Testing Changes:

The Basics of Phase 3

What is the purpose of this phase?

You and your team will be guided through your first Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles.

When should this happen?

After your team has mapped out a working theory of improvement.

Who is involved?

The improvement team leader and all team members.

What will you do?

Run your first PDSA cycle: plan, test, reflect, and refine changes to practice based on the test findings.

You are ready for Phase 3 when you have:


completed the Problem Statement Readiness Check to consolidate your thinking around the factors affecting your problem (from Phase 1)


captured your team's working theory of improvement in a driver diagram (from Phase 2)


identified several potential change ideas from your driver diagram as places to start testing, which should have the potential to be high impact and should be accessible to your team's daily work

Key Terms 

PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act)

Problem-solving model with four stages, used to improve a process.

annotated diagram of PDSA cycle

Testing Changes: Summary of the Concepts

Traditional school reform often relies on efforts to optimize high-stakes initiatives, at scale, before they are even introduced. Improvement science prioritizes small, low-stakes tests, designed for rapid cycles of feedback and adjustment, building in scale only after learning what works in varied contexts. The heart of any improvement process lies in testing change. Observing small changes made in a deliberate step-by-step way creates conditions for continuous learning and steady but real improvement to grow.

Improvement science cycles follow a path referred to as PDSA, an acronym for Plan-Do-Study-Act. Each PDSA is a small sequence which starts with simple, practical actions, and with repetition grows to gain progressively greater and greater momentum.

There are many benefits to learning to improve through small, rapid test cycles:

  • We can leverage the resources available to learn “quickly and cheaply” (Learning to Improve, Bryk et al.) and focus on the speed of our learning rather than the scope of our initial change.
  • Low-stakes tests afford us the opportunity to fail; creating the space to safely try things that might not work ultimately allows for true learning and innovation.

  • Prioritizing action and testing over theory and planning puts educators in charge and in the position to experience classroom success.

A Word about Scale: The Power of Small Change

scale vs testing small changes comparison

Overview of the Tools

intro to pdsa cycle activity
image of change idea checklist

Introduction to the PDSA Cycle

45 minutes

What is it? An activity to guide your team through the exploration of a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle.

What does it do? Enables team members to analyze and refine their change idea to ensure it fits the scope of the test cycle. The activity will familiarize team members with the PDSA cycle and guide them through planning their first test.

Why use it? To gain familiarity with the PDSA cycle; to plan and run a test; to become familiar with how to collect, share, and evaluate the test findings.

Debriefing a PDSA


50 minutes

What is it? An activity to guide reflection conversations on how the test went and plan next steps.

What does it do? It comprises the Study and Act sections of the PDSA cycle; it aims to support the consolidation of learning and the transition to useful next steps.

Why use it? To turn learning from the test into a decision about the next test.

Change Idea Checklist

50 minutes

What is it? A checklist to ensure your change idea is within the parameters of a worthwhile PDSA cycle.

What does it do? Ensures you don’t waste time and energy testing an idea that is too big or conceptual to yield timely and actionable results.

Why use it? To avoid common pitfalls and set your team up for success.

Understanding the PDSA Cycle

The core of this phase, and the improvement process, is the PDSA cycle. It provides a structure for moving through four steps. Simply put, they are:

1. PLAN: Use one of your change ideas to create a small test and make predictions.

2. DO: Use existing daily or weekly classroom practices to gather embedded data and look for evidence of change.

3. STUDY: Evaluate how your results compare to your predictions.

4. ACT: Adjust your change idea based on your findings.

What to Do at Each Stage, with Examples 


  • Select a change idea from your driver diagram that takes a single step to enact, does not involve extra staff, and will take under two weeks to implement.
  • Make predictions about the expected results.
  • Fill out the “plan” section of the PDSA form before you test your change idea.

Click on the examples to make them bigger.

plan a pdsa diagram


  • Carry out your plan (test your change idea) in less than one week,
    often during one class setting.
  • Collect evidence and observations.
  • Complete the “do” section of the PDSA form immediately after the change idea is tested.
example of how to complete the do section of pdsa form


  • After the test, have a team meeting to compare your data analysis to your initial predictions.
  • This part may be messy at first. Previously unrecognized issues may surface, but don’t be deterred! This learning will help you better understand your problem in time for the next test.
  • Please know that gaps in understanding narrow as you cycle through successive PDSA cycles.
example of how to complete the study section of pdsa form


  • Think of “act” as the time to “adjust” your change idea based on your test findings.
  • Based on the evidence, your team will decide whether to “adopt, adapt, or abandon” your change idea.
  • At this point, your team should also update the theory of improvement to reflect your most current understanding. Ask yourselves “What changes do we need to make to optimize our improvement?” before beginning your next cycle.
example of how to complete the act section of pdsa form

Putting It All Together: PDSA “Bursts” and Refinement Until Optimization

pdsa burst image

Each individual PDSA cycle creates time for action balanced by reflection. Scheduling cycles of PDSAs into “bursts”—6 to 12 weeks or more of frequent team meetings— allows for several rapid iterations of the PDSA cycle. This creates the right conditions to nurture both the experimentation required during testing and the reflection and refinement needed for scaling up later on.

We recommend using the PDSA form as a workspace for your team to keep track of your team’s actions, reflections, evidence of change, and next steps. This record will help guide your team through each “burst” as you reflect and refine; it will be invaluable after the burst as you make strategic decisions about the changes you’ll need to make next.