Voices in Education

Getting to the Heart of the Student Experience with Transformational Learning
As we close out one decade and begin another, we are naturally drawn to review where we’ve been and imagine where we will go in a new era. For community college professionals, the past decade has been frenetic, marked by roller coaster enrollments, increased public policy attention, and multiple overlapping reforms that have left some with ‘initiative fatigue.’

As community college professionals envision the coming decade, one inescapable observation is that community colleges will need to attract, enroll, and teach a changing demographic of students. According to a 2019 report by The American Association of Community Colleges, enrollment trends point to a continued shift toward more part-time, minority, and non-traditional age students, groups that are often associated with lower success rates in college. 1 

For many such underserved students, the educational process is exceptionally daunting because it involves more than just the development of a few new skills. It requires a degree of change from their prior experiences that can be described as transformative, because it dramatically affects how learners “experience, conceptualize, and interact with the world.” 2 A renewed focus on learning needs of these student groups, and how best to support their learning journey is key to improving student outcomes. According to Achieving the Dream CEO and president Karen Stout, “If we are to put students at the center, excellent teaching and support for quality instruction must be at the core of our work. Creating greater urgency for teaching and learning in institutional reform is long overdue. ​But the onus cannot solely be on faculty to do more. They need support and time for more reflective practice and to participate in ongoing collaborative professional development. They need support and incentives to enable them to teach and learn in new ways.” 3 ​

Our new Harvard Education Press book, Transformational Learning in Community Colleges, can be used as a tool to help boost student-centered reforms such as guided pathways, holistic advising, developmental education improvement, and apprenticeship programs. It draws on research and the voices of actual students to describe the profound social and emotional changes that historically underserved students experience, and the systematic supports that colleges must establish for these students to achieve their educational and professional goals.

We identify five aspects of students’ perspectives that are challenged during transformational change: personal narrative (self-talk), identity, self-efficacy, resilience, and social norms. These aspects can become a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop resembling a downward spiral, as illustrated by the graphic below, which shows actual student quotes related to each of these aspects at college.

Source: Bill Browning

It’s not difficult to imagine how such a downward spiral, multiplied across hundreds of individual student cases within an institution, may be a significant factor in negative institutional data on enrollment, course success, student retention, and labor market outcomes, particularly for historically underserved students who are more likely to experience such patterns more acutely. Those who work with students in community colleges will recognize this pattern. Prior not-so-successful classroom experiences can result in distorted self-talk about one’s academic abilities that can take root and become a more deeply held identity. Having a perceived fixed identity around difficulty in school leads to a natural reluctance to engage in this activity and to seek comfort with social groups that feel similarly, reducing enrollments of prospective students.

For those with such doubts who choose to enroll, when familiar academic struggles emerge this identity may lead them to conclude that additional effort will more likely result in embarrassment rather than success, and so they limit their academic engagement, worsening their struggles with coursework and eroding instructors’ confidence in them. In the absence of an open dialogue with others who share these experiences, many may also conclude that their struggles are unique, feel a sense of shame, and further isolate themselves from other students. Eventually, they may choose to walk away from their studies, often in silence, leaving the institution guessing about the reasons.

Transformational Learning (TL) gets to the heart of these students’ experiences as learners. Using TL-informed practices can convert the student experience spiral to an upward-sloping pattern of changes that leads to success. In the book, we provide a research-based road map of the student transformational learning journey and what it looks like for actual students, as well as offer TL-informed practices used within a successful program designed to support underserved students on this journey. While supporting students’ TL learning needs may not be part of the college’s traditional curriculum or practices, doing so may be central to success for many students caught in versions of a downward spiral. 

The transformational learning journey is an emotionally charged process that often begins with a dilemma that, while tense or disorienting, ultimately opens the door for discussion about previous assumptions. Students who use this energy to re-examine their self-talk and identity as learners may experience precarious moments, called ‘edge emotions,’ where they begin to realize that old ways of thinking and reacting don’t work anymore, even if they aren’t clear on what new ways of thinking and acting look like. Just like a trapeze artist, students are called on to take a risk and let go of the comfort of the old bar, trusting that they will soon grasp a new bar which will take them forward.

We have documented over two dozen teaching and student support methods that can transform patterns of student thinking and behaving into an upward-sloping positive feedback loop. For example, one TL-informed method to use with students is an exercise featuring a visual metaphor of an inner comfort zone that one can consciously expand over time to incorporate new ways of thinking and acting that were previously part of an outer discomfort zone.

Implementing such methods can drive higher success rates, especially for underserved students who will be arriving at college in increasing numbers as the new decade progresses. Many community colleges are not currently equipped to face the unique learning challenges that new part-time, minority, and non-traditional age students will face. But it is something colleges must adapt to, rather than continuing to insist that these students adapt to the college’s traditional practices. A Transformational Learning lens can be used to better understand and address these students’ learning needs and thereby complement and guide many student-centered reforms that take teaching and learning beyond the traditional curriculum. One student who experienced such practices that supported this kind of transformation following a semester-long office administration training program described it like this: “I used to work in a coffee shop on the first floor of a tall office building. I felt unimportant waiting on busy career people – like a mouse around elephants. Now, I walk into those office buildings in my suit with my new skills and confidence. In just four months, I am an elephant too!” 4 

1 Community College Enrollment Crisis?: Historical Trends in Community College Enrollment, American Association of Community Colleges (Washington, DC: AACC, 2019). 
2 Chad Hoggan, “A Typology of Transformation: Reviewing the Transformative Learning Literature,” Studies in the Education of Adults 48, no. 1 (2016): 77, doi: 10.1080/02660830.2016.1155849.
3 Karen Stout, “The Urgent Case: Focusing the Next Generation of Community College Redesign on Teaching and Learning” (keynote, 2018 Dallas Herring Lecture, Raleigh, NC, Nov. 28, 2018).
4 Chad D. Hoggan and Bill Browning, Transformational Learning in Community Colleges (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2019) 172.

About the Author: Chad D. Hoggan is an associate professor of Adult, Workforce and Continuing Professional Education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University. Bill Browning is an independent consultant with a thirty-year career combining management roles in corporate training, a community-based nonprofit, community college, and workforce development policy and leadership training. They are the authors of Transformational Learning in Community Colleges: Charting a Course for Academic and Personal Success (Harvard Education Press, 2019).