Dec 6, 2021

Implementing Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycles for Continuous Improvement

Chris Brandt
Juan D'Brot
Lori Vandeborne
Ann Weber
Vector illustration of teamwork concept

The Region 5 Comprehensive Center is co-developing ready-made resources with state educational leaders in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to establish Networked Improvement Communities that can drive local improvement initiatives. Our latest release highlights the use of Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) improvement cycles.Plan-Do-Study-Act circular graphic in green

PDSA cycles offer a way to test and refine a strategy or intervention prior to scaling it up. State and district education leaders can use PDSA cycles to test the effectiveness of a specific policy or practice-based solution to a problem through four steps:


The strategy being tested should be designed to address a problem at its root, based on a well-defined theory of action and logic model. First, a state or district will need to confirm site participants and define specific roles and responsibilities. Through communication and preparation, participants and individual teams begin to plan the implementation process.


Implementing the plan with a small group of students or in a small number of sites allows the state or district to determine whether a strategy is working as intended. Systematically collecting data about how implementation was carried out and how the outcome changed as a result is crucial to this step.


States and districts should collect data during implementation to be able to measure what changes occurred and how the outcomes varied across different types of participants and sites. Measuring the magnitude and significance of change is important here.


Acting on results typically involves one of three types of decisions, based on the data collected.

  1. Adopting the strategy by expanding to new sites and continuing to test its efficacy.
  2. Adapting the strategy, which presupposes a change in the underlying theory of action or logic model. Adaptation may involve updating implementation procedures, continuing to test over longer periods of time, or modifying contextual factors that influence how the strategy unfolds in a specific context.
  3. Abandoning the strategy, and revisiting the problem statement and root causes to determine new potential solutions.

Once the cycle is complete, the original plan is revised or a new plan is created, and the cycle begins again. It is typically best to run at least three PDSA cycles before deciding to adopt or abandon. It takes time to fully understand why and how a strategy works when it is tested with a variety of individuals and under a variety of conditions (Shakman et al, 2020).

Organizations can implement different types of PDSA cycles (National Implementation Research Network, 2021):

  1. Rapid-cycle improvement cycles are immediate and small-scale. An example would be modifying formative assessment routines based on how a lesson worked with students.
  2. Usability testing cycles can be more complex, starting small but with the intent of scaling up across more sites. For example, deploying assessment literacy training for staff in one or more districts.
  3. Policy-practice communication cycles are longer-term and require changes across multiple organizations or departments within a system. An example would be a state’s rollout of a new assessment system.

Typically, as the scale and complexity of an improvement effort increases (horizontal axis) so does the time and frequency of the PDSA cycle (vertical axis). Complex organizational changes tend to occur more slowly than classroom or school-based changes, and require more time to plan before policies are implemented.

Line Graph showing relationship between Timing and cycle frequency and scale and complexity for Rapid Cycle Problem-Solving, Usability Testing, and Practice-Policy Communication Cycles
Source: National Implementation Research Network. (2021). “Module 5: Improvement Cycles.”

Different types of PDSA cycles may be implemented at the same time at different levels of the system. Leadership plays a key role in supporting both organization-level PDSA cycles and school-level rapid PDSA cycles. Through thoughtful planning, states and districts can initiate evidence-based changes that are informed by these cycles of inquiry.

For a deeper dive into the content around PDSA cycles, visit our Networked Improvement Community facilitator resources for Implementing Plan-Do-Study-Act Cycles.

For more background on the origins of the PDSA cycle model, see this installment on continuous improvement from Region 5’s nine-part series on Strategic Budgeting.



Shakman, K., Wogan, D., Rodriguez, S., Boyce, J., and Shaver, D. (2020). Continuous improvement in education: A toolkit for schools and districts (REL 2021-014). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands. Available at:

National Implementation Research Network. (2021). “Module 5: Improvement Cycles.” Material accessed August 11, 2021, from