A Student Perspective: A Transformative Learning Course in Higher Education

Written by Sarah Moore, Outreach Specialist, UCO Career Development Center

I never once sat in the metal framed desk with a navy blue chair and a particle board top, in graduate school. My first class was in a room with four small tables arranged into pods where four or five individuals could sit per pod. I bravely took a seat on the side of the room not knowing the individuals in my pod would quickly turn into my own survival team. Individuals may drop out, or be added at a later date but for the most part those who sat near me in the beginning became my lifelong friends and slowly encouraged me to embrace the idea that I was a lifelong learner.

Students sitting in group at classroom table

In courses set up to encourage transformative learning we figure out our professor or facilitator is not just teaching us content but instead guiding us through a learning experience. This means the individual sitting next to me is no longer learning exactly the same as I. Adult learners enter the classroom with experience. Transformative learning uses these experiences to challenge the issue in front of the learner. “The key idea is to help the learners actively engage the concepts presented in the context of their own lives and collectively critically assess the justification of new knowledge” (Mezirow, 1997, p.10). In transformative learning, a change in thinking encourages an idea to coexist with an alternative, in other words, a cognitive dissonance. Critical thinking is used to challenge a frame of reference, meaning one must recognize a new insight to a problem, become aware of the existing belief, and apply critical reflection to the cognitive dissonance.

My life didn’t stop unfolding because I was in graduate school. Opportunities and experiences could continue to present themselves, and given time, I was encouraged to make decisions. As my academic career unfolded, I was able to take a step back and see how it comfortably complimented my professional career. Overtime, I was more comfortable with why decisions were being made the way they are, and I could better predict the behaviors of students due to a new understanding of learning and developmental theory. Transformative learning taught me that before action can be taken, testing the new idea and coping with the consequences of the action would occur through further reflection. This process is done to bring meaning or value to the adult (Dirkx, Mezirow, & Cranton, 2006, p. 124).

I walked into my second semester finding the classroom tables arranged in an X and the swiveled chairs strewn about. The syllabus had pictures, expectations, and suggestions for further reading but certainly no linear instruction. There was uncertainty from the start, and whisperings of what really, we were here to do; after all, what does transformation even mean? Trust the process started scrolling over my brain. A phrase we as Student Affairs professionals, often say to students to calm anxiety and encourage engagement. Yet as a student, I was wondering if I truly had to transform right then and there. The truth was, we were there to transform- that was how we were going to learn about transformative learning. But there was no time limit. It turned out there was a structure, and we would in fact be guided, if we were willing. Like most adult learners we were skeptical, we were cynical, we needed ownership, and that was exactly what we were given when we discussed our assigned topics of interest.

Students in Transformative Learning Theory class

Class: Transformational Learning

Within the first moments of class the facilitator was tasked with creating an environment that caused the learner to assess, engage, and find safety. As that process began for the class, the facilitator stayed one step ahead beginning to reveal the identities of the individuals in the room by finding similarities, differences, interests, and dislikes. About the time the class began to see their peers as individuals that could influence learning, the environment was wholly embraced, and the structure of the semester was revealed. This began to cause a stir amongst the relatively comfortable adults now. What do you mean we need to pick, right now, a topic for which we will be creating the content together? What the class didn’t realize at the time was that by choosing, we would later feel in control as we explored uncomfortable vocabulary and much debated theory. These first weeks were heated with intention to create a safe space for learning and listening and to introduce the idea of assessment, recognition, and exploration (or critical reflection).

As we began to dive into the content, the terminology, finding out how transformative learning was being used today versus the past, and even getting to Skype with Dr. John Dirkx, we all began to turn inward. We would read an article on emotional intelligence or what it is like to be a leader and began hearing the stories of our peers. As the content began to grow, stories swelled, we were all making meaning from our peers’ misunderstandings, and wrestling with the words, and/or by seeing the terminology fall into place in our own tales. It was incredible and exhausting. For someone like me, I couldn’t wait to get past this part and dig into what this looks like on a practical level, in the field.

Turns out my desires were right on pace for what the facilitator was anticipating and transformative learning theory reveals. We were beginning to shape meaning, own our knowledge, and find competence and confidence. Right on schedule the facilitator began introducing the ethical dilemmas of transformative learning, global perspectives, and what transformative learning looks like in a virtual world. Once we had experienced how we had transformed in our past experiences, we began to see our experience in the classroom as its own transformative learning opportunity. This framework then was easy to lift and lower onto other environments, audiences, and content. We could then visualize how Paulo Freire could recognize a problem, see the moving concerns, understand the stakeholders, and create solutions from within.

This all occurred by me taking a sixteen week course in the middle of my academic career focused on one theory, transformative learning. I found myself wishing I could take sixteen weeks to unfold other theories, and thrilled that the theory I had the opportunity to unfold had such personal power. As a student, learning the mechanics behind the curtain did not weaken my experience but created an opportunity for respect, understanding, and compassion toward those willing to facilitate my academic experiences.



Dirkx, J. M., Mezirow, J., & Cranton, P. (2006). Musings and reflections on the meaning, context and process of transformative learning. Journal of Transformative Education, 4(2), 123-139. DOI: 10.1177/1541344606287503

Mexirow, J. (1997). New direction for adult and continuing education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass Publishers.

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