“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 https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/08/28/learning-outcomes-help-students-translate-classroom-learning-life-tools-essay

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.

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