The posting below gives some useful ideas on how to
increase student engagement both in and out of the classroom. It is by
James L. Cooper, Graduate Education Department, California State
University, Dominguez Hills. It first appeared in Exchanges: The Online
Journal of Teaching and Learning in the CSU
http://www.exchangesjournal.org on December 8, 2006, as an adaptation
from the keynote address of the 9th Annual California State University (CSU
)Symposium on University Teaching, April 1, 2006. ©2006 by James L.
Cooper. Reprinted with permission.
No matter what you teach, you face the challenge of
bringing students from point A- what they currently know-to point B-the
learning goals of a course. In many courses, the distance between points A
and B is huge, and the path is not obvious. Students must not only acquire
new skills and information, but also radically transform their approach to
thinking and learning. This newsletter explores theories and teaching
strategies that address this universal teaching challenge.
Even though students may have no experience in your class or your field,
they enter your classroom with a long history of academic training and
life experience. For this reason, presenting new information is not enough
to guarantee optimal learning. Students must recognize the limitations of
their current knowledge and perspectives. This means that you cannot
simply unload your knowledge on students. What is required is a true
transformation of students' existing knowledge.
Instructors from all fields face this challenge. In the sciences and
mathematics, it is common for students to have learned an oversimplified
definition or approach in high school. Students making the shift from
classical to modern physics, for example, cannot simply layer new
information onto old understanding. In the humanities, students may, for
the first time, be asked to develop original interpretations of texts or
to consider conflicting interpretations of texts instead of seeking the
one, instructor-approved, "correct" interpretation. This new approach must
replace the approach that students have learned, practiced, and been
rewarded for. In the social sciences, instructors often have the difficult
job of helping students unlearn common sense beliefs that may be common
but unjustified. In all these cases, students' previous knowledge must be
completely revised, not merely augmented.
Transformative Learning Theory
Transformative learning theory (see Mezirow, 1997) addresses this common
teaching challenge. The theory describes the conditions and processes
necessary for students to make the most significant kind of knowledge
transformation: paradigm shift, also known as perspective transformation.
Mezirow (1991, p. 167) describes perspective transformation as: ...the
process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have
come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our
world; changing these structures of habitual expectation to make possible
a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and
finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings.
Transformative learning is in clear contrast to the more common process of
assimilative learning, the type of learning that takes place when students
simply acquire new information that can easily fit into their preexisting
knowledge structures. Whereas some college-level courses are aimed at
assimilative learning, most courses require at least some level of
According to transformative learning theory, paradigm shift/perspective
transformation is the result of several conditions and processes:
1. an activating event that exposes the limitations of a student's
2. opportunities for the student to identify and articulate the
underlying assumptions in the student's current knowledge/approach;
3. critical self-reflection as the student considers where these
underlying assumptions came from, how these
assumptions influenced or limited understanding;
4. critical discourse with other students and the instructor as the
group examines alternative ideas and approaches;
5. opportunities to test and apply new perspectives.
When these processes occur, students are more likely to revise their
underlying assumptions, adopt a new paradigm, and apply this new paradigm
Transformative learning theory also recognizes that changing one's
perspective is not simply a rational process. Being forced to consider,
evaluate, and revise underlying assumptions can be an emotionally charged
experience. Students have successfully used their current paradigms to
excel in school and understand the world. They may reasonably be reluctant
to abandon what they believe is the right way to think, create, and solve
problems. Resistance to perspective transformation is common, even among
students who are motivated to learn (Illeris, 2003). For this reason,
instructors who wish to facilitate transformative learning must create an
environment that encourages and rewards intellectual openness (Taylor,
The content of your teaching will necessarily make some strategies more
suitable than others, but instructors of any field can make intentional
use of transformative learning theory. Below, we consider strategies for
each process involved in transformative learning and offer examples of
what Stanford faculty members are doing to bring these strategies into
The Activating Event
The activating event can be anything that triggers students to examine
their thinking and the possible limitations of their understanding:
Understand your students' backgrounds. To create an
effective critical event, you must anticipate what students believe and
know. Invest some time at the beginning of each quarter to learn about
students' backgrounds. In addition to basic classroom interactions,
anonymous pre-tests, surveys, and early graded or non- graded
assignments can all be effective tools.
Provide conflicting viewpoints. Conflicting perspectives
can motivate students to examine their own perspectives. You can provide
these viewpoints in readings or in the classroom.
Create a disorienting dilemma. Specifically, challenge
what students believe. You can do this with a case study, quote,
experiment, picture, demonstration, or story that does not fit their
expectations. The goal is to confuse and intrigue students and thus
increase their motivation to learn whatever you will be presenting in
Set students up for failure. Failure-driven approaches
to teaching recognize that students are most motivated to learn when
their current knowledge is insufficient to solve an interesting problem.
When students reach a problem- solving impasse, they should recognize
that new information or a new approach is needed. It is not enough to
hand students an unsolvable problem; you must convince them that the
impasse can be resolved and create conditions that encourage their
success. Instructors can present the missing piece in many ways; from a
simple explanation to helping students derive an idea or approach
Identifying Current Assumptions
The best strategies for helping students identify their current
assumptions all require that students explain their thinking:
Use a critical questioning technique. Ask students to
explain their reasoning and the reasons behind their reasoning. Help
students identify their assumptions by offering counterexamples,
alternative scenarios, or differing perspectives.
Ask students to make a prediction about an experiment,
event, or procedure. Have students explain their predictions, in
discussion or as a quickly written exercise. This can be particularly
effective when the actual outcome will provide a disorienting dilemma.
Have students talk through their thinking or
problem-solving strategy. This is particularly helpful if you use a
failure-driven approach as the critical event. Give students a
challenging question or problem and have them talk through the thought
process. This can be done with partners, small groups, or through
direct interaction between student and instructor.
Ask students to evaluate a specific position,
solution, or reading and justify their critique. This can be done as a
small group discussion or as a written assignment. If you provide
conflicting readings or alternative solutions, ask students to defend
one and provide in-depth reasoning. Follow-up with a class discussion.
Encouraging Critical Reflection
Transformational learning is both a social and solitary process (Taylor,
1998). The most solitary part of transformational learning is critical
reflection, which requires that students privately examine their current
assumptions. Critical reflection is likely to occur outside of the
classroom, as the student absorbs and integrates what happened in the
classroom. Writing assignments are an excellent way to invite students to
engage in solitary reflection:
Ask students to keep a class journal of questions,
observations, and experiences. Encourage students to keep track of
"Aha!" moments (when they suddenly understood a new concept or
viewpoint), as well as conflict and confusion. To encourage
participation, you can give students five minutes at the end of each
class to write in their journals. At various times in the quarter,
have students turn the journal in or exchange journals with a
Ask students to respond to a specific class experience
or reading. Provide a set of semi-structured questions to guide their
reflection . For example, what surprised you and why? How does this
experience/reading conflict with your previous experience or
understanding about the subject? Does this experience/reading change
your thinking about it?
Ask students to create a "perspective history"
timeline. For any given topic, from critiquing art to analyzing the
ethics of business, ask students to reflect on life experiences and
academic experiences that have influenced their current perspectives.
When was the first time they remember forming an opinion about this
topic? What people and events shaped their assumptions? Have they
changed perspectives over time? What people and events triggered this
Encouraging Critical Discourse
Critical discourse is the most social aspect of transformative learning.
Create opportunities for students to reflect through conversation:
When you introduce a new strategy, concept, or
paradigm in class, ask students to analyze the approach and compare it
with their previous assumptions. You can lead the discussion yourself
or break the class into small groups for analysis or discussion.
Make time during class for more extended periods of
discussion and debate. Not all discussion is critical. For example,
transformative learning is unlikely to occur when you allow students
to use discussion to reinforce their existing perspectives or to
persuade others of their viewpoint. All students need to have their
assumptions respectfully challenged. You can invite a student to play
devil's advocate-challenging everyone's assumptions-or you can play
the role yourself. You can also ask students to explain and defend a
viewpoint they disagree with. This will challenge students' thinking
habits and bring to the discussion points that might not otherwise
have been raised.
Keep the conversations going outside of the classroom.
Online discussion boards or email lists provide an opportunity for
students to continue challenging assumptions and considering new
Group projects or study groups can encourage small-
group critical discourse, especially when the assignment involves
analysis, comparison, and integration of ideas, readings, or
Giving Students an Opportunity to Test a New Paradigm or Perspective
For transformational learning to move from thought to action, students
need opportunities to apply new knowledge (Taylor, 1998). Create
activities and assignments that empower students to apply new approaches
with a high likelihood of success:
Return to the disorienting dilemma or failure-driven
exercise and have students approach it with their new knowledge.
Give students one problem or assignment and ask them
to approach it with multiple perspectives or problem-solving
approaches. You can assign different approaches/perspectives to
specific students and discuss the varying outcomes in class, or you
can ask students to tackle the same assignment more than once.
Create classroom exercises, such as role-playing or
debates, that give students the opportunity to try on new
Ask students to observe and interpret events,
experiments, readings, or experiences using their new knowledge.
Journals, assignments, online discussions, and exams can all be used
for this purpose.
Fostering Intellectual Openness
For transformative learning to occur, the instructor must strike a careful
balance between support and challenge. Trust among students and the
instructor is especially important in any course that uses writing and
discussion as a primary strategy for critical reflection and discourse. On
the other hand, Cranton (2002, p. 66) argues that although student
empowerment and support are important, an "environment of challenge" is
the central ingredient for transformative learning. Students must have
their beliefs and assumptions actively challenged. Boyd and Myers (1998)
recommend that instructors practice "seasoned guidance" and "compassionate
criticism." Push too hard and students resist; push too little and the
opportunity for learning quickly fades. To be an agent of change, you must
understand the process of change and provide both the catalyst and support
necessary for transformative learning.
Boyd, Robert D. and Myers, J. Gordon. "Transformative Education."
International Journal of Lifelong Education, 1988, no. 7, 261-284.
Cranton, Patricia. "Teaching for Transformation." New Directions of Adult
and Continuing Education, 2002, no. 93, 63-71.
Illeris, Knud. "Towards a Contemporary and Comprehensive Theory of
Learning." International Journal of Lifelong Education, 2003, no. 22,
Mezirow, Jack. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco:
Mezirow, Jack. "Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice." New
Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997, no. 74, 5-12.
Taylor, Edward W. "The Theory and Practice of Transformative Learning: A
Critical Review." Information Series No. 374. Columbus: OH: ERIC, 1998.
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