); personality and brand attachment ( Kaushal and Ali, 2019 ); co-creation ( Foroudi et al., 2019 , 2020 ); proximity and strategic character ( Finch et al., 2015 ).

How Has Reputation Been Conceptualized in Higher Education Services?

In each of the 62 articles, the concept of reputation and the authors with the highest number of citations were reviewed; and Fombrun was found to be the most cited author in the literature. Fombrun (1996) has nine direct citations and at least 16 others with various authors: Fombrun and Shanley (1990) —six citations, Fombrun et al. (2000) —four citations, Fombrun and Van Riel (1997 , 2003 , 2004) ; Van Riel and Fombrun (2007) —eight citations. They are followed by Rindova et al. (2005) who have at least 14 direct citations not counting those with other authors in 2010. Next is Suomi (Järvinen and Suomi, 2011 ; Suomi and Järvinen, 2013 ; Suomi, 2014 ; Suomi et al., 2014 ), with nine citations in total. Then there is Alessandri et al. (2006) who presents eight citations.

Most of these authors, define reputation at the organizational level. As such, it is common to find that their “corporate” definition applies to different sectors of the economy. This behavior was observed in a large part of the articles reviewed since some researchers chose to take up the organizational definition to support their research works that were applied to the higher education sector. In this sense, it is important to mention that globalization and the intensification of competition have caused universities to lose their social and formative focus, and become producers of competitive services by adopting more market-oriented approaches ( Maringe and Gibbs, 2009 , p. 4). Therefore, a summary of the definitions found was made, which is listed in Table 3 (the complete list can be found in the Supplementary Material ).


Table 3 . Definitions of reputation.

Although it is common to find the aforementioned definitions in research works, some authors have adapted the definition of reputation and applied it to the higher education service, since they understand the characteristics and particularities that differentiate it from other services. The definitions found in the review focus on showing the importance of the interaction of stakeholders with the university ( Rindova et al., 2005 ; Chen and Esangbedo, 2018 ) over time ( Alessandri et al., 2006 , p. 261) and the incidence of opinions of third-party experts ( Roberts, 2009 ). They also focus on showing the social and economic capital it generates ( Federkeil, 2009 , p. 32), taking into account that it is a valuable asset that influences differentiation and competitive advantage ( Luque-Martínez and Del Barrio-García, 2009 ). Further, it also serves as a proxy for assessing university quality. Therefore, it influences university selection and evaluation ( Hemsley-Brown, 2012 ; Munisamy et al., 2014 ) and the trustworthiness of its image ( Van Vught, 2008 , p. 169), attracting and retaining students ( Munisamy et al., 2014 ). From a student's perspective, public relations, marketing communication, crisis and/or risk management, and corporate branding perspectives are key ( Maringe and Gibbs, 2009 ). A summary of the definitions of university or higher education reputation is shown in Table 4 (see Supplementary Material ).


Table 4 . Definitions of reputation in universities or higher education.

Benefits and Weaknesses of Reputation

Reputation generates a huge impact both for universities and companies in other sectors. As such, we analyzed its benefits and weaknesses, considering the importance of examining both sides of the coin and identifying where the most important challenges in the conceptualization and management of reputation lie. Table 5 shows a summary of the main benefits attributed to reputation, and the authors cited.


Table 5 . Benefits of reputation.

As regards the weaknesses of reputation referred to in the articles, the authors mention that Reputation Cannot be Improved Quickly ( de Chernatony, 1999 ; Chun, 2005 ), and Lacks a Common definition regarding which no consensus has been reached yet ( Miotto et al., 2020 ). Further, it presents a lack of clarity regarding its management and remains a challenge for universities ( Šontait and Bakanauskas, 2011 ). It shows a degree of complexity within which the following aspects can be highlighted: heterogeneity in terms of stakeholders and, as a consequence, differences in their expectations ( Vidaver-Cohen, 2007 ; Suomi and Järvinen, 2013 ). When reputation is not successfully managed in the organization it is exposed to numerous risks ( Suomi and Järvinen, 2013 ). In universities specifically, where it is understood as the quality of education, reputation is difficult to evaluate before being experienced ( Suomi et al., 2014 ).

Summary of Findings

Taking into account the above findings, an outline is made with the most relevant points in the definition of university reputation. This is done with the understanding that it is the result of assessments made by both internal and external stakeholders of the performance and results obtained in the management of its substantive functions, namely, teaching, research, and extension during a given period. Internal stakeholders include students, graduates, teachers, researchers, administrative and managerial staff, with the student being the main beneficiary of the educational service ( Maringe and Gibbs, 2009 , p. 29). External stakeholders include students' families and friends, research centers, private and public business sectors, the state, rankings, and suppliers, among others. Figure 9 shows the results graphically.


Figure 9 . Elements of university reputation.


The methodology developed for the literature search on reputation in higher education resulted in 231 articles. Not all of them were included taking into account the exclusion criteria within the screening process. However, it did allow for observing the growing interest in this topic given the impact it has on organizations, in this case, in the higher education sector.

In addition, and as expected, definitions of organizational reputation were adopted and applied to the processes of university reputation management. However, some authors chose to make adaptations of these definitions to the context of higher education institutions, emphasizing the importance of identification and relationship with stakeholders ( Finch et al., 2015 ; Verčič et al., 2016 ; Zavyalova et al., 2016 ; Martin et al., 2018 ; Carrillo-Durán and García, 2020 ), understanding the differences between the needs and knowledge that each one has of the organization, as well as underscoring the concern over the time it takes to develop a solid reputation in the market ( Brewer and Zhao, 2010 ; Loureiro et al., 2017 ), which is different and generates value and competitive advantage ( Burke, 2011 ; Feldman et al., 2014 ; Munisamy et al., 2014 ; Marginson, 2016 ). As regards reputation built over time, universities must compete to gain a position ( Chapleo, 2007 ) in the local, national and international markets, which are becoming more complex, given the impact that rankings—which have become a benchmark of the quality of universities—have on the valuation of stakeholders ( Bowman and Bastedo, 2011 ; Drydakis, 2016 ; Wolf and Jenkins, 2018 ).

Therefore, it was found that reputation is decisive in the student's shopping experience ( Handayani, 2019 ; Pitan and Muller, 2019 ), which includes university selection, influencing, their lived experience in the training process ( Sajtos et al., 2015 ), placement or job attainment rates ( Smith et al., 2008 ; Laker and Powell, 2011 ; Finch et al., 2013 ), and development of entrepreneurship ( Parente et al., 2015 ). From the institutional point of view and within the framework of the purchasing experience, reputation management also helps in areas such as retention of students ( Del-Castillo-Feito et al., 2019 ), relationships with the business sector, agreements with other educational institutions, advancement of research ( Morphew et al., 2016 ), exchanges at the national and international level ( Plewa et al., 2016 ), and relations with the media ( Deephouse, 2000 ), etc.

To capitalize on each of these findings, Figure 9 shows a compendium of the points considered most relevant in the search, on the variables that influence reputation, the variables that are influenced by reputation, its benefits, and main stakeholders categorized as internal and external, following Verčič et al. (2016 , p. 165). In the evaluations made by external stakeholders, a critical point is the knowledge they have about the university given its proximity which influences their opinions that may be biased but have an impact on the reputation and quality of work of a university ( Steiner et al., 2013 ). For its part, reputation management among internal stakeholders, mainly students, have a positive impact on their attitudes ( Foroudi et al., 2019 ) and is a key element for the success and survival of universities ( Christensen and Gornitzka, 2017 ), which currently operate in a complex and competitive environment, in which they must compete with other HEIs for access to different resources and meet the expectations of all their stakeholders.

Discussion and Agenda for Future Research

The challenges of reputation management in educational institutions are evident in the literature review addressed. Issues such as the increase in academic offerings in terms of scope and variety of programs ( Maringe and Gibbs, 2009 ), changes in funding structures ( Steiner et al., 2013 ), internationalization of education ( Plewa et al., 2016 ), globalization and mobility of students and faculty ( O'Loughlin et al., 2013 ), as well as the focus on achieving high quality certifications as a strategy to show university differentiation and influence the images received by the various stakeholders, especially the student as the main user of the service, are crucial issues for university competitiveness. In fact, it is important to clarify that reputation and quality are related, but not necessarily identical ( Van Vught, 2008 ). In addition, authors such as Roberts (2009) point out that, in order to achieve the main objective of the university, in terms of offering a high quality service that responds to the needs of society, it is necessary and indispensable to work together and articulate between employees and departments with mechanisms that support management to achieve a positive reputation.

This management implies that universities adapt to these new models and systems of evaluation and measurement to show indicators of academic quality ( Steiner et al., 2013 ), which is why managers also focus their attention on improving their performance in the different rankings ( O'Loughlin et al., 2013 ). Among the prominent rankings to measure the reputation of the most prestigious universities in the world, are the Academic Ranking of World University ARWU (also known as the Shanghai ranking), the British ranking Times Higher Education -THE, and the Quaquerelli Symonds–QS. Each of them has different indicators and weights in their measurement. The ARWU for example, takes into account graduates and teachers with Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, the most cited researchers, the amount of indexed articles and their respective citations. However, these rankings have been criticized for their focus on the research capacity of universities and the way in which the individual indicators used to obtain the synthetic indicator are weighted ( Parellada and Álvarez, 2017 ). And indeed they have had an impact on the “publish or perish” message received by university faculty and professors, further evidencing the value of research ( Linton et al., 2011 ). Despite the negative biases of this type of measurement, rankings remain an important variable that influences reputation and, in fact, is consolidated in cluster 2, found in this study.

Subsequent research work can focus on further developing and understanding the multidimensionality of the concept of university reputation, in the light of a theoretical corpus that continues to evolve based on the characteristics and particularities of higher education and the challenges posed by the social, economic, political, and environmental contexts in which it develops its substantive functions. They will also be able to validate the relationships between the variables found, as well as to propose new variables that have not been contemplated and that may have an important and predictive impact on the performance of the construct.


This review focused on a 10-year period, by analyzing two databases, WoS and Scopus. As such, other databases that might contain articles on university reputation were not considered. Similarly, we did not include languages other than English, given that the number of documents found in the searches was sufficiently extensive only in that language. Besides, as mentioned earlier, most of the literature is in English. Further, articles indexed in journals located in quartiles 3 and 4 were not taken into account. As such, articles that may have contributions or theoretical perspectives different from those found could have been omitted. Furthermore, it is understood that a sample of 62 articles is only a part of all the literature found on reputation in universities and that a broader more inclusive review could generate different conclusions. However, this systematic review was carried out exhaustively, analyzing each of the documents found to generate the results presented here.

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/ Supplementary Material , further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.

Author Contributions

FJ contributed to design of the study and supervised both the development of the research and the manuscript. MA completed the majority of the literature review and wrote the first draft. Both authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

The publication of this article was supported by the Research Department, School of Business, Universidad del Rosario.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Supplementary Material

The Supplementary Material for this article can be found online at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2022.925117/full#supplementary-material

1. ^ Boolean code used in Web of Science: TITLE: (reputation) AND SUBJECT: (higher education) and the second TITLE: (reputation) AND SUBJECT: (university). In the Scopus database, the following Boolean code was used: [TITLE (reputation) AND TITLE (higher AND education) OR TITLE (universities) OR TITLE (university)] AND DOCTYPE (ar OR re) AND PUBYEAR > 2009.

2. ^ Taking into account the SCImago Journal Rank (SJR), which weights the value of a citation based on the subject field, quality and reputation of the source ( Elsevier, 2020 ).

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Keywords: reputation, higher education, systematic review, reputation management, reputation theory, university reputation

Citation: Amado Mateus M and Juarez Acosta F (2022) Reputation in Higher Education: A Systematic Review. Front. Educ. 7:925117. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2022.925117

Received: 21 April 2022; Accepted: 01 June 2022; Published: 29 June 2022.

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Copyright © 2022 Amado Mateus and Juarez Acosta. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Marelby Amado Mateus, marelby.amado@urosario.edu.co

This article is part of the Research Topic

Education and Innovative Perspectives in Higher Education



A systematic review of student agency in international higher education

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  • Published: 19 November 2022
  • Volume 86 , pages 891–911, ( 2023 )

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  • Kelsey Inouye 1 ,
  • Soyoung Lee   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-7673-3882 1 &
  • Yusuf Ikbal Oldac 2  

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The agency of international students has long been neglected and undertheorised, though recent literature indicates that this has started to change. This paper systematically reviews 51 studies that address student agency in international higher education. Focusing on research published in the last two decades (2000–2020), the review draws on studies that foreground student voices, or international students’ perspectives, rather than the perspectives of teachers, administrators or policymakers. A detailed discussion of how international student agency is positioned in the literature found that agency appears as either: a research object, as part of a theoretical or conceptual framework, or an emergent finding. Furthermore, our analysis suggests that the term “agency” is often used as a buzzword rather than as a fleshed-out concept. Thus, drawing on this initial analysis, the review synthesises varying but overlapping conceptualisations of international student agency in the literature into an integrative framework. Implications for future research are drawn, based on our findings about the understudied populations and methodological limitations in the literature.

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Higher education has long had a cross-border element (Altbach, 1973 ), which can be traced back to mediaeval times (Kim, 2009 ). Recent decades have demonstrated an unprecedented increase in international activities in higher education, leading to a rise in policy discussions and research interests on different aspects of international higher education (IHE) (Altbach & Knight, 2007 ). Within IHE, international higher education students (“international students” henceforth) and their cross-border mobility have attracted the greatest attention, emerging as a prioritised topic (Knight, 2012 ) alongside the exponential increase in international student numbers over the last few decades. According to the UNESCO ( 2022 ), there were more than six million international students in 2019, up from approximately two million in 2000. This is a 300% increase in just two decades. Although this rising trend in international student mobility may have been curbed by the current COVID-19 pandemic and health-related uncertainties (Mok et al., 2021 ), it is expected to revert as the pandemic wanes (Altbach & de Wit, 2020 ).

Given the relevance of the international student population in higher education policy and development, an understanding of student experiences is important in furthering higher education research. We recognise that both structural forces and student agency are important and shape international student experiences (Oldac, 2022 ); however, the role of student agency remains under-explored (Tran & Vu, 2018 ; Volet & Jones, 2012 ). For instance, a recent review of the research on international students argued that dominant understandings of international student experiences are formed by “narratives of deficiency”, meaning that students tend to be framed in terms of “what they lack, what they need and how they differ”, contributing to the decades-long tendency to undermine international students’ agentic capacity (Lipura & Collins, 2020 , p. 349). Recently, however, international higher education has been regarded as an important context to study student agency, as it provides a distinctive time and place where students actively deal with multi-level changes (regional, sociocultural and academic) away from home, maybe for the first time in their lives. We start our inquiry from an assumption that international students would experience these changes to a greater extent and in more aspects, which is shared by the dominant deficit discourse around international student experiences (e.g. Hechanova-Alampay et al, 2002 ).

The call for greater attention to agency in IHE is not new (see Brooks &Waters, 2011 ; Volet & Jones, 2012 ). Marginson ( 2014 ), for instance, has long highlighted the value of agency in bringing attention to “different observations and findings to those derived when cross-border students are positioned in a stress and coping framework” (p. 18). Yet, we, as researchers in higher education focusing on student agency, have noticed that despite growing interest in international students, agency remains relatively lacking in the literature (see also Lipura & Collins, 2020 ). Instead, “agency” sometimes appears as a buzzword, an idea that appears in research findings, discussions or literature reviews, but is not conceptually well-defined. This suggests that the concept of agency is still in the embryonic stage and requires further theorisation within the international student context. Our observations in combination with the observations of others in the field thus gave rise to the aims of this paper: (1) to review the existing literature on agency in IHE and the early development of the field, and (2) to synthesise how agency has been conceptualised by researchers. Additionally, we draw on the findings of this review to suggest directions for future research that may contribute to further conceptual development of student agency in IHE. In the following sections, we begin by providing an overview of the major existing theories of agency, and define the scope of our review, research questions and methodology. We then present a combined results and discussion section, organised in relation to each of our research questions.

Theories of agency

In social theory, agency typically appears in relation to structure. Major social theories such as Archer’s ( 2003 ) morphogenesis theory, Giddens’s ( 1984 ) structuration theory and Bourdieu’s ( 1977 ) notion of habitus incorporate the agency-structure debate. While Archer interprets the structure-agency relation as independent, Giddens regards it as interdependent with structure internalised by agents (Akram, 2012 ). Located between Archer and Giddens, Bourdieu’s habitus views agents as autonomous and empowered, but only to the extent that structure is reproduced (Adams, 2006 ). To analyse what constitutes agency, Emirbayer and Mische ( 1998 ) define agency as constructing engagement with structure through agents’ reflection on the past, present and future. This idea influenced Biesta and Tedder’s ( 2007 ) conceptualisation of agency as one’s “ability to exert control over … one’s life” (p. 135) by means of structure rather than simply within structure. As such, agency is theorised in different ways based primarily on its relationship with structure.

In contrast, psychological theories of agency do not necessarily involve structure. For example, Bandura ( 2001 ) regards agency as a determinant of human behaviour, proposing four features of human agency: intentionality, forethought, self-regulation and self-reflectiveness. This implies that agency may be studied using a range of keywords. As we only include papers that use the term “agency”, this limits a more comprehensive discussion of agency as practiced in the world.

Scope of the review

We view agency as critical to understanding experiences of international students, highlighting the importance of individual trajectories and how structure—the national, cultural, institutional contexts etc.—facilitates or constrains international students’ ability to navigate and shape their educational experiences. In our own respective research, we have drawn on various conceptions of agency. However, because the aim of this review is to understand how agency has been positioned and conceptualised in the existing literature on IHE, we did not draw on a pre-existing theory of agency to guide our literature selection. Rather, we chose to include all relevant papers that reference “agency” in the abstract title or keywords. By focusing on the term “agency”, we can focus our discussion on both how agency has been understood and treated in the literature as well as on the phenomenon itself. However, as noted earlier, a focus on the word “agency” may preclude studies on psychological or other approaches to agency that uses different terminologies.

Our review defines “international students” as those who voluntarily move from their country of origin to another country (hereinafter “host country”) to pursue a higher education degree (OECD, 2017 ). In line with our focus on student agency, this systematic review focuses on the literature on international student voices, defined as research that draws upon the perspectives of international students themselves, rather than the perspectives of professors/lecturers, administrators or policymakers. Our focus derives from the call for greater examination of student experience to complement and inform policy-focused discussions on the internationalisation of higher education (Brooks & Waters, 2011 ).

We used the following questions to guide this study:

Q1: How is agency positioned in the literature on student voices in international higher education?

Q2: how can the literature on international student agency be conceptually synthesised.

These questions emerged from the inductive initial review of the selected papers as will be explained in the following sections.


Literature search and selection.

The literature search was conducted using SCOPUS, Web of Science, ProQuest Social Science, Eric and PsycINFO. We used a combination of keywords selected to capture studies focused on agency of international students at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. See below for the search string.

(TITLE-ABS-KEY (agency OR agent*) AND TITLE-ABS-KEY (international OR global OR foreign OR mobil*) AND TITLE-ABS-KEY (“higher education” OR “tertiary education” OR college OR university) AND TITLE-ABS-KEY (student* OR undergraduate* OR post*graduate* OR graduate* OR doctora* OR phd* OR master*))

The search operating terms differed slightly for each database. Results were limited to peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters published between 2000 and 2020 in English. English was chosen, as it is the lingua franca of the researchers. All database searches were conducted on February 8, 2021, and 5237 results were imported into Mendeley.

The titles were filtered and entries on irrelevant topics, for instance, medical studies, political studies and studies on secondary education, were deleted. Any editorials and commentaries were also deleted. A total of 4286 items were removed in the title filter process, resulting in 951 papers. Abstracts were read, and the inclusion/exclusion criteria (Table 1 ) were applied, resulting in 193 remaining items.

The full texts were retrieved and imported into Mendeley. Each paper was read through to confirm its relevance, using the criteria outlined in Table 2 , which were developed jointly by the authors over several sessions of discussion. This process resulted in a final sample of 51 items (see Fig.  1 for the paper filtering process).

figure 1

Flow chart of the article filtering process. Inspired from the PRISMA 2020 statement: an updated guideline for reporting systematic reviews. BMJ 2021;372;n71. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.n71

The 51 included papers were read and categorised to determine how they positioned agency in their studies. We chose to examine the ways in which agency was manifested in the literature because in doing the full text filtering of the papers, we realised that agency appeared in a variety of places throughout the texts, sometimes in the research questions, other times in the theoretical framework to conceptualise international student decision-making and, often, in the results or discussion. We also noted that the term “agency” was not always well-defined or conceptualised and used to denote intention but framed as an assumed concept. We thus developed a framework to guide our coding, based on our observations from the full text reading (Table 3 ). This framework reflected the ways in which agency appeared/was positioned in the literature.

Upon developing our initial categories, we continued to refine the definitions over several iterations of coding and discussion. This process involved dividing the 51 included papers into thirds, and assigning two thirds of the corpus to each author to categorise independently as a way of ensuring that each paper was assessed by two authors. For instance, authors 1 and 3 worked on papers 1–17, authors 2 and 3 worked on papers 18–35, and authors 3 and 1 worked on papers 36–51. Papers could be double-coded if applicable. To illustrate, a paper could be categorised as both “agency as ‘given’” and “agency-as-finding” if agency appeared in the findings section but with no definition or conceptualisation. The results of the categorisation were then combined into a shared spreadsheet and discussed. Any discrepancies were examined and used to refine the initial categories and definitions, and another round of coding took place using the refined definitions. This process occurred several times until we were all in agreement. Subsequently, final categorisations were assigned for each paper.


Because our literature search was conducted in English, it is possible that we missed relevant work published in other languages. Likewise, papers not indexed in the databases we selected were not included. Our results may also be limited by our keywords. A keyword approach to the systematic review is useful in demonstrating patterns in the use of the terms, “agency” and “agent”, in research. However, the researched phenomenon can be examined under different headings. For instance, psychologists may discuss agency as self-efficacy, while Bourdieu talks about agency in various ways using different terms. Footnote 1 Nevertheless, the keyword approach helped us to identify the growing popularity of choosing the term “agency” among other names, in discussing the phenomena that have multiple names. Furthermore, because the aim of this paper was to examine how the literature engages with the concept of agency, we believed it was important for agency to be explicitly named as a focus, rather than make interpretations about what could constitute agency under other terminologies. The consequence of this decision is that other potentially relevant papers examining phenomena that are linked to or an expression of agency (e.g. coping strategies, self-efficacy) may have been excluded.

Findings and Discussion

The review followed an inductive approach guided by two research questions. This section begins with an overview of the trends identified in our analysis, followed by discussions of how the results address each of our research questions.

Emerging insights: overarching trends in the literature

The 51 papers in our final sample were primarily qualitative ( n  = 46, 90.2%), while five papers used mixed methods (9.8%). None of the papers included in our sample used purely quantitative research designs, suggesting that agency is not easily studied through quantitative methods.

The results suggest that interest in agency in international students has increased over the past two decades. Although our search parameters limited the results to papers published between 2000 and 2020, the earliest paper in our sample appeared in 2002, and publication rates did not begin to increase until 2011, when three relevant papers appeared. The largest number of papers was published in 2020 (Fig.  2 ).

figure 2

Publications per year

The papers in our sample included participants from various education levels. For instance, the majority of papers focused on either undergraduates ( n  = 17) or PhD students ( n  = 12), while seven papers focused on master’s students, four on general “postgraduates”, four on pre-sessional undergraduate students and six involved a mix of students from different program levels.

Our initial analysis also revealed trends in the populations of students studied. For instance, 13 papers (25.5%) focused on students from China and/or Taiwan. While the majority of papers included participants from various countries ( n  = 24, 47.1%), of the studies which focused on samples of participants from a single country, there was a clear emphasis on Chinese students, followed by Thailand ( n  = 3, 5.9%), Vietnam ( n  = 2, 3.9%) and Saudi Arabia ( n  = 2, 3.9%), reflecting an East and Southeast Asian focus (Fig.  3 ). These results suggest that Chinese international students were the most investigated group among these studies.

figure 3

The distribution of home countries/territories

The papers in our sample focused primarily on Anglophone host countries (Fig.  4 ): Australia ( n  = 14; 27.5%), USA ( n  = 12; 23.5%), UK ( n  = 8; 15.7%), New Zealand ( n  = 4; 7.8%) and Canada ( n  = 2; 3.9%). This finding aligns with the comprehensive UNESCO data (2022) in that these Anglophone countries have the largest share of international students. In addition, having a few East Asian host societies (e.g. China) among the reviewed studies suggests that East Asia is also attracting researcher attention in this regard.

figure 4

The distribution of host countries/territories

Our analysis suggests that agency inhabits different positions in the literature based on the purpose of the study. Namely, agency has appeared in five areas: agency-as-research-object (the research focus), agency-in-conceptual/theoretical-framework, agency-emergent-in-research-findings, agency-as-given (largely undefined) and agency-in-passing (mentioned, acknowledged). See Table 3 above for definitions of these categories and the Appendix for the list of papers and coding.

Agency as research object

Agency-as-research-object referred to instances in which student agency was identified as the research topic or as a focus in the research question(s). In total, fifteen papers were categorised as agency-as-research-object.

In cases where agency was the research object of a study, the concept of agency was used to explore international students’ agency within a particular situation or context. Most papers (9) included in this category examined agency as exercised and developed within the educational degree programme, based on the participants’ experiences as international students. For instance, Baxter ( 2019 ) focused on the “international education space” and how Rwandan scholarship recipients “experience and exercise agency in this space” (p. 107). Similarly, Kettle ( 2005 ) investigated agency in relation to how an international student “engages with the practices of a Master of Education course” (p. 46).

Other, more specific, contexts in which international student agency has been examined included supervision settings (Chang & Strauss, 2010 ; Nomnian, 2017 ), building intercultural relationships (Kudo et al., 2020 ), identity development (Ingleton & Cadman, 2002 ) and engagement with out-of-campus contexts such as Christian churches (Yu, 2020 ). While intercultural relationships, identity development and church engagement were stand-alone papers, they used these situations to examine international students’ agency in adapting to their new educational or sociocultural contexts. For instance, Yu ( 2020 ) examined church participation by non-Christian Chinese international students as a way of exploring agency in cross-cultural engagement beyond the university campus. Thus, when used as a research object, agency has tended to be explored in terms of the extent of international students’ agency and how students exercise agency in negotiating new settings, cultures and practices in the host countries.

Papers examining agency-as-research-object built on a range of concepts to delineate agency in their research: Lefebvre’s (1991) threefold notion of space (Baxter, 2019 ); pedagogy of flow and social identities (Fotovatian, 2012 ); a “three-stage ecological and person-in-context conceptual framework of intercultural relationship development” (Kudo et al., 2020 ); needs-response agency (Nguyen & Robertson, 2020 ); Bandura’s theory of agency (Mukhamejanova, 2019 ; Nwokedi & Khanare, 2020 ); Pavlenko and Blackledge’s (2004) identity construction and negotiation in multilingual settings (Nomnian, 2017 ); agency and adaptation theory (Yu, 2020 ); subjectification, confidence, shame, social relationships (Ingleton & Cadman, 2002 ); Archer’s reflexivity (Matthews, 2017 , 2018 ); agency in positioning theory (Tran & Vu, 2018 ); agency theory (Chang & Strauss, 2010 ); and critical discourse analysis (Kettle, 2005 ). Although these papers drew on varying sources in defining agency, all definitions involved the notion of acting with intention or out of personal desire, whether in a language (Fotovatian, 2012 ) or discursive context (Kettle, 2005 ), or as actors within their broader life course (Kudo et al, 2020 ; Matthews, 2017 , 2018 ). In defining agency, six papers mentioned the agent’s ability to change/alter their contexts and/or recognise the interaction between agency and structure (Chang & Strauss, 2010 ; Fotovatian, 2012 ; Kettle, 2005 ; Nomnian, 2017 ; Nwokedi & Khanare, 2020 ; Yu, 2020 ).

Thus, agency is used as a research object by the literature on student experiences in IHE. According to the shared notion in the definitions of agency identified here, researchers often use agency when investigating international students’ intentional action on/interaction with structure in IHE. They were particularly interested in the varying extent and manifestation of such tendency (agency) in adapting to their new environments.

Agency in framework

In contrast to the previous category, agency-in-framework referred to papers in which agency was defined by or integrated into the theoretical or conceptual framework of the study but did not focus on agency as the object of inquiry. Here, a theoretical framework refers to cases in which researchers draw on existing theory to conceptualise the research. In contrast, a conceptual framework is what researchers formulate themselves for their own research purposes, because existing models cannot sufficiently explain the researched phenomena. Eighteen papers were placed into this category, with two of them double-coded with agency-as-given (Dingyloudi et al., 2019 ; Weng, 2020 ).

Out of 18 papers, 11 incorporated agency into their frameworks (see Appendix) to understand international students’ experiences. Researchers using existing definitions of agency drew on a range of theorists including Ahearn ( 2001 ); Biesta and Tedder ( 2007 ); Sen ( 2000 ); Foucault ( 1979 ); Davies ( 1990 ); Archer ( 2003 ); Bandura ( 2001 ); and Marginson ( 2014 ). Some scholars adopted not only specific definitions, but also theoretical frameworks that include/imply agency. The two most frequently used frameworks were communities of practice (CoP; Lave & Wenger, 1991 ) and the sociocultural definition of agency (Ahearn, 2001 ). CoP understands agency as a capacity required for “socialisation into specific disciplinary communities” by adjusting and appropriating the self to ultimately shape self-identity (Killick, 2013 ). Ahearn’s ( 2001 ) definition of agency, “socioculturally mediated capacity to act”, is quoted in several studies that identified the roles of language (Anderson, 2017 ); personal backgrounds and aspirations (Chang, 2011 ); and academic communities (Weng, 2020 ) in enabling or restricting student agency. It is notable that the aforementioned theories are almost exclusively rooted in Western scholarship, and have been adopted across Western and non-Western contexts. This reflects the dominant use of these perspectives in understanding agency—at least in the English literature.

Although different frameworks were used and developed to investigate various aspects of student experience in IHE, the reviewed papers seem to understand agency in fundamentally similar ways. What agency enables is students’ ability to actively negotiate social structure towards the construction of the self and environment. On the one hand, agency is a capacity to “creatively interact with” (Weber, 1964 , in Amadasi & Holliday, 2018 ), to exploit (McAlpine, 2012 ), to engage with (Biesta & Tedder, 2007 ), to adjust to (Dai, 2020 ), and to improvise and even to reproduce the existing structure (Heng, 2018a , 2018b ). On the other hand, agency is not only exerted on structure but also on the self (Adawu & Martin-Beltran, 2012 ; Kudo et al., 2019 ; Woo et al., 2015 ). For instance, Bandura’s ( 2001 ) theory of agency, used in Woo et al. ( 2015 ), focuses on self-reflexive agency that is defined as “the essence of humanness that reflects an individual’s capacity to exert control over his or her own life” (p. 290).

By including agency in theoretical and conceptual frameworks, researchers built their studies on the assumption that students are agents. This means that students are presumed to be able to engage in reciprocal interaction with their environments, through which both student and context undergoes transformation. Given that these papers provided meaningful elaborations about their research topics based on this assumption, the use of agency-in-framework offers deductively drawn evidence about the critical role of agency in adaptation and personal development of international students.

Agency as emergent finding

The papers in the agency-as-finding category did not include agency in their main focus or research questions, but instead discussed agency as an emergent finding. Fourteen papers fell into this category. Of these 14 papers, three discussed agency as a finding and provided a definition, while the other 11 also arrived at agency in the findings but treated the concept as a given, not providing a definition.

In the three papers that provided a definition for agency (Copland & Garton, 2011 ; Ding & Devine, 2018 ; Koehne, 2006 ), agency was used in the interpretation of findings from diverse perspectives. For example, Copland and Garton ( 2011 ) identified three types of agency ( self-agency , other-agency and joint-agency ) denoting to “whom agency is principally attributed” (p. 248) in international students’ daily encounters in which they had to use English for communication. Their findings empirically confirmed the sociocultural aspect of agentic practices, which are influenced by language that can enhance or reduce international students’ “capacity to act” (Ahearn, 2001 , p. 251). Other findings interpreted using agency were autonomous and empowered action in supervision experiences (Ding & Devine, 2018 ) and students’ ability to talk about themselves and protect their self-confidence in challenging situations in IHE (Koehne, 2006 ).

Eleven papers in this category did not provide a specific definition of agency. These papers dealt with the agency of international students at macro, institutional and individual levels. By using a macro perspective, student agency was influenced by global geopolitical competition (Mulvey, 2020 ) and by the policy structures around international student security (Sawir et al., 2009 ). At the institutional level, international students’ agency appeared to be affected by curriculum such as liberal arts education (Bjork et al., 2020 ) and specific study abroad programmes (Dai et al., 2020 ; Dai & Garcia, 2019 ; deSaint-Georges et al., 2020 ). The remaining five papers focused on agency enacted in the individual experience, particularly individual identity development (Bond, 2019 ; Gonzalez & Ariza, 2015 ; Gu et al., 2019 ; Song, 2020 ; Wang, 2012 ).

The agency-as-finding category included more than a quarter of the papers in the dataset (14 out of 51). This suggests that research on student voices in IHE arrived at the concept of agency inductively. That is, even when the aim was not initially focused on agency, empirical findings pointed to agency. Agency as an emergent finding confirms the deductively assumed (by frameworks or as research objects) role of student agency in IHE.

Agency as given

We initially conceived of agency-as-given as a separate category during the early phases of our analysis. As explained earlier, agency-as-given means that we could not locate a definition or conceptualisation of agency in these papers. Later stages of the analysis indicated that this category is mostly a subset of other categories, with only one paper marked solely as agency-as-given (Vu & Doyle, 2014 ). Agency-as-finding and agency-in-passing categories account for the largest proportion of agency-as-given papers (11/14 and 3/3, respectively). Agency-in-framework had two of 19 papers and agency-as-object had no double coding of the additional agency-as-given category. These proportions make sense as the former two categories arrived at agency inductively without including the construct in their purposes, while the latter groups intentionally focused on agency either as its object or as part of their framework. In total, more than a third of the reviewed papers (17 of 51) did not discuss what agency is or how it is conceptualised. This suggests an implicit assumption that the meaning of agency is apparent and universal, which may not be true.

Agency in passing

This category includes papers in which agency briefly appears and is not the focus of the study. In these papers, agency is mentioned only a few times; hence, they appeared in our search results. However, they neither elaborate on the concept nor provide a definition for it. Simply, the authors in these papers were not interested in agency as their main concern, but acknowledged the presence of agency in international student lives.

The systematic search yielded three entries that fell into this category (Clerehan et al., 2012 ; Mayuzumi et al., 2007 ; Wang, 2018 ). In these studies, agency was touched upon briefly when discussing how international students felt empowered and “saw themselves as future change agents” (Clerehan et al., 2012 , p. 215) or when reflexive thinking for intercultural experiences (Mayuzumi et al., 2007 ) and problems encountered in academic development and personal growth engage in reflexive thinking (Wang, 2018 ).

This category strengthens our argument regarding the buzzword treatment of agency in IHE research. The brief appearance of agency signals the relevant but insignificant position of agency, spreading the concept to a range of areas in IHE but on a superficial level.

The findings suggest that international student agency has been positioned as a research object, as part of the study framework, as a research finding, as a given and as a passing construct. Agency has been either explicitly defined or implicitly explained to varying degrees of clarity. Agency tends to be most directly and clearly defined as a research object or in frameworks, while least so in papers coded agency-in-passing. We explored the various definitions of agency to develop an integrative understanding of international students’ agency, as described by students themselves and as shared in the literature.

We inductively developed a framework that incorporates the overlapping or contrasting conceptions of agency. While researchers seem to implicitly agree on a similar construct of agency, the contents ( functions , mediators and outcomes of agency) appear differently.

Construct of agency

When researchers define agency in their studies, they often conceptualise it in relation to structure. This is because most of the original theories of agency to which these studies referred originated in sociology. Thus, to develop a comprehensive understanding of agency, it is necessary to clarify how agency interacts with structure in various situations. According to this review, international students’ agency is expressed in how students actively negotiate social structures such as general learning environments (Cotterall, 2015 ), living contexts (Marginson, 2014 ), specific programmes in IHE (Baxter, 2019 ; Fotovatian, 2012 ; Kettle, 2005 ), supervision meetings (Chang & Strauss, 2010 ; Ding & Devine, 2018 ; Nomnian, 2017 ; Woo et al., 2015 ), intercultural relationships (Kudo et al., 2020 ) and disciplinary or academic communities (Anderson, 2017 ; Dingyloudi et al., 2019 ; Elliot et al., 2016 ; Weng, 2020 ).

The literature suggests that between structure and agency exists a mediated interaction involving various sociocultural and conditioning factors. Ahearn’s ( 2001 ) definition of agency as a capacity that is mediated by social and cultural factors was frequently cited in papers that attempted to use agency to explain a range of phenomena in IHE (Anderson, 2017 ; Chang, 2011 ; Weng, 2020 ). Studies have also shown the role of other social subjects in conditioning students’ agency practice, which supports Ahearn’s claim that agency cannot be conceptualised without considering various mediators. For instance, Copland and Garton ( 2011 ) found that agency is exercised by the self, others or even jointly, which also provides empirical supports for Bandura’s ( 2001 ) agency framework (as in Woo et al., 2015 ).

As illustrated in Fig.  5 , a general construct of student agency, incorporating the inseparable structure and sociocultural mediators, emerged from the current review. The figure will be discussed in more detail in the following subsections.

figure 5

A general construct of agency in the literature on international students in higher education

Functions of agency

Researchers have interpreted students’ various actions and statuses as agentic, leading to challenges in distinguishing what constitutes agency and what does not. To prevent the term “agency” from becoming a buzzword, there is a need to integrate the previous findings and identify shared features of agency. Overall, student agency seems to be manifested in actions that are taken internally and externally, both on the self and environment.

The first function of agency is self-reflection, or intrapersonal deliberation about the self, such as engaging in “self-talk” to fight feelings of demoralisation (Koehne, 2006 ). This is similar to Archer’s ( 2003 ) theory in which internal conversation is used as a tool for exercising agency (in Matthews, 2017 , 2018 ; Yu, 2020 ). Self-reflection involves knowing the desires of the self, which is necessary for students to intentionally take actions (Fotovatian, 2012 ; Kettle, 2005 ) as actors of their own becoming within their life course (Kudo et al, 2020 ; Tran & Vu, 2018 ; Marginson, 2014 ; Matthews, 2017 , 2018 ).

The second function of agency is behavioural self-regulation, including students’ adjustment and appropriation of the self in the host countries (Heng, 2018a , 2018b ; Mukhamejanova, 2019 ; Wang, 2018 ; Yu, 2020 ). This involves developing and applying strategies for successful functioning in IHE. Such work on the self is triggered by contextual factors. For instance, the frequently identified or assumed manifestation of agency is to engage with, negotiate, or develop strategies to overcome the challenges that accompany studying abroad (Heng, 2018a , 2018b ; Woo et al., 2015 ).

This is linked to the other function of agency: working on the environment. In the literature, agency was conceptualised to allow students to resist (Tran & Vu, 2018 ), or accept and exploit the environment (Cotterall, 2015 ) and change/alter their environment (Chang & Strauss., 2010 ; Fotovatian, 2012 ; Kettle, 2005 ; Nomnian, 2017 ; Nwokedi & Khanare, 2020 ; Yu, 2020 ). Students’ internal conversation with the self, and external expression of agency on the self and on the environment, suggests that student agents are empowered, autonomous subjects in IHE, who have the locus of control. In short, the commonly acknowledged core function of agency is to enable students to intentionally act on their own thoughts and actions, by reflecting on and regulating the surrounding environment.

Mediators of agency

The functions of international students’ agency are mediated by sociocultural factors as shown in Fig.  5 . The mediating impacts are attributed to what the students bring and what the new context in the host countries can offer. Previous research suggests that international students’ agency is fostered or restricted by cultural capitals (Cotterall, 2015 ; Weng, 2020 ), personal values and aspirations (Chang, 2011 ) and communicative competences (Anderson, 2017 ; Copland & Garton, 2011 ; Sawir et al., 2012 ; Weng, 2020 ). These resources are employed by international students when they apply their agency in relation to the new environments in the host countries, such as unfamiliar communities with different affordances (Kudo et al., 2019 ), which require different roles and trigger different reactions.

Furthermore, mobility, which entails immersion into a novel context, produces additional challenges for international students. While a focus on adaptation difficulties could reproduce deficit models of IHE, studies in this paper highlighted students’ use of agency in coping with challenges. From this perspective, interactions with new academic, cultural and social settings in IHE are not a barrier for success but a catalyst for promoting agency. This might explain why certain moments of interaction (e.g. supervision meetings, intercultural communication) and tools for interaction (e.g. language, communicative competences) in IHE were frequently studied contexts aimed at producing data about student agency.

Outcomes of agency

The final section synthesises construct, functions and mediators of agency to elaborate on the outcomes of enacting agency in IHE. By using self-reflexive and self-regulative functions of agency, international students achieve personal growth and identity development (Adawu & Martin-Beltran, 2012 ; Cotterall, 2015 ; Killick, 2013 ). Concepts like self-formation (Marginson, 2014 ) and agency-for-becoming (Tran & Vu, 2018 ) are examples of how agency may influence augmentation of the self in IHE.

Agency also leads to successful socialisation and transition into the new communities. As academic and sociocultural adaptation requires agency in transforming the self (Anderson, 2017 ), this outcome follows the first outcome of agency, self-formation. However, by locating agency within the boundary of structure, socialisation results in reproducing the existing structure. A more transformative outcome is when student agents construct their own environments, not only adjusting to the given one. This includes creating a more global learning environment by intentionally pursuing IHE (Chang, 2011 ). Thus, international students’ agency may result in formation of the self and reproductive and productive formation of the environment.

Conclusions and recommendations

International higher education has become an important topic of policy and scholarly discussion in the last two decades, and international students have attracted the greatest attention in the growing literature (Gümüş et al., 2020 ). Yet, international student agency has been mostly neglected (Volet & Jones, 2012 ) and only recently began to attract more attention. Thus, this study systematically reviewed the existing scholarly studies on IHE that specifically included student agency in their abstracts, titles or keywords and focused on international student voices rather than professors or lecturers. As a response to the identified issue of agency as a buzzword, an integrated conceptualisation of international student agency was constructed in this study. Theoretically, we established the interrelationship between different approaches to international students’ agency and brought them into a structure, through which existing and future research can build on each other. Methodologically, we formulated a helpful tool for collecting and analysing empirical data, which can guide researchers what to focus on or what are the manifestations of international students’ agency.

Reviewed papers mostly focused on mobility to the West, particularly Chinese students in Anglo-American countries. Participants in 17 out of 51 studies (33.33%) were all or mostly Chinese students, while only six of the total papers (11.77%) collected data from students in non-Anglo-American countries (e.g. China, South Africa, Kazakhstan and Japan). This can be problematic because it is not the direction of mobility that determines students’ agency; international students studying in less popular destinations also possess and practice agency. As this gap in the literature was also pointed out by previous researchers (e.g. Lipura & Collins, 2020 ; Waters & Brooks, 2013 ) in their recent review on international student mobility, it reflects the general trend in research on IHE. Two neglected populations of international students emerge: non-Chinese students and students in less recognised study abroad destinations. This pattern reflects the current mobility trends in IHE and researchers’ endeavours to reshape the historically entrenched deficit narratives around Chinese students. Future research might address this gap by examining agency of these two under-researched groups of students.

Furthermore, a methodological limitation of the reviewed papers is a paucity of longitudinal studies. Only eight studies among the reviewed traced students’ agency throughout multiple data collection points. This indicates the static conceptualisation of agency, which limits capturing changes in agency and structure through higher education. If IHE is to be understood as a process of students’ agentic self-formation (Marginson, 2014 ), how mobile students develop their agency during their higher education experiences and what the outcomes of their agency development are should be clarified. This can be done by providing more longitudinal perspectives on international students’ agency.

Another important limitation of the reviewed papers is the lack of consistency in conceptualising and defining agency. A third of the selected papers fell into the agency-as-given category; that is, we could not locate any definition or conceptualisation in these papers, the meaning is assumed. We initially thought agency-as-given category as a separate one from the others during the early analysis of the systematically selected papers. The later stages of the analysis indicated that this category is a subset to existing other categories. In total, 17 out of 51 papers (~ 33%) did not discuss what agency is or how it is conceptualised although they included it in their studies. This could be because, firstly, researchers may not know what it means or find it challenging to provide an explicit definition of agency; or because of an implicit assumption that agency is so commonly discussed that everyone understands the same meaning from it, which is not true as the next paragraph explains.

The papers that specified what agency is adopted a range of different frameworks, implying a lack of shared understanding of agency and that researchers rarely build upon each other’s work. This might be a necessary phase for an embryonic field that has to experience unintegrated and multiple, separate drivers until a few emerge as dominant and more acknowledged frameworks. The present review, therefore, contributes a significant step towards the next phase of the field by synthesising the burgeoning discussions about international students’ agency.

We appreciate Simon Marginson for alerting us to this point.


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We would like to thank Professor Simon Marginson and Professor Lynn McAlpine for their support and feedback. Yusuf Ikbal Oldac is a Hong Kong Research Grants Council Postdoctoral Fellow, funded by the University Grants Council of Hong Kong.

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Flipped classroom in higher education: a systematic literature review and research challenges

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Flipped learning has garnered substantial attention as a potential means to enhance student engagement, improve learning outcomes, and adapt to the evolving educational landscape. However, despite the growing interest and potential benefits of flipped learning, several challenges and areas of concern persist. This systematic literature review critically examines the implementation of the flipped classroom in higher education by focusing on the role of technologies and tools, pedagogical activities and courses, and existing challenges. Using a systematic approach, a total of 30 research articles published between 2014 and 2023 were chosen for the review. This study identified video creation tools, learning management systems (LMS), content repositories, collaborative platforms, podcasts, and online assessment tools as technologies that play a central role in the flipped classroom. Moreover, this study identifies specific pedagogical activities within different courses that contribute to the effectiveness of flipped learning in higher education. The implementation challenges that teachers and students may face in the flipped classroom were presented, and potential strategies to alleviate these challenges were provided. This study will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of flipped learning's benefits, technologies and tools, challenges, and potential to improve higher education.


The flipped learning approach has recently gained popularity as an educational innovation in educational technology, especially as it applies to higher education (Divjak et al., 2022 ). The most effective way to motivate students is by using technology-enhanced teaching methods that go beyond traditional lectures (Yıldız et al., 2022 ). Technology plays a crucial role in enhancing student engagement and satisfaction (Wang et al., 2019 ), with the flipped classroom model relying heavily on technology (Tomas et al., 2019 ). Flipping a classroom involves turning the usual classroom on its side (Güler et al., 2023 ). Outside of class, students are encouraged to actively learn new material by reading or watching recorded lectures. It demands that students retain and analyze the knowledge supplied for the class (Bachiller & Badía, 2020 ). The student is then asked to use what they have learned in class to complete group problem-solving exercises using peer instruction (Huang et al., 2023 ). As a result, students gain a deeper learning experience by gaining a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. Compared to the conventional lecture approach, this form of learning is more dynamic and student-centered (Karjanto & Acelajado, 2022 ). A flipped classroom can reduce the amount of time spent lecturing, provide hands-on experience, and help students become more prepared and motivated for their studies (Jiang et al., 2022 ). As a result, it can also enhance students' academic performance, engagement with the material, and comprehension, as well as their self-assurance and critical thinking abilities (Mortaza Mardiha et al., 2023 ). Flipping the classroom offers time-pressed students the benefit of following course material at their own pace (Torío, 2019 ). Teachers provide pre-recorded videos for students to access, allowing them to adjust their learning pace and time based on their proficiency level. Teachers and students may both become more tech-literate (Huang et al., 2023 ). Additionally, a flipped classroom encourages student collaboration and offers additional chances for teacher-student engagement throughout the teaching and learning process (Güler et al., 2023 ).

Flipped learning in higher education offers a cost-effective, student-centered approach to accommodate growing enrollments and can mitigate funding and structural issues that prioritize faculty research over student learning (Zou et al., 2020 ). Meanwhile, it equips students with 21st-century skills needed for global challenges (Zhao et al., 2021 ) and knowledge needed to meet current market demand (Ng & Lo, 2022 ). The flipped classroom approach enhances critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving skills in real-world settings, enhancing learning, academic performance, and practical knowledge (Castedo et al., 2018 ; Rodríguez-Chueca et al., 2019 ; Sevillano-Monje et al., 2022 ). Students with strong academic backgrounds as well as a set of practical knowledge, skills, and abilities are always preferred by employers. Employers favor hiring people with the abilities and dispositions necessary to turn ideas into reality (Pattanaphanchai, 2019 ). Due to the obsolete teacher-centered teaching methodology, the traditional education system has failed to build crucial employability skills, behaviors, traits, and competences (Khan & Abdou, 2021 ). In the traditional teacher-centered teaching approach, the development of necessary abilities and inspiring students by personalizing learning around their interests are disregarded. Students are unable to put their theories into practice in a real-world working environment (Lopes et al., 2019 ). The above-mentioned problems with traditional teaching methods could be resolved by flipped learning. It involves students practicing theories and necessary skills in a variety of student-centered activities such as presentations, group activities, and hands-on activities while being guided by the instructors (Galway et al., 2014 ; McLean & Attardi, 2018 ).

Numerous systematic review studies on flipped classrooms have been published, covering a wide range of significant topics. These review studies have limited publishing coverage, focus on one learner category, or focus on a single academic field. Huang et al. ( 2023 ) suggested video tutorials for a systems programming course in a flipped classroom to enhance students' learning interest. Senali et al. ( 2022 ) provided the state-of-the-art in flipped classroom business and entrepreneurship education. Another review conducted by Divjak et al. ( 2022 ) highlighted the flipped classroom methods used during the pandemic. Jiang et al. ( 2022 ) summarized the studies in flipped language teaching by using articles from the social sciences citation index. Flipped learning in higher education is gaining popularity, but systematic literature review (SLR) is lacking on investigating technologies, pedagogical activities, and courses. This can be helpful for teachers to apply technology according to the nature of the course. Moreover, the identified pedagogical activities can be helpful for other teachers to enhance students learning. Furthermore, this study identifies the challenges of implementing flipped classrooms and provides recommendations on how to overcome them. The recommendations can be helpful for teachers and students to cope with issues related to the flipped classroom.

The research objectives (RO) for the study are presented as:

RO1: To analyze the role of technologies and tools that are being used in the flipped classroom to support teaching and learning in higher education.

RO2: To identify the pedagogical activities and courses that make flipped classrooms effective for higher education.

RO3: To identify the challenges of implementing flipped classrooms in higher education and how they can be overcome.

Review methodology

A method for analyzing, understanding, and assessing the plan is called a systematic review. It discusses the topic and relevant research issues. Understanding and evaluating the existing studies, are the goals of a systematic review.

The study follows Kitchenham and Charters' ( 2007 ) methodology, which includes six fundamental phases: review protocol, inclusion/exclusion criteria, search procedure, selection procedure, quality evaluation and extracting data and synthesizing. The objective aligns with the findings, and the study adheres to the SLR's planning, doing, and reporting steps for a comprehensive analysis.

Review protocol

The major goal of the review methodology is to lessen research bias. The likelihood of bias in the review is reduced by outlining the approaches in advance.

Inclusion and exclusion

Inclusion and exclusion criteria were established in order to make sure that only studies that are extremely relevant to this analysis are included (Table 1 ). Finding domain-relevant articles requires conducting a thorough keyword search. The titles, abstracts, and keywords were therefore searched for relevant terms. For this review, empirical research is taken into account. Continuous examination and revision of the work are benefits of an empirical method (Rodríguez-Chueca et al., 2019 ). It raises the standard and reliability of the research being done. In addition, English is the language that is read and written the most. Additionally, the flipped classroom trend became more widespread in 2014 (Galway et al., 2014 ; Li & Li, 2022 ). The analysis encompassed all relevant research that had been published in English between January 2014 and July 2023. This study's objective is to describe flipped classroom technologies, courses, and activities. Therefore, only studies that provide a detailed description of flipped classroom practices and methodologies are considered in this review.

Search procedure

The search process consists of two steps, namely manual search and automatic search. The primary studies of the flipped classroom and higher education sectors were initially located using a manual search. Science Direct, Taylor & Francis, MDPI, SAGE, Springer Link, Wiley, and IEEE Xplore were all thoroughly researched. They provide comprehensive coverage of journal and conference articles, ensuring a more thorough analysis of the subject (Kitchenham & Charters, 2007 ).

The search used a comprehensive set of keywords to minimize the risk of overlooking any crucial documents. Boolean operators were employed in the search queries to extract the most pertinent documents. In the first step of the search, combinations of (“flipped” OR “inverted”) AND (“classroom” OR “learning” OR “teaching” OR “pedagogy”) AND ("higher education" OR "higher education institute" OR “university” OR “universities”).

Kitchenham ( 2004 ) suggested conducting a manual screening of the primary study resources. Thus, a manual search through all of the initial research's references is also conducted in the second stage.

Selection process

The selection process is used to find research studies that respond to the review study's research questions. The selection process for the study is shown in Fig.  1 . An automatic search that used the keyword string yielded a total of 493 studies. The 405 studies were eliminated since they did not qualify as empirical research. Kitchenham and Charters ( 2007 ) suggested excluding pointless studies from the reviews. Therefore, inclusion and exclusion criteria were applied to the remaining 88 studies. As a result, 64 articles were deleted for failing to explain flipped classroom implementation, leaving 24 articles discussing it in higher education. The snowball method was applied to make sure the results of the automatic search were comprehensive. The second phase was conducting a manual Google Scholar search on all related papers (Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

There were a total of 12 studies found while using Google Scholar. The 36 studies were subjected to the quality assessment requirements. The study included 30 relevant research articles after disqualifying 6 studies due to quality assessment criteria.

Assessing quality

According to Kitchenham and Charters ( 2007 ), the evaluation procedure is essential for determining the caliber of the study. The foundation of the evaluation process may be a component checklist or a series of questions. A list and a number of questions are used to assess each study's quality. This study established four quality measurement standards to evaluate the efficacy of each research endeavor. The following are the assessing quality (AQ) criteria:

AQ1. Does the study's topic address flipped learning in higher education?

AQ2. Did the author use an empirical method in this article?

AQ3. Does the paper mention the flipped classroom technology used?

AQ4. Does the article demonstrate how flipped learning is implemented?

The study evaluated the integrity of 36 selected papers using four assessment parameters: weak, medium, and high. The quality of each study was determined by summing its overall scores. A score of 2 was awarded for every requirement met, 1 for only a portion, and 0 for no fulfillment ( Appendix A ). Studies were classified as weak if their aggregate grade is less than 4, medium if it is exactly 4, and strong if it exceeds four. 6 studies were excluded due to non-compliance with the quality assessment standard.

Synthesis and extraction

The 30 studies were examined to complete the data extraction and synthesis. The essential data was then extracted after carefully reviewing the papers. The objective of this stage is to compile the required data from studies. Table 2 provides detailed descriptions of each item. The procedures for data synthesis and extraction are described in the upcoming sections.

Research findings

To analyze the role of technologies and tools that are being used in the flipped classroom to support teaching and learning in higher education (ro1).

A flipped classroom, a vibrant and collaborative learning environment, is a key component of technology integration in higher education (Günbatar, 2021 ). It enhances student engagement and academic results by incorporating interactive multimedia and digital platforms, such as simulations and gamification, into lesson plans (Yıldız et al., 2022 ). Previous studies utilized various tools and technologies, including video creation, learning management systems (LMS), content repositories, collaboration, podcasts, and online assessment, for teaching and learning in higher education (Table 3 ).

Video creation tools

It has been found that previous studies have used multiple tools for video creation. Park et al. ( 2018 ) study reported that Camtasia were used for video creation. TechSmith developed and released the Camtasia software package, also known as Camtasia. It is used for making and recording screencasts or direct recording plug-ins for Microsoft PowerPoint. Background narration and voice tracks can all be added individually or simultaneously with other multimedia recordings (microphone, camera, and system audio).

Steen-Utheim and Foldnes ( 2017 ) used video screencasts for developing course lectures. A screencast is a type of educational video that includes voice narration and screen recording, often a digital recording of a computer screen. These videos, similar to screenshots, are excellent for teaching or sharing concepts and are also known as screen capture videos or screen recordings.

Most of the studies reported that they uploaded videos to YouTube and the course-related website for student viewing (Al-Zahrani, 2015 ; Castedo et al., 2018 ; Park et al., 2018 ). Online video watching is made simple by the free video-sharing platform YouTube.

Learning management systems (LMS)

A learning management system (LMS) functions as a centralized platform for hosting and arranging educational information, such as videos, readings, assignments, and supplemental resources. Zou et al. ( 2020 ) study employed an interactive learning platform, namely Moodle. A learning management system (LMS) called Moodle is used to plan, carry out, and assess online training and education. Moodle is undoubtedly a popular LMS platform and is conceivably the most well-known of its sort. Moodle is used in universities and other sectors for blended learning, distance learning, flipped classrooms, and other online learning projects. Ng and Lo ( 2022 ) and Bachiller and Bada ( 2020 ) develop learning materials and videos and upload them on Moodle for students.

Mortaza Mardiha et al. ( 2023 ) used BigBlueButton software as an online learning system. BigBlueButton is a virtual classroom application created for online learning. The application, which may be accessed most frequently through different LMSs, offers analytics and engagement capabilities for teachers to communicate with their students remotely.

Lopes et al. ( 2019 ) employed MatActiva. The major objective of the mathematics project MatActiva, which was created on the Moodle platform, is to inspire students, encourage them to overcome their challenges through self-study, boost their confidence, and pique their interest in mathematics.

Online assessment tools

Online assessment tools have been developed to provide auto-evaluation, report generation, and even grading functions that speed up the typically lengthy marking process. It has been found that McLaughlin et al. ( 2016 ) employed clickers for in-class assessment. With the help of an interactive tool called a clicker, teachers can ask students questions and instantly compile and examine the entire class's responses. Multiple-choice questions are presented by instructors (verbally or via clicker software). Students enter their responses using remote transmitters. The technology instantaneously tabulates the results, which teachers can monitor and save.

Hao et al. ( 2016 ) used an instant response system in class. This system may evaluate student responses based on pre-set stored answers to swiftly produce a summary report of their findings. Students used an instant response system through smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

Sevillano-Monje et al. ( 2022 ) used Kahoot to create a questionnaire and test student’s knowledge. Kahoot is a Norwegian site that offers educational games. The platform offers educational games, or "Kahoots," which are user-created multiple-choice tests accessible through a web browser or the Kahoot application.

Content repositories and resources

A place where materials are kept is called a content repository. A Resource, on the other hand, is an artifact that aids in the learning process. McLaughlin et al. ( 2016 ) reported the use of Pharmaville and Pharmatopia for pharmacy students. Pharmville is a teaching tool that integrates real-world issues into undergraduate degrees, addressing the undervaluation of sciences and challenges in integrating information across disciplines. It provides context and supports the application of academic theory to students. Pharmatopia aims to provide problem-based pharmacy learning modules for universities and industry, utilizing a shared-practice model where educators create modules tailored to specific training needs.

McLaughlin et al.'s ( 2016 ) study utilized Khan Academy, which offers practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard for students to learn at their own pace.

Galway et al. ( 2014 ) employed NextGenU. The NextGenU free online learning platform, NextGenU.org, allows anybody to enroll in university- and graduate-level courses through reputable, approved institutions and organizations for personal interest or for free credit.

Yıldız et al.'s ( 2022 ) study highlighted the use of electronic books (e-books) for digital distribution and screen reading. E-books can be created from printer source files or from databases. Zhao et al. ( 2021 ) used printers for learning pre-class material.

Collaboration tools

Collaboration tools enable one-on-one and group communication, real-time messaging, group chat, file sharing, shared calendaring, and project management through voice and video. Li and Li ( 2022 ) used cloud classrooms on desktops and mobile devices for both students and teachers to collaborate. Cloud classrooms provide spaces for collaboration and facilitate communications between faculty and students. Khan and Abdou ( 2021 ) study reported the use of Zoom, Facebook, Gmail groups, and Google Drive.

Zoom and Facebook are communication platforms used for synchronous and asynchronous interactions. Zoom allows phone, chat, video, and audio interactions, while Facebook allows users to connect and share views, opinions, and content. Khan and Abdou ( 2021 ) used Facebook for educational purposes.

Google Groups enable students to communicate, create chat sessions, is invited to Google Meets, and share documents. Google Drive, a file syncing and storage service, allows data sharing and cloud storage.

The creation and dissemination of audio files is known as podcasting. Mortaza Mardiha et al. ( 2023 ) and Khan and Abdou ( 2021 ) used audio with PowerPoint slides for lectures. PowerPoint can record both video and audio simultaneously.

To identify the pedagogical activities and courses that make flipped classrooms effective for higher education (RO2)

Activity-based learning involves actively participating in various tasks or activities to learn (Zou et al., 2020 ). Activity-based learning involves students actively participating in tasks, enhancing problem-solving, logical reasoning, and imaginative thinking. This approach fosters meaningful experiences, promoting independent investigation and learning in a personal learning environment.

Flipped classrooms involve various activities that enhance students' understanding and collaboration. They improve retention of information and higher-order skills (Bachiller & Badía, 2020 ). Effective implementation depends on selecting appropriate learning activities based on the specific needs of the area (Wang & Zhu, 2019 ). Designing activities that align with the course content can better inspire and encourage students to enjoy their educational experience through activity-based learning. It assists students in learning and retaining information by encouraging active intellectual participation in the learning process. Through this process, students are able to recall and comprehend lessons based on their own experiences. The following sections provide information on pedagogical activities and courses that make flipped classrooms effective for higher education.

Accounting and management courses

The accounting and management domain contains a total of 7 (23.3%) courses presented in Table 4 . In this domain, multiple class activities were conducted, including multiple-choice questionnaires (MCQs), gamification competitions, online exercises, quizzes, multiple-choice-style game, problem solving cases, assignments, question and answer, assignments for hands-on practice, (e.g., Mortaza Mardiha et al., 2023 ; Ng & Lo, 2022 ).

In the classroom, students apply technology-based resources and cooperative learning methods to develop MCQs. Teachers use various technologies to solve problems and apply module content. Competitions, including gamification, test students' learning. Problem-solving case studies enhance writing, analytical abilities, teamwork, and communication skills in accounting and management curricula. This approach boosts and enhances student motivation (Ng & Lo, 2022 ). Multiple choices and online exercises effectively gauge accounting learning by providing immediate feedback and assessing cognitive ability beyond mere data memorization (Zhao et al., 2021 ). In accounting and management domain, students were able to clarify some "grey" concepts in their heads through discussion, and solve problems by asking questions. The teachers provided supervision and assistance in numerous conversations regarding certain assignments.

Science courses

The science realm contains a total of 5 (16.6%) courses. The domain involved various activities such as worksheet exercises, instructor discussions, debates, group discussions, online exercises, multiple-choice questions, assignments, and focused explanations (Karjsnto & Acelajado, 2022 ; Wang & Zhu, 2019 ).

Worksheets aid in assessing students' science knowledge, outcomes, and processes, while tracking progress. Encouraging scientific thinking through experimentation and worksheet completion can enhance participation (Steen-Utheim & Foldnes, 2017 ). Debates form the foundation for science courses, teaching students evidence-based reasoning, research conduct, idea generation, peer interaction, opposing viewpoints, and new judgments.

In science courses, group discussions provide students with a safe space to express their ideas and opinions, fostering a deeper understanding of the subject matter and enhancing their analytical skills and critical thinking abilities (Wang & Zhu, 2019 ).

Science blogging is an informal platform for sharing scientific knowledge and opinions. It helps students learn through quizzes, online exercises, and multiple-choice questions, aiding teachers in identifying areas for assistance and enhancing their understanding of the topic (Karjsnto & Acelajado, 2022 ; Wang & Zhu, 2019 ).

A focused explanation is necessary to accomplish specific goals (Yıldız et al., 2022 ). Therefore, in science courses, focused explanations and strategies are helpful to accomplish the objectives.

Arts and education courses

The art and education domain contained a total of 8 (26.6%) courses. In this realm, discussion, quizzes, MCQS and blank filling questions, mind map construction, online assignment, group’s discussion and debate were utilized for flipped class activities (Khan & Abdou, 2021 ; Sevillano-Monje et al., 2022 ). Discussion and debate in art and education enhance students' critical thinking skills by allowing them to process information rather than just consume it (Fraga & Harmon, 2015 ).

Quizzes, MCQs, and fill-in-the-blank exercises assess arts students' memory and comprehension of knowledge. They help students respond accurately and encourage critical thinking (Hao et al., 2016 ). Arts teachers can use these tools to assess concepts covered in class or reading materials.

A mind map is essentially used to "brainstorm" a topic and is an excellent method for arts students (Tomas et al., 2019 ). Mind mapping in arts and education courses facilitates assessment activities, allowing students to apply classroom learning and instructors to evaluate their progress through well-designed assignments (Sevillano-Monje et al., 2022 ).

Medical courses

The medical domain contained a total of 4 (13.3%) courses. This realm conducted several activities, including class debate, problem solving, quizzes and explanations, literature analysis, and debate on patient profiles (McLaughlin et al., 2016 ; McLean & Attardi, 2018 ).

Debates are crucial in the medical field for a thorough examination of topics, enabling evaluation, critique, and problem-solving (Galway et al., 2014 ). They also help medical students identify issues to resolve, as healthcare professionals constantly encounter new evidence and must distinguish reliable from unreliable.

Quizzes are beneficial in medical courses as they assess the class's understanding of concepts and help students identify their knowledge gaps (Van Vliet et al., 2015 ).

Moreover, literature analysis is important for medical courses. Medical students can develop their critical thinking skills through literature (McLaughlin et al., 2016 ). Literature can help to understand the viewpoint, the experiences, and the ailments of the patient better.

Debate on patient profiles enables tailoring interactions with patients and gives healthcare organizations a patient-centric emphasis. They also help gain a better understanding of their needs and preferences.

Engineering courses

The engineering domain contained a total of 6 (20%) courses. This realm conducted several activities, including design and simulation, problem solving and feedback, questions and exercises, practice (Castedo et al., 2018 ; Park et al., 2018 ).

Design simulation is necessary for engineering courses as it enables to validate and confirm the intended use of a product in development as well as the product's ability to be manufactured. The design simulation's objective is to assist students in producing an original, creative, and innovative animated engineering product (Park et al., 2018 ).

It helps engineering students employ moving components created using Autodesk Maya, simulated with it, and produced with 3D printers (Castedo et al., 2018 ).

For engineering courses, problem-solving, questions, and exercises are accomplished by putting a focus on science and technology, as they do with most disciplines. In an engineering course, problem-solving might entail creating innovations.

Discussion, exercises, and providing feedback to students were helpful for engineering courses. It improves students' learning, particularly in terms of higher-order thinking abilities like programming (Al-Zahrani, 2015 ). Compilation of the programming codes and practice in the computer lab can be helpful for students to thoroughly understand the topics.

To identify the challenges of implementing flipped classrooms in higher education and how they can be overcome (RO3)

Although flipped classrooms provide many benefits for educational settings, there are also some challenges to this method. This study identified a number of issues in implementing flipped classrooms and also reported how to overcome these obstacles (Table 5 ).

Time consumption

Despite the fact that there are many educational videos available online, some teachers report that they are having difficulty locating them or that they do not exactly correspond to what they want their students to learn (Hao et al., 2016 ). As a result, a lot of teachers try to make their own materials, which takes a lot of time and work. Therefore, flipping the classroom necessitates an increase in instructor preparation time during the initial transformation. Teachers are still struggling to flip large numbers of classes and maintain the effort necessary to enable student learning (Zou et al., 2020 ). Teachers have been criticized for claiming that the pre-class workload in flipped classrooms is more time-consuming than in traditional courses (Sevillano-Monje et al., 2022 ).

A teacher may not be able to create full course materials for a flipped class at once. It could be more feasible to focus on the half-course first and add related preexisting material initially. Another choice is for a group of teachers to create a course while working together to produce the material. Moreover, a teaching assistant can be provided to lessen the work load of the main teacher.

Instructors should estimate the time needed for traditional homework and plan their pre-class activities accordingly because a flipped course should have the same amount of work as a regular course. It is important to keep in mind that because students frequently stop and rewind videos, they will watch them for longer periods of time than the actual playtime. Therefore, the maximum amount of video content for each class should be 5–10 min.

Lack of motivation for pre-class work

Flipped classrooms face challenges in directing students to participate in pre-class learning activities, potentially reducing their effectiveness due to inadequate preparation, as teaching techniques heavily rely on pre-class tasks (Ng & Lo, 2022 ).

Gamification, an increasing trend in education, appears to boost student engagement and motivation (Yıldız et al., 2022 ). This method often includes awarding badges to students and monitoring their development on a leader board. Some learning management systems, like Moodle, have game components integrated right into them (Steen-Utheim & Foldnes, 2017 ). Additionally, there are third-party programs that provide every student access to an online activity that they can personalize as they accrue points by finishing pre-class assignments. This method will be helpful for teachers to motivate students for pre-class work.

Lack of guidance out of class

In traditional classrooms, students simultaneously ask questions if they face any difficulty in the lecture. However, during pre-class activities, several students complained that they were unable to ask questions. Unanswered queries can lead to misunderstandings or knowledge gaps, making in-class activities more challenging for students who frequently apply newly learned material in subsequent class time.

In a flipped classroom, students require more support outside of class because it is difficult to study the subject independently. Creating channels of communication for students to communicate with one another and their teacher outside of the classroom might be helpful. This may be accomplished with online discussion boards and many learning management systems, such as Moodle, chat forums, etc.

Quality of recorded lectures

Videos of pre-class education that are poorly made may unintentionally hinder learning. For instance, some students lose interest while watching lectures and stop halfway through (Li & Li, 2022 ). Other students express dissatisfaction with videos, saying they distance themselves from the teacher appearing on screen. They consequently observe inertly and overlook crucial ideas (Torio, 2019 ).

According to experts on multimedia learning, students watch videos for an average of ten minutes before losing interest. Therefore, longer topics should be divided into smaller ones. Additionally, more conversational videos will enhance engagement by fostering a deeper sense of connection between students and the teacher.

Lack of technological resources

Flipped classrooms utilize video conferencing, screencasting programs, and cloud-based platforms for teacher development and delivery (Mortaza Mardiha et al., 2023 ). However, poor quality, defective, and outdated ICT equipment can hinder implementation (Al-Zahrani, 2015 ; Bachiller & Badía, 2020 ). Students need internet access and a computer or mobile device at home for flipped learning, so ensuring technology accessibility is crucial for all students.

To get around this, teachers should set up a backup plan for all students, including what to do in the event that the internet is down or they are without a device.

Adoption of the flipped classroom

Teachers who were recently exposed to the flipped classroom could not comprehend the method or the benefits of the strategy (Galway et al., 2014 ; Lopes et al., 2019 ). Many students were unfamiliar with the flipped classroom method (Li & Li, 2022 ). It may make it difficult for them to grasp its benefits and adapt to new information outside of traditional classroom settings (Hao et al., 2016 ).

The demand for related training should rise as flipped and blended learning become more widespread. Training in lesson planning and video production could introduce new teachers to a wider range of teaching strategies and forge a stronger link between educational theory and practice (Tomas et al., 2019 ).

Teachers should establish a line of interaction with students before flipping to ensure they understand the benefits of the flipped classroom. Teachers should encourage students to express concerns, provide guidance, and provide specific directions for group work to reduce stress. They should also provide examples of effective video learning and group work.

Discussion and conclusions

The applicability of the flipped classroom in higher education was thoroughly assessed using SLR in this study. This study had three objectives to identify the flipped classroom technologies, activities according to courses, and implementation-related challenges. A set of criteria was utilized to extract relevant studies from Science Direct, Taylor & Francis, MDPI, SAGE, Springer Link, Wiley and IEEE Xplore and Google Scholar databases. Finally, a total of 30 papers that were released between January 2014 and July 2023 were chosen to be a part of this study. The summary of findings is illustrated in Fig.  2 .

figure 2

Summary of findings

This study analyzed the technology and tools that are being used for flipped classrooms in the higher education sector. The findings revealed that most of the studies used tools for creating videos. In today's digital environment, tools for creating videos, such as Camtasia, screencasts, and YouTube, are crucial. Each of these technologies has a specific function and helps in different ways with content production, sharing, and communication. These instruments revolutionized education, communication, and ideas in the digital age (Ng & Lo, 2022 ). They enable higher education in ways that were never imagined producing, distribute, and engage with a variety of groups (Sevillano-Monje et al., 2022 ).

It has been found that the LMS significantly contributes to and supports flipped classroom learning. In a flipped classroom, students independently review their readings before class, and conversation, problem-solving, and active learning take place during that time. The flipped classroom model is made more effective by the LMS (Bachiller & Badía, 2020 ). It makes sure that both teachers and students have the resources and equipment they need to be successful in this cutting-edge pedagogical strategy (Mortaza Mardiha et al., 2023 ).

Online assessment tools are a helpful technology of the flipped classroom model. Clickers and instant response platforms like Kahoot provide real-time feedback and increased interactivity for both teachers and students (McLaughlin et al., 2016 ; Torio, 2019 ). They assist teachers in gauging students' comprehension of class materials and offer insightful information for customizing activities (Hao et al., 2016 ).

The flipped classroom concept relies on resources and content repositories for access to various educational materials such as Pharmaville and Pharmatopia, Khan Academy, NextGenU, and e-books, allowing learners to progress at their own schedule. It promotes diverse learning styles and fosters collaboration for data-driven improvements in teaching and learning (Yıldız et al., 2022 ). It has been found that creating podcasts via Microsoft PowerPoint has emerged as an important and powerful medium for flipped learning. It provides a variety of interesting, accessible content, making it a useful tool for learning, entertaining, and maintaining knowledge on a variety of subjects (Khan & Abdou, 2021 ). Students can participate in pre- and in-class discussions, ask questions, and share ideas using collaboration platforms like online classrooms, Zoom, Facebook, Gmail groups, and Google Drive (Li & Li, 2022 ). It ensures they are well-prepared for class and actively participate in productive discussions (Khan & Abdou, 2021 ).

Secondly, this study analyzed the pedagogical activities and courses that make flipped classrooms effective for higher education. The findings indicated that the accounting and management domain involves multiple activities like multiple-choice questionnaires, gamification competitions, online exercises, quizzes, and problem-solving cases. These activities align with the nature of accounting, a discipline that demands precision, critical thinking, and effective communication. They contribute to the enhancement of students' skills. The science realm involves activities like worksheet exercises, discussions, debates, group discussions, multiple-choice questions, assignments, and focused explanations. These activities offer benefits for students and educators. Science often involves complex problem-solving and the application of theoretical concepts. Thus, worksheet exercises provide valuable practice and application opportunities. Discussions encourage critical thinking, communication, and diverse perspectives, while debates require critical thinking, persuasive communication, and research. They provide a platform for students to analyze and debate various scientific concepts, fostering a deeper understanding of complex topics. Multiple-choice questions provide immediate feedback and help identify areas of weakness (Karjsnto & Acelajado, 2022 ). Focused explanations provide clarity, confidence, and personalized guidance, promoting personal growth and understanding of complex scientific concepts.

Flipped class activities in the art and education domains involve discussion, quizzes, multiple-choice questions, blank-filling questions, mind map construction, online assignments, group discussion, and debate. Discussions encourage critical thinking and a deep understanding of complex topics. In both the art and education domains, discussion is a valuable activity that makes the exchange of ideas and diverse viewpoints more effective. Quizzes and multiple-choice questions cover diverse content, requiring higher-order thinking skills (Li & Li, 2022 ). In art, they can evaluate students' understanding of art history, techniques, and concepts. In education, they serve as formative assessments to gauge students' comprehension of educational theories and practices. Mind maps are versatile tools that assist in analyzing art movements, brainstorming ideas, and visualizing complex educational theories. Group discussions and debates promote collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills (Khan & Abdou, 2021 ). Such activities assist students in learning from one another's creative ideas. Meanwhile, aligning with the cooperative nature of teaching and learning, collaborative projects foster teamwork and the sharing of knowledge.

The medical domain courses involve activities like class debate, problem-solving, quizzes, literature analysis, and patient profile debates. Debates require medical students to think critically, analyze information, and develop persuasive arguments. Quizzes assess medical students' understanding, provide immediate feedback, and help them retain information (Van Vliet et al., 2015 ). Literature analysis requires critical thinking, writing skills, and empathy (McLean & Attardi, 2018 ). Patient profile debates help develop clinical reasoning skills, communication skills, ethical considerations, and teamwork. By incorporating these activities into the curriculum, the higher education sector can create dynamic learning environments that prepare medical students for success in academic and real-world contexts. Engineering courses utilize design, simulation, problem-solving, feedback, exercises, and practice activities to foster innovation, reduce risk, and improve practical skills (Günbatar, 2021 ). As a result, information retention and networking possibilities are improved. These activities fill the gap between academic knowledge and practical application.

Finally, this study focused on the challenges associated with the execution of flipped classrooms in higher education and proposed strategies to overcome these challenges. The identified challenges include time consumption, lack of motivation for pre-class work, lack of guidance out of class, quality of recorded lectures, lack of technological resources, and adoption of the flipped classroom. Despite these challenges, the flipped classroom model is often a valuable approach that enhances student learning. Therefore, with careful planning, support, and ongoing assessment, these challenges can often be mitigated or overcome.

Limitations and directions for future research

This study obtained articles from well-reputed databases and publishers, including Science Direct, Taylor & Francis, MDPI, SAGE, Springer Link, Wiley, IEEE Xplore, and Google Scholar. Even though these sources cover a broad spectrum of scholarly literature, future studies can include additional databases and publishers in order to ensure more comprehensive coverage of the available literature. This study mainly focused on flipped learning in the higher education sector. Future studies may expand the scope by examining the efficiency and effectiveness of flipped classrooms in other educational settings such as school, training and professional development, and vocational and technical education, as the educators and students may have distinct expectations.

This study analyzed the tools and technologies that are being used in higher education. Future studies can analyze the developments in flipped classroom technology that are influenced by a variety of factors, including pedagogical research, developing technologies, and changing demands on both students and teachers. This study did not explore the implementation of cutting-edge technologies such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence in flipped classrooms. Future studies can focus on such technologies and their impact on student engagement and success. Future investigations can also focus on the application of augmented reality and artificial intelligence to fulfill the unique learning needs and expectations of various academic majors and courses within the context of flipped classrooms. Additionally, the adoption and effectiveness of flipped classrooms can differ across different cultures and geographical regions. This study has not explicitly considered such variations. Therefore, examining the influence of cultural and geographical factors on the outcomes of flipped classrooms is recommended in future studies.

This study identified the pedagogical activities and courses in the flipped classroom. The future of flipped classroom course activities can be shaped by a blend of innovative technologies, pedagogical research, and a focus on enhancing the learning experience for students. Future studies can investigate how instructors can tailor pedagogical activities to match specific learning objectives and student needs in different subject areas by assessing the adaptability of these activities across various disciplines. Finally, this study primarily reported the immediate outcomes of using flipped classrooms in higher education. Future longitudinal studies are recommended to trace the effectiveness of this pedagogical approach on students' learning, success, and retention rates in the long-term.

Research implication

This investigation can shed light on the current state of flipped learning as an emerging educational approach and its implications for teaching and learning. This study can help researchers, educators, and institutions better understand how flipped learning is being implemented, its impact on students and instructors, and its potential benefits and challenges.

The identified flipped classroom technologies have numerous implications for educators, researchers, and institutions. The identified technologies (e.g., Camtasia and Screencast) for flipped classrooms can be helpful for educators to tailor content according to student needs. Educators can provide additional resources for struggling students and challenge more advanced learners accordingly. In flipped classrooms, technology (such as clickers and instant response) can automate assessment and provide quick feedback. These can allow educators to spot problem areas and modify their instruction accordingly. Flipped classroom technology can be implemented at scale, making it a cost-effective solution for institutions looking to improve teaching and learning outcomes. Moreover, researchers can explore the effectiveness of the indicated technologies to see what works best for different subjects and student populations.

Through research, educators can gain insights into effective strategies for using flipped learning in their classrooms, and institutions can make informed decisions about adopting and supporting this pedagogical approach. The analysis of flipped classroom technologies can direct pedagogical approaches and resource allocation, eventually influencing how higher education develops in the future. The results of the study will show the extent to which technology is integrated into higher education for the purpose of flipped learning. In this way, institutions can better plan to use technologies that work well in flipped classrooms in order to maintain their competitiveness and deliver high-quality instruction. Resources may need to be set aside by universities and colleges to train teachers in the efficient use of these technologies. Programs for faculty development, workshops, and continuous assistance for teachers are needed to make the most of these tools. Meanwhile, understanding the technologies being used can affect how curriculum is designed. Lecturers and curriculum designers can match their courses with the flipped classroom model by incorporating technology-friendly content and activities into their lessons.

Secondly, this study explored the pedagogical activities and courses that make flipped classrooms effective for higher education. Recognizing that different subject domains may require distinct pedagogical activities highlights the importance of tailoring teaching strategies to suit the nature of the course. New teachers can benefit immensely from this insight as it encourages them to avoid conventional way of teaching. They can adapt their teaching methods to align with the specific content and learning goals of their courses. This can lead to effective resource allocation. When teachers are aware of which activities are most effective for particular subjects, they can allocate their time and resources more efficiently. This knowledge allows them to focus on developing and implementing activities that are known to work well for their subject matter, optimizing the learning experience for their students. The right class activity provides the structure that will allow students to build on what they have already learned. This approach will ultimately result in increased student participation, greater comprehension, and better information retention.

It has been found that gamification activities can be an effective flipped classroom strategy in accounting and management courses. Educators can design gamification activities in a manner to reinforce important ideas, promote critical thinking, and make learning memorable for students. In science courses, problem-solving-based activities were found to be very important. Educators can design the problem-solving activity, ensuring it is engaging and interactive. Educators can consider various formats, such as case studies, experiments, simulations, or research projects. It has been found that interactive activities can improve art and education courses by encouraging student creativity and a deeper comprehension of artistic ideas. Institutions and educators can provide online resources for students to experience virtual museum tours and art galleries. Students can talk about well-known pieces of art, styles, and artists. Additionally, institutions might schedule routine art critique events where students can exhibit their work and get input from their peers.

It has been observed that a literature analysis helps students understand the current state of knowledge in a particular medical area, ensuring that their practice is evidence-based. Therefore, institutions can provide free access to databases and journals to medical students. It has been found that computer-based practice exercises hold significant importance for engineering courses. Educators can organize the computer-based practice exercises with a clear structure. Educators can employ multimedia components including simulations, and augmented reality to illustrate questions in computer-based tasks.

Lastly, the identification of challenges in implementing flipped classrooms serves as a roadmap for future research endeavors. Other researchers can use these challenges as a starting point to investigate specific issues in greater detail. This can lead to more targeted and experimental studies aimed at finding practical solutions. Educational institutions can use the identified solutions as a basis for professional development. They can provide training and resources to better incorporate flipped classroom techniques and overcome challenges. Meanwhile, institutions can allocate resources to support the implementation of the identified solutions. This can include investing in technology and creating support structures for students to navigate challenges successfully. The identified solutions can contribute to the creation of more conducive learning environments. Students and teachers can implement these solutions to manage challenges effectively, resulting in a more productive and engaging learning experience. Finally, the solutions offered can have a direct impact on student success. Effective management of challenges by students and teachers can lead to better comprehension of course material, and increased academic achievement.

Availability of data and materials

This is a review paper and all data has been presented throughout the paper.

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Baig, M.I., Yadegaridehkordi, E. Flipped classroom in higher education: a systematic literature review and research challenges. Int J Educ Technol High Educ 20 , 61 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-023-00430-5

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