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Understanding how students change in higher education

by Peter Felten

This post is adapted from C. Johansson and P. Felten, Transforming Students: Fulfilling the Promise of Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), pages 5 and 13-15.

Transformative learning has been the subject of considerable scholarship over the past forty years (e.g., Mezirow and Taylor 2009; Taylor and Cranton 2012), but its roots have been firmly planted in the field of adult education. By adapting principles from that literature to focus on traditionally college-aged students, we may gain insight into the ways and reasons that undergraduate students change (or don’t change) on our campuses.

Though not strictly linear in its progression, transformative learning tends to move through somewhat predictable stages. These steps may be familiar to those of us who work with undergraduates, even if we have never studied theories of student or adult development.

Disruption: The process often begins with the disruption of a previous way of looking at the world, typically an uncomfortable experience the student may not willingly or eagerly move into. A student might enroll in a course without realizing that some of her fundamental assumptions are going to be destabilized, or a student might select a roommate without realizing the ways living side-by-side with someone can raise unexpected questions about life choices. This disorienting process calls into question the learners’ prevailing views about themselves or the world, priming them to challenge the assumptions that have previously supported that view.

Reflective analysis: Then reflective analysis—employing critical thinking, dialogue, and intuitive discernment to examine their assumptions—opens the learner to other possible ways of seeing the world around them and their place in it. During this stage, learners have the opportunity to experiment with different perspectives and to thoughtfully select the view that most closely aligns with what they believe—or perhaps to change a long-held belief to reflect a new understanding they have developed. This identity exploration, according to Arnett (2004) and others, is a natural and necessary component of maturation. When this exploration draws on well-examined values and assumptions, the emergent choices tend to be deeper and more persistent.

Verification: In order to ensure lasting change, learners must then act on these new choices and test their new outlook against their ongoing experiences. This process of verification allows learners to refine their views, reinforce the importance of the change, and build their confidence and skill in acting on these values.

Confirmation: Finally, for full integration, this way of being must be woven into the fabric of ordinary life. Everyday decisions and behaviors must sustain the transformation. This final step, while essential, also can set the stage for further disruption, as now firmly held view and well-established behaviors are called into question.

While these steps may seem clear, there is no recipe for something as serendipitous as transformation. We cannot guarantee that kind of change with any student in any course or experience, but research suggests that certain practices (such as high-impact practices) can increase the potential in an individual and an environment. All of the people who touch the lives of undergraduates—faculty, staff, and administrators on campuses, but also parents, mentors, and friends, and, of course, the students themselves—can contribute to that possibility by deliberately designing classes and programs to support students through this process.


  • Arnett, Jeffrey. 2004. Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from Late Teens through the Twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Mezirow, Jack, and Edward Taylor, eds. 2009. Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace, and Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Taylor, Edward W., and Patricia Cranton. 2012. The Handbook of Transformative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Peter Felten is the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and associate professor of history.

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