Stages of Change Theory


Transtheoretical Model


Stages learners pass through in deliberate efforts to change habits

Principal Metaphors

There is a tremendous variety of interpretation of Stages of Change Theory, with some versions framing learning as “behavior change” and others as “conceptual change.” The associated metaphors for knowledge, teaching, etc. vary correspondingly. The following thus fit must, but not all variations.
  • Knowledge is … scope of possible action and interpretation
  • Knowing is … current competencies
  • Learner is … changing agent
  • Learning is … change
  • Teaching is … managing change




Stages of Change Theory parses learning into a sequence of five stages, each associated with specific strategies to promote movement to the next stage while preventing regression to previous stages. Originally based on studies of people who were trying to stop smoking, it has since been applied to a broad range of skills and concepts. The stages in the 1992 version were:
  • Precontemplation – the learner is not intending to take action in the foreseeable future
  • Contemplation – the learner is thinking about change, assessing pros and cons
  • Preparation – the learner has plans in place and intends to take action soon
  • Action – the learner is actively involved in change
  • Maintenance – the learner has maintained change an extended period and is taking stages to avoid regression
Some versions include a sixth (Termination) stage, within which habits and mindsets have shifted in ways that give confidence there will be no regression.


The alternative title of Stages of Change Theory (i.e., Transtheoretical Model) gives an immediate hint at a likely issue. A model that attempts to reach across a broad range of theories must do so in ignorance of their particular interpretations of the complex dynamics of learning. In the process, there is a risk of regressing to the most commonsensical and familiar notions. Thus, while the model might be useful and appropriate for applications related to its original inspiration (i.e., stopping smoking), it may not be wise to extend it to other contexts and contents of learning without some critical interrogation of its narrow intentions and associated baggage.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

J.O. Prochaska; C.C. DiClemente

Status as a Theory of Learning

Stages of Change Theory is most often presented as a theory of learning. However, it is not in any way concerned with affording new or nuanced understandings of the complex dynamics of learning. Rather, it is a model of stages that might be plotted out to influence learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Stages of Change Theory is principally a theory of teaching. It is a framework for managing and tracking learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Within contexts associated with its original development (i.e., stopping smoking), evidence has been gathered to demonstrate the efficacy of Stages of Change Theory. However, as a more generalized model, it does not fulfill our criteria for a scientific theory, principally because proponents are typically inattentive to underlying metaphors and conceptual commitments. Consequently, often broad and incompatible ranges of metaphors are invoked across interpretations.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Stages of Change Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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