Designing Personalized Learning Experiences


The research and literature that explores how adults learn consistently emphasizes the importance of personalization in the learning process (Russell, 2009). While it’s generally accepted that personalization is a positive goal when designing learning environments, the practical challenges associated with accomplishing this can often be overwhelming.

Personalization requires motivation and relevancy on the part of the learner and educator. Many conventional approaches to supporting learning through courses fail to reach high levels of personalization due to the practical challenges associated with managing large number of learners.

In this article, I explore a very old model of facilitating learning – the apprenticeship. While this approach has been used for centuries, the basic principles hold important opportunities for innovation in modern learning environments.

Apprenticeship Models in Education

For the purposes of this article, I’ll define apprenticeship as an experience that provides guided opportunities for learners to engage in developing knowledge and skills under the direction of a coach or mentor. We have recently seen aspirations to expand these approaches in healthcare, manufacturing, and other high-demand occupational fields (The White House, 2017). The underlying assumption is that this approach can provide an effective means to prepare a competent workforce.

In many cases, the purpose of this approach is to provide learners opportunities to apply their formal educational experiences in the context of “real-world” situations. Traditionally, apprenticeships were oriented around trades where a master craftsperson guided the learner through a co-directed learning experience that could last for many years (Technical Education Matters, 2011).

The primary advantage of apprenticeship models is the opportunities for personalization and customization of learning experiences. This personalization also takes considerable time and resources to deliver, which can limit the ability to scale this approach.

The remainder of this article focuses on how educators can leverage elements of apprenticeship models to personalize and scale high quality learning experiences.

Planning Personalized Learning Experiences

The following diagram is a Strategy Board of an apprenticeship-based learning exercise. The purpose of this Strategy Board is to outline an approach for designing and planning personalized learning experiences using the apprenticeship approach.

Notice the desired result, or evidence of learning, is guided by a project and portfolio of the learning experience. This is decided upon by both the learner and educator and should involve opportunities for public sharing of the result.

This result is supported by intentional practice and progress check-ins using tools like learning contracts and planning meetings with the educator. Feedback should also be provided through other means such as public sharing.

The learning experience is supported through informational resources and specific guides or tutorials for learning skills. This might be delivered online or in-person. The use of online materials can help scale personalized learning experiences. Ongoing communication takes place between the learner and educator which could also be available in groups, if similar interests and topics are present.

The learning experience is largely informal in nature and supported through both virtual and physical learning interactions. The learner takes on high levels of ownership in the learning process. Some formal opportunities like workshops or seminars may also be used to help accomplish specific learning goals. These methods enhance the apprenticeship by aligning it with transformative learning theory frameworks: learner-centered experiences that elicit critical reflection then promote dialogue about the learner’s growth and subsequent change in behavior or perspective.

Image of an LEM Strategy Board for Apprenticeships

Making Apprenticeship Models Practical

Before implementing apprenticeship-based learning opportunities in practice, it’s important to note several key design considerations.

  • Effective apprentice models require considerable time, planning, advanced facilitation skills, and flexibility. You should expect (and be comfortable with) lower levels of structure and allow leaners to play a larger role in defining the goals for the experience.
  • Learners should come with a good idea of their learning goals. This means they should have the ability to reflect on their own learning process and have a level of awareness of their own learning process. The learner and educator should also spend a good deal of time on defining the desired learning outcomes together. Consider using learning contracts as a supportive tool.
  • To scale apprenticeship models effectively, you will need to create a plan and supporting materials for learners. This provides a framework for learners and a method for supporting the holistic learning process while still providing opportunities for personalization.


Apprenticeships provide a valuable framework for innovation and personalization of learning experiences. The benefits of this model offer learners and educators opportunities to increase motivation and relevancy of learning experiences. Scaling personalization beyond a few learners can be one of the more challenging aspects of this approach; however, these challenges can be overcome through careful planning, intentional resources, and supportive tools.

Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t, My Pedagogy

Written by Sam Ladwig, M.F.A, Assistant Professor, Design – 

I teach a creative thinking class that is intentionally unorthodox. It falls into the “healthy life skills” category of core coursework at the University of Central Oklahoma, but it is ultimately a critical thinking course. Although I use several readings from Shane Show’s book Smart Cuts as a guide, there is no “content” in the traditional sense. Further, all of the assignments are pass/fail, and there is no limit on extra credit. Students either participate in what is prepared, or they customize the assignments for their own purposes. The primary learning objective is to explore wonder, curiosity, and play as creative inputs that help generate new questions as well as innovative approaches to solving them, but another objective is for each student to actively construct a positive learning environment that enhances their professional and personal development, especially with regard to metacognitive skills. Many students have written reflection essays that indicate changes in perspective that seem to meet the standard of “transformation,” while others have found it to be somewhat ambiguous and disjointed.

At the most recent UCO Collegium, I was intrigued by the keynote presentation/workshop given by Dr. Claire Major on “7 Evidence-Based Principles for High-Impact Instructional Practice” based on her book, Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. In particular, I found the handouts extremely valuable in identifying specific ways to introduce high impact practices into my existing lectures. These practices seemed like they may help me make a bit more sense out of the complex and tangled creative process and the inherently nonlinear path of generating ideas and developing solutions. So, I ran back to my desk and developed a series of guided questions for two of my courses, Design Foundations II and the course mentioned above, Innovation and Inquiry. In Design Foundations II the use of pre-session quizzes and guided skeletal notes worked like a charm. I was able to highlight prior knowledge (right or wrong) and then go through the lectures with the students already primed to focus on the material.

Here’s the rub. (I know you’re so schooled in the ways of TL you already know the problem.) This very same practice seems to have ruined the environment I have worked so hard to create with the design of Innovation and Inquiry. Guided questions are extremely efficient at helping students condense a chapter into manageable chunks as well as to focus their attention on its explicit message, but that was precisely the problem. I had helped students summarize the author’s point of view instead of using the author’s observations as a starting point for a discussion. The goal of these readings is to explore each student’s perspective on the topic in order to find innovative ways that it could apply to their situation or find opportunities to apply it in new contexts. Instead, I had distilled the topic into clear concise bullet points that could be identified, verified, and set aside. Material that had previously extended a discussion beyond the class period was being covered in half the time, making me look unprepared and boring them to tears. The worst effect of this misapplied practice is that our discussions no longer wander off on tangents, which I believe is the true domain of innovation.

And yet… I recognize that I still need more structure in this course, so rather than regressing to my previous approach, I intend to use the high-impact practices in more specific contexts. By realigning some of the learning goals for this course, I was able to identify the part of the course that I could clarify while simultaneously increasing the learning potential of our discussions. In chapter 6 of How Learning Works by Ambrose et al., the authors explain a framework for understanding stages of intellectual development: dualism, multiplicity, relativism and commitment. Explicitly using this chapter (along with guided questions) as part of the foundation for both divergent and convergent thinking seems to be an appropriate way to clarify the potential of the activities and ensuing discussions without limiting the discussions themselves.

With Innovation and Inquiry, I am trying to help them learn how to learn while reflecting on how each of us is affected by and can have an effect on the world around us. It’s right there in the course title. It’s about new questions. I am not trying to lead them to water. I am trying to help them learn how to lead themselves to water.

I’ll let you know how it goes…



Ambrose, S. A. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty.

Snow, S. (2014). Smartcuts: How hackers, innovators and icons accelerate business.

Is Your College a Good Place for Minority Students to Study?

Graphic showing that 65% of white students thought college was a good place to study for minorities, 78% of black students thought so, 82% of Hispanic students thought so, and 79% of Asian students thought so. The question asked was of graduates 1990-2016.

The graphic shows that 65% of white students thought college was a good place to study for minorities, 78% of black students thought so, 82% of Hispanic students thought so, and 79% of Asian students thought so. The question asked was of graduates 1990-2016.

Source: “Is your college a good place for minority students to study? Most students say yes” By Olivia Dimmer 2:00 pm EDT December 14, 2016. Available:

Graphic from the 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index:

Why include Health and Wellness in the Central Six tenets of Transformative Learning? (Part 2 of 2)

Written by Christy Vincent, Ph.D., Professor, Organizational Communication – 

In my last blog post, I highlighted the relationship between our students’ health status and their academic success and pointed to numerous health-related issues our students face daily. I acknowledged that many faculty members contend that addressing student health and wellness falls into the purview of Student Affairs rather than Academic Affairs.  I suggested that there are ways that faculty members, even those of us not teaching in health-related disciplines, can play a more prominent role in helping students focus on their health and recognize its importance in their ability to succeed in our courses.

First, we can be connectors between our students and important university and community health resources. Faculty and students may refer to the UCO Health Resource Guide on every D2L course home page (right-hand column under UCO Student Resources) and at the following link:  Health Resources

Screenshot of the header banner for the Health Resources webpage

The guide provides detailed information you may use to inform your students about resources and to connect them to the proper people on campus who can support them. Because you see students regularly during the week, you may be the first, and perhaps only, campus employee who notices that a student is having a physical, emotional, or mental health-related difficulty.

You might consider adding a statement to your syllabus that encourages students to attend to their health status and to seek campus and community resources when needed. I have provided a sample syllabus statement at the end of this article. Feel free to use it in your syllabi.

Second, when we have to be absent from the classroom, we can call on UCO’s Center for Counseling and Well-being (CCWB) to make presentations to our classes on subjects such as Total Wellness, Suicide Prevention, Substance Use and Abuse, Self-Care, Mental Health First Aid, Time Management, Stress Management, Eating Well, and Healthy Relationships. Information about the outreach programs of the CCWB can be found at this link:  CCWB Outreach Programs

Third, we can consider creating small assignments that help students more clearly recognize the relationship between their health status and their academic success. One such assignment I have used for a number of years meets this objective. The assignment, a personal health reflection essay, asks students to reflect and respond to a series of questions in a 2-3 page essay. The questions are as follows:

  • What are the ways, if any, in which your health and wellness have been related to your academic performance in past semesters?
  • What are the ways, if any, in which the health and wellness of someone close to you or someone in your family have been related to your academic performance in past semesters?
  • When considering all of the factors that contribute to your academic performance (e.g., your academic skills, your level of motivation, the amount of time you have to devote to studies, your job, family, and social responsibilities), how influential has your health and wellness status been on your academic performance in comparison with these other factors?
  • Through the Health and Wellness Transformative Learning tenet, UCO places emphasis on the integration of the “physical, spiritual, environmental, emotional, intellectual, and social/interpersonal well-being of students to help them live, learn, and work effectively, living life with vitality and meaning so they may reach their goals as scholars, employees in the workplace, citizens in the metropolitan area and beyond.” What is your reaction to this Health and Wellness description? This description characterizes the university’s desire for your health and well-being. Do you share those same desires? What would it mean for you to live life with vitality and meaning?
  • What if any actions would you like to take to ensure that your health and well-being support your academic goals rather than detract from them?

I assure my students that I will be the only person reading their essays. The essay is designed specifically to help students examine the influence of their health status and health-related behaviors on their academic performance. My observation is that the essay typically accomplishes this goal. Students’ essays often report “a-ha” moments about their health-related issues and their ability to perform in their courses. They also often commit to increasing their consideration of their health status as they make decisions about the responsibilities they take on.

For busy faculty members, the idea of assigning such an essay may seem like more work for little reward. That may be right. Nevertheless, I have made this assignment for a number of years. My experience is that it does benefit the students and it also benefits me as the instructor. I am able to learn more about my students as individuals and generally more about the young people who come to us to obtain degrees. I learn about the typical problems they are facing, about their successful and unsuccessful attempts to meet all of their obligations, about their families, jobs, and friends. I believe that this knowledge helps me to be a better professor and to know how to counsel my students to manage their competing obligations, to attend to their health issues, and to come to my classes more prepared to learn.

In addition to my role as a professor, I am the Faculty Liaison for the Health and Wellness Transformative Learning Tenet. I want to help faculty members, particularly those who are not in health-related disciplines, to support this tenet. If you have any questions or would like to visit with me further about how to implement this or other assignments to support students’ health and create assignments that may be STLR-tagged with the Health and Wellness Transformative Learning tenet, please contact me at

Sample Syllabus Statement:  Maintaining your health and wellness is an important factor in your capacity for learning and growth. The university provides multiple resources to support student health. You may find a complete directory of campus and community health-related resources in the UCO Health Resource Guide located on the right-hand side of your D2L home page under UCO Student Resources. You may also connect to resources at the following link: Health Resources  The UCO Center for Counseling and Well-being provides numerous programs to help you address your physical, mental, and emotional health needs. You may receive notifications of these programs and events by signing up at OrgSync@UCO to receive notifications of the variety of programs, events, and sessions the counseling center puts on during the year. OrgSync is a centralized Campus Engagement Network that connects students to organizations, programs, and departments on campus.

“Engaged, Participatory Rethinking” to Transform Our Classrooms and Higher Education

We do a poor job helping students translate the specific content or knowledge gained in our classrooms into a tool (informational, conceptual, methodological, epistemological or affective) that will help them thrive in life. If higher education doesn’t do that — if it isn’t geared to helping students succeed beyond the final exam and after graduation — then why bother? (Davidson, 2017a)

Cathy Davidson, in an essay for Inside Higher Ed (2017a), identifies learning outcomes as a key approach for transforming not only our success in helping students learn, but also for fixing much of what ails higher education in general. Her thesis is that starting with outcomes — whether for the course, the program, the institution, or higher ed as a whole — keeps us focused on accomplishing what’s really important. As stated in her quote above, helping students succeed in life is what we need to be working toward.

If that’s not what we’re trying to do, then what’s the point of the entire educational enterprise? she asks. There is no nobler calling for faculty, staff, and administrators than preparing students for their post-collegiate lives. When we succeed in this, we give our students a head start and a continuing resource upon which to draw after they leave us.

Davidson goes on in her essay to identify some specific ways that working with students around learning outcomes helps achieve the goal of preparing students for life. It is sobering to consider, though, her charge to us as faculty and to the academy in general that business as usual in higher education is failing in this regard.

Davidson then suggests the process that will develop the solutions we need: “engaged, participatory rethinking about what we really want for and from our students — and for and from ourselves and our institutions” (2017a).

Transformative teaching and learning are proven processes that help us develop what we really want for and from our students: that they succeed beyond the final exam and after graduation, as Davidson puts it. Numerous books address this, illustrating the point. Some good ones include The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin (2008), The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith (1998), and Davidson’s own The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (2017b).

Regarding Transformative Learning (TL), look again at Davidson’s list of the tools with which she says colleges and universities need to equip graduates: informational, conceptual, methodological, epistemological or affective. “Informational” is the content in the class and program, but the others are tools developed in the process of learning the content. (Or at least, this should be the case.)

A TL-focused approach in the classroom, whereby you plan the assignments, activities, and environments likely to prompt student development of expanded perspectives and the skills to engage them, is a manifestation of a pedagogical/andragogical construct that helps you define yourself as a teacher. From this perspective, 1) you believe it is important to develop these beyond-disciplinary/social-emotional skills, 2) your instructional strategies include proven techniques (like STLR here at UCO) for developing these skills, and 3) you assess student development of these skills along with your assessments of how well they grasp the content of the course.

It’s simply a fact that “a world in flux,” as Davidson describes it (2017b), demands that higher education meet new standards in service to graduates’ preparation for success as citizens, employees, thinkers, and creators. In a world and economy that demand graduates be capable of flexible thinking and cross-platform expertise to survive in a workplace of rapid technological development and change, beyond-disciplinary skills and expansive perspectives that can accommodate multiple viewpoints will be at least as important as the content of the discipline in which students graduate.

Successful preparation in a university environment built to provide what 21st-century students need can help them avoid what Davidson says her students dub the “quarter-life crisis” — hitting age 25 with degree in hand but unprepared for the new realities of job-seeking, job-getting, and job-maintaining (2017b, p. 18). To that end, Davidson provides some advice for students in preparing for their post-college reality. Among her ten tips for getting the most out of college is one that speaks directly to what transformative teachers do:

Find a great prof and take advantage of all they offer. Great profs don’t just lecture well — they challenge you to think in new ways about new things. They don’t give answers; they ask deep questions. (Davidson, 2017b, p. 258).

 Great profs don’t just lecture well — they challenge you to think in new ways about new things. They don’t give answers; they ask deep questions

Whether in an assignment associated to our Global and Cultural Competencies Tenet or in the journaling that might be part of a service learning activity, when we challenge students to think in new ways, we are expanding their perspectives and helping them develop the cognitive nimbleness they will need to successfully navigate the 21st-century economy and workplace. Thankfully, the engaged, participatory thinking we’ve done at UCO as we’ve built the tools, processes, and training that comprise STLR means we are better able to be the “great profs” Davidson describes as prompting transformative realizations in our students.



Davidson, C. N. (2017a, August 28). Design learning outcomes to change the world. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from

Davidson, C. N. (2017b). The new education: How to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Smith, F. (1998). The Book of Learning and Forgetting. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Waitzkin, J. (2008). The art of learning: An inner journey to optimal performance. New York, NY: Free Press.

Transformative Education – It’s Not Just for Our Students

Written by Rachelle Franz, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Kinesiology and Health Studies –

Nearly three years ago, I bumped into two colleagues at the shared-office printer, and we began a casual conversation about Mind Brain Education (MBE). The term was fairly new to me, but my colleagues had already begun exploring this concept and began to share their insight. I was hooked. I wanted to learn more about how MBE could benefit my practice and my students’ learning. This casual conversation led to what we now call The Embodied Brain faculty study series. Our group is an organized, intentional, and diverse professional learning community, meeting every other week to discuss what we are learning in light of MBE research and practice. This collaboration represents five departments across the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) and is comprised of faculty interested in understanding how MBE can assist us in transforming our classroom environments. Our latest book of interest is NeuroTeach, Brain Science and the Future of Education (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016). Personally, I have been most impacted by this book, so I would like to highlight several of the main points here in hopes that you too will be intrigued.

Our Embodied Brain group committed to meet regularly for lunch [thanks to the support of the UCO Center for Teaching and Transformative Learning (CETTL)], discuss our thoughts and ideas about assigned reading, and share these ideas with others both on and off campus. This year, we presented at the annual UCO Collegium. Thankful for the willingness of a Nursing colleague and our friends in Music, we embarked on singing (and I use this word lightly) our version of “The Twelve Research-Informed Strategies Every Teacher Should Be Doing with Every Student.” Take a moment to read through these strategies and then sing the song. This will be good for recall, but I can assure you it will be equally as good for your spirit. Enjoy!


* The bolded text (listed below each strategy) should be sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

  1. Class periods should be designed with an understanding that what students will recall most is what takes place in the first part of the class and what students will recall second most will take place in the closing minutes of class.

The FIRST research strategy my colleague gave to me – start and end successfully.

  1. Students should be given more frequent, formative, low-stakes assessments of learning.

The SECOND research strategy my colleague gave to me – low-stake assessments are good for me.

  1. Students need more opportunities to reflect, think meta-cognitively, on their learning and performance.

The THIRD research strategy my colleague gave to me – reflect metacognitively

  1. Students need to know that the pervasive way they choose to study is actually hurting their ability to learn for the long term and that self-questioning is much more effective than reading one’s notes.

The FOURTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – self testing more effectively

  1. Students need to know the anatomy of their brain, especially the role of the Prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus play in their learning.

The FIFTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – love my Amy G (amygdala)

  1. Students, parents, teachers, and school leaders need to understand that sleep is critical to memory consolidation. Without sufficient sleep we create a system that perpetuates the illusion of learning.

The SIXTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – sleep consolidates memory

  1. Students need to know that “effort matters most,” and that they have the ability to rewire their brain to make themselves better learners and higher-achieving students (the concept of “neuroplasticity”).

The SEVENTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – effort makes me brainy

  1. Students need more, but well judged, opportunities for choice in their learning, which enhances engagement and intrinsic motivation.

The EIGHTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – autonomy motivates me

  1. Students need to love their limbic system and recognize the impact stress, fear, and fatigue have on the higher-order thinking and memory parts of their brain.

The NINTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – manage stress, fear, and fatigue

  1. Students need opportunities to transfer their knowledge through the visual and performing arts.

 The TENTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – the value of creativity

  1. Students need their teachers to vary the modality of teaching and assessment based on the content (as well as the time of day). What methods suit this topic best? What methods have I used and will use again soon so that I can provide a range of challenges? All students learn best when taught in a variety of modalities, and when the modality is chosen with the content in mind rather than the student.

The ELEVENTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – the spice of life is variety

  1. Students need frequent opportunities during the school day to play.

The TWELFTH research strategy my colleague gave to me – play regularly


Whitman, G., & Kelleher, I. (2016). Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education. MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

*Special thanks to Dr. Nancy Detlinger for the “jingle” above

Why include Health and Wellness in the Central Six tenets of Transformative Learning? (Part 1 of 2)

Written by Christy Vincent, Ph.D., Professor, Organizational Communication – 

Percentage of UCO student survey respondents who reported these factors affected their individual academic performance (e.g., received a lower grade on a project or in a course, dropped a course, received an incomplete).

My students are stressed out. They do not get enough sleep; they do not eat nutritional foods; they rarely exercise; they suffer from illnesses, many of which are stress-related; they worry about not having enough money; they attempt to balance full-time jobs with 15, often 18, hours per semester; they have troubling relationship issues; they care for their elderly relatives; they take care of their own or relatives’ children; they are not self-reflective; they are emotionally drained; they do not have methods for self-renewal.

Have you noticed the same characteristics in your students?

My observations are corroborated with survey results. As a part of our UCO Healthy Campus initiative, we ask our students dozens of questions about their health status and health behaviors via the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA) survey. One question asks students to identify a variety of health-related factors that have affected their individual academic performance in the past 12 months (e.g., received a lower grade on an exam, an important project, or a course; received an incomplete or dropped the course). Results show repeatedly that the top factors affecting UCO students’ individual academic performance are: stress, work, anxiety, sleep difficulties, and depression.

As they enter their early career-building years, their situations will not likely become better; they will become worse. My students are typically not in a learning mindset when they come into my classroom. They are in a survival mindset. How likely is it that our students will take advantage of the transformative learning opportunities we provide them—how likely is it that they will be transformed by them—if they are just trying to survive?

The inclusion of the Health and Wellness tenet in our Central Six helps us all be continually mindful of the relationship between our students’ health and their academic success. UCO uses a comprehensive definition of health to include multiple facets of health in addition to physical health.


Health and Wellness integrates the physical, spiritual, environmental, emotional, intellectual, and social/interpersonal well-being of students to help them live, learn, and work effectively, living life with vitality and meaning so that they may reach their goals as scholars, employees in the workplace, citizens in the metropolitan areas and beyond.


As faculty members, we witness the relationship between student health and academic success every semester as we counsel students who have fallen behind as a result of various health problems. We would prefer students to be proactive and consider their health status as they make decisions about the number of obligations they take on each semester. We more often see their expressions of stress, regret, and fear after they have taken on so many commitments that they begin failing to meet them early in the semester. They often view completing their degrees as a series of hoop-jumping activities they must undertake in order to get a diploma and “get on with their lives.” Conversely, we want them to learn, to be transformed by their academic assignments, and to be qualitatively different people as a result of their experiences at our university.

The university provides support to help students maintain their health and well-being in the form of resources, programming, facilities, and staff. Our students are fortunate to have so many quality programs and resources available to them. Faculty members who question the inclusion of Health and Wellness as a transformative learning tenet contend that addressing student health and wellness falls in the purview of Student Affairs rather than Academic Affairs. I understand that sentiment. My question is: does it have to be either-or? Are there ways that faculty members, even those of us not teaching in health-related disciplines, can play a more prominent role in helping students focus on their health and recognize its importance in their ability to succeed in our courses? I suggest that there are, and I will give suggestions in my next blog post.

The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance

A Hypothesized Model of How Five Noncognitive Factors Affect Academic Performance within a Classroom/School and Larger Socio-Cultural Context

Diagram showing the interplay of student background characteristics, school and classroom context, and socio-cultural context. The factors in this triad mix are: Academic Mindsets, Academic Perseverance, Academic Behaviors, Academic Performance, Social Skills, and Learning Strategies

From Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review (2012), Fig. 2.1, p. 12: A Hypothesized Model of How Five Noncognitive Factors Affect Academic Performance within a Classroom/School and Larger Socio-Cultural Context.

Student Engagement, Critical Reflection, Transformative Learning: What’s the Key?

Student engagement is a good thing. We’ve heard that for decades. Alexander Astin asked the question, “What matters in college?” then answered by saying a big percentage of what matters is student engagement (Astin, 1997). Pike & Kuh (2005, p. 186) agree in a summary statement about this issue, saying, “. . . students learn from what they do in college.”

But is what leads to Transformative Learning (TL) merely just being engaged in student activities, being active learners, sitting on the Student Council?

Dr. Vincent Tinto recently answered that question: It’s not simply the engagement; it’s the meaning students derive from the engagement that matters (Tinto, 2017). A highly regarded researcher, writer, and theorist in this area (e.g., Tinto, 1994; Tinto, 2012), Dr. Tinto’s statement about derived meaning from engagement is noteworthy, especially for institutions, faculty, and staff working to operationalize TL.

It’s not simply the engagement; it’s the meaning students derive from the engagement that matters (Tinto, 2017)

How do we help students derive meaning? Regarding TL theory, critical reflection is a key aspect of what students must do to understand how the activities they’ve engaged in — in other words, what they’ve done in college — have made a difference in their lives.

There is a certain spontaneous nature to this process in the absence of intentionally designed critical reflection activities for students. It could be, for instance, that a student does not realize the impact a college activity has had on her until years after her graduation — some triggering event all those years after getting her diploma causes a realization about how she was changed in college.

That’s a hit-or-miss proposition, however. Will there ever be a triggering event to prompt this realization? What will be the quality and depth of her reflection? Will she document her a-ha moment?

Faculty often know that these hit-or-miss moments do happen, though: we get those letters or emails saying, “Dear Dr. ___, You may not remember me, but I took your ___ class in Fall of ___. Something you had us do for an assignment really made a difference in my life . . .”

At least in those instances, there is a written document, and the faculty member does receive that record of the student’s realization that turned out to make a difference in her life.

But as Tinto suggests, if we focus in college simply on providing experiences to students that we believe, or research suggests, will make a difference in their lives, we have only gone half way toward the successful outcome we seek. We must provide the reflection opportunity; further, we must help students learn how to reflect in order to derive meaning from their experience.

We must provide the reflection opportunity; further, we must help students learn how to reflect in order to derive meaning from their experience.

After all, post-graduation is not a time we’re there to take these actions.

Here at UCO, this is where and how our Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR) initiative as an institutional process serves as the mechanism to ensure students evaluate the impact an activity has, or has not, had on them. The STLR process, whereby students create a learning artifact to be assessed using STLR rubrics, is the place where the reflective opportunity lives. That learning artifact, which can be a written critical reflection on the activity or some other kind of artifact that prompts the same thing (pecha kucha*, poster, presentation, etc.), is — in Tinto’s estimation — the key thing about helping students derive meaning from their engagements in the classroom and out of the classroom during college.

If helping students derive meaning from their engagements on our campus and at other places in which they participate in UCO-directed activity is the key thing in their personal development, then we must plan and execute the ways this will happen. Our approach happens to be via STLR. Other institutions who are adopting/adapting STLR have slightly different ways, but they all involve critical reflection to help students derive meaning.

But “STLRized institutions” are not the only cowboys in this rodeo. Effective institutions have for decades been involved in helping students derive meaning from their experiences. The approaches are many and varied, but it is always the case that intentional design and execution around critical reflection are needed to avoid the hit-or-miss, by-accident approach to whether students come to any transformative realizations about themselves.

No matter the approach taken, though, it is not simply having students engage in a bunch of activities that ultimately leads to transformation. Students must also be provided help and given the opportunity to reflect on the engagements in order to derive the meaning such activity is having in their lives.

What better college education than one that educates students in how to make meaning of their lives?

*pecha-kucha: a presentation utilizing 20 Powerpoint slides during which the presenter has only 20 seconds per slide to speak before the slide advances to the next; total presentation time is thus 20×20 = 400 seconds = 6 min, 20 sec



Astin, A. (1977). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pike, G. R., & Kuh, G. D. (2005). A typology of student engagement for American colleges and universities. Research in Higher Education (46)2, 185-209. Available:,%20Kuh%20(2005)%20A%20Typology%20of%20Student%20Engagement%20for%20American%20Colleges%20and%20Universities.pdf

Tinto, V. (1994). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, V., Johnstone, S., & Siemens, G. (2017, April 10). Access, Equity, and Completion: Innovations and Challenges on the Road Ahead. Keynote plenary session, Civitas Learning Summit. Austin, TX.

TL Abroad: Applied Research in London

Written by Mark Janzen, Ph.D. and Michael S. Springer, Ph.D., History & Geography – 

Summer break provides a great opportunity to get out of the classroom and engage students in transformative learning experiences. In May, Dr. Mark Janzen and I took a group of students to London to work on the Dutch Church Library Provenance Project. The students, History and Museum Studies majors, worked on the project, which is a collaboration between the Dutch Church in London, the oldest Dutch-language Protestant church in the world, and Lambeth Palace Library, one of England’s oldest public libraries.

All students enrolled in HIST 4940/5940 Applied Research, and we build the coursework around four TL tenets: Discipline Knowledge; Global and Cultural Competencies; Research, Creative, and Scholarly Activities; and Service Learning and Civic Engagement. The project entailed identifying and researching provenance of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books that were given to Lambeth Palace Library by the Dutch Church following World War II. In addition to the cataloging work, the students learned about book history as well as acquisition, provenance, conservation, and collection management. During their time in London they also had a chance to interact with librarians and archivists from Lambeth Palace Library, the London Metropolitan Archives, the British Library, the Heinz Collection at the National Portrait Gallery Archive, and the Institute for Historical Research.

Assignments ranged from exercises in archival research to reflective journal and essay assignments. In addition, we worked closely with the students on the project, providing multiple points for feedback and evaluation. One of the excellent opportunities afforded by international travel is engaging students in trip planning, understanding of local customs, and even things like currency exchange and knowing which way to look when crossing the street. The students took to British culture and standards without a problem and are excited by the possibilities for the future.

For Museum Studies students, the course has an added career development component. A common industry practice is for museum professionals to help each other out when it comes to identifying, cataloging, or researching collections. In addition to learning, the student provided a valuable service to Lambeth Palace Library in the management of the collection and developed their professional networks internationally. The information gathered will be used to update the library catalog and may pave the way for some of the books to be added to the Dutch Short Title Catalog, making these works more accessible to scholars around the globe. By the end of the two-week project, the group had cataloged 240 books and identified about 60 more works not previously known to be from the church. There is much more work to be done, and the efforts thus far suggests the Dutch Church collection is larger than former estimates of 200-300 books.

Dr. Janzen noted, “As a museum professional and Director of the Museum Studies program at the University of Central Oklahoma, it is my primary goal to find ways to inspire and energize students as they prepare for careers in museums and archives around the nation and world. It is always gratifying to see students go out into the field and excel, and I offer my thanks to both Lambeth Palace and the Dutch Church for their generous inclusion of their time, expertise, and materials.” There is more work to be done, and we plan on returning next summer to continue working on the project. Although the goals of the project remain unchanged, the unexpected scope of the project, as well as the enthusiastic response from our British peers, has led to several exciting possibilities for development and expansion.