Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Transformative Learning: Lessons from First-Semester Honors Narratives

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Transformative Learning: Lessons from First-Semester Honors Narratives

Article excerpt


Although the National Collegiate Honors Council has clearly articulated the common characteristics of "fully developed" honors programs and colleges, these elements describe the structures and processes that frame honors education but do not directly describe the intended honors outcomes for student learners (Spurrier). Implicitly however, the intended outcomes of distinct curricula, smaller course sizes, honors living communities, international programming, capstone or thesis requirements, and any number of other innovative forms of pedagogy are qualitatively different from faster degree completion, better jobs, or higher recognition at graduation. When intentionally directed, honors education promotes the full transformation of the student (Mihelich, Storrs, & Pellet).

Both the potential and challenges inherent in promoting transformative learning have a long and rich tradition in the scholarship of pedagogy, with different theorists prioritizing distinct features of the process and targeting different outcomes. Dewey, Freire, and Mezirow (in Transformative Dimensions), for instance, each argue--independent of the specifics of their models--that transformation is best accomplished when it is the explicit goal and attention is given to facilitating key learning processes. While honors programs may be well positioned to support these learning processes and while transformation may be an implicit goal of honors education, few honors mission statements frame learning goals in these terms (Bartelds, Drayer, & Wolfensberger; Camarena & Pauley).

Working from the premise that honors education is well-situated to make transformative learning a higher-order goal in an era of debates about learning outcomes and metrics of change (e.g., Digby), we examine the personal transformation experiences of first-semester honors students and explore how the intentional processes integrated into these experiences played a role in that transformation. To put this work in context, we first describe the transformative learning models and identify the intentional structures built into the first-semester honors experience.

Transformative Learning Theory

Mezirow originally developed his transformative learning theory from observation of adult learners returning to pursue higher education (Education). He suggested that adult learners might face challenges in adjusting to the demands of learning in the college classroom and experience "disorienting dilemmas" as they worked to integrate classroom learning with out-of-class demands. Scholars have found the theory also useful for studying emerging adults in higher education contexts (e.g., Doucet et al.). Like Mezirow s adult learners, traditional college students adjusting to college-level coursework for the first time are encountering significant disruption caused by normative life events experienced during young adulthood. Since both adult learners and traditional college students are facing disorienting dilemmas in and out of the classroom, the other essential elements of the process of transformative learning--including real-world experiences, critical reflection, and critical discourse--should be similar for both (Mezirow, Education and "Transformative Learning").

From this model, a key challenge for educators working to facilitate transformative outcomes is to intentionally connect learning in the classroom with structures to support the real-world, out-of-classroom disruptions that occur during young adulthood, including changes in close relationships (Keup) and expectations for university life that differ from reality (Kreig). Rather than just providing information for students, the transformative learning model encourages disruption in the classroom through the integration of critical thought on ideas that reveal difficult truths applicable to the individual's life. For example, educators can assist students in challenging social constructions of taken-for-granted ideas, embracing identity moratorium and the value of questioning personal meaning and purpose. …

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