In addition to mastering content in their college and university courses, students need to acquire beyond -disciplinary skills if they are to be the informed citizens and productive employees higher education promises to help them become. To ensure that students learn important ‘soft skills, ’ the University of Central Oklahoma has embarked on a best-in-class Transformative Learning approach that has garnered them a place in the national spotlight and more than $7.7 million in federal grant funding.
“The essence of transformative learning is that students are changed.” – Jeff King
Defining Transformative Learning
The University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) defines Transformative Learning as follows (adapted in Spring 2015):
- Develops beyond-disciplinary skills, and
- Expands students’ perspectives of their relationships with self, others, community and environment.
“UCO’s definition of Transformative Learning is important because it informs how we help students learn,” said Dr. Jeff King, Executive Director of the Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning at UCO. By utilizing a rigorous, empirically-based rubric to assess the transformative learning experience, UCO helps not only students, but also parents, community organizations, legislators, employers, and others to see the value in building skills beyond disciplinary content. “With our concerted Transformative Learning approach, everyone can understand the value of the education we are providing,” said King.
The entire Transformative Learning project is centered on a set of key tenets the university adopted to measure effectiveness in helping ensure students have transformational experiences at UCO.
Central Six Tenets of Transformative Learning
The Central Six Tenets of Transformative Learning provide students opportunities to attend, perform, reflect and be assessed in any of six categories:
- Discipline Knowledge
- Global & Cultural Competencies
- Health & Wellness
- Research, Creative & Scholarly Activities
- Service Learning & Civic Engagement
The goal of establishing these six tenets,” said King, “was to look at all of our existing, disparate Transformative Learning opportunities and find what is common among them, then map them to a limited number of tenets to create a framework, or Transformative Learning umbrella of high-impact, aligned practices.”
“In fact, because a college education is supposed to help students learn how to deal with ambiguity and derive meaning from human affairs (theirs and others’) that are almost never clearly black or white, we must present opportunities for students to wrestle with their own epistemological selves.” –Jeff King
Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR)
King’s charge when joining UCO was to operationalize Transformative Learning (TL) and the University’s work with the Six Tenets. “TL is a concept that adult educators know about, but its genesis was in the mid-70s, so as a construct, many faculty today are not familiar with the research background, and may not understand what constitutes a disorienting dilemma or an aha moment,” said King. He has built an extensive resource in the Transformative Learning Guide, openly available on the university website.
Also in play is a new Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR – pronounced stellar). STLR is a sophisticated way to record Transformative Learning (TL) experiences student have while at UCO. Faculty and staff intentionally create TL experiences and environments that, along with co-curricular events, are designed to expand students’ perspectives about themselves and others so that they understand the benefit of developing important life skills, and can demonstrate that they have mastery of these skills.
King lists three core reasons supporting the deployment of STLR:
- to provide a playbook for how to do Transformative Learning
- to be able to know how well UCO is doing it, by allowing faculty and staff to track, assess and see the impact they are having on students
- to make concrete for all how faculty and staff function in their roles to support Transformative Learning – an outcome of identifying and defining the construct.
The implementation of STLR operationalizes an approach to college education that intentionally and systematically creates opportunities for students to gain skills such as leadership, coach-ability, solving ill-defined problems, working with teams of people very different from themselves and, as King says, “seeing a bigger picture than one’s personal wants and needs.”
Tagging Transformative Learning
Academic Affairs faculty and staff begin by associating or ‘tagging’ at least one of the six tenets to an existing activity or assignment. Student Affairs staff tag co-curricular activities within the same set of six tenets. STLR-tagged activities provide students with the opportunity to produce an artifact that then is stored within each student’s unique STLR e-portfolio on the university Learning Management System (LMS). Artifacts are diverse, with examples including a reflective journal, a paper, a project or work of art, a presentation or publication or other concrete demonstration of learning. The faculty and staff across Academic Affairs and Student Affairs then use a rigorous STLR assessment rubric to look for true evidence of learning at various badging designations ranging from no learning up through (1) Exposure, (2) Integration and finally (3) Transformation.
The STLR Assessment Rubric
The STLR assessment rubric allows the team to evaluate and assign the appropriate progression level to each student’s performance. “We built the rubric by looking at the American Association of Colleges and University’s (AAC&U) VALUE rubric designed by more than 200 faculty from across the U.S., “ said King. “We wanted something highly-regarded. It was of the utmost importance that it was very well vetted with proven, valid, and reliable measurements.” For the most part, the team at UCO was able to map the Central Six Tenets to the rubric with only marginal edits for content or localization. However, one tenet proved more challenging. “There wasn’t a good map for the Health & Wellness tenet within the 16 AAC&U rubrics, “ said King. But, by going in line-by-line, the faculty at UCO were able to extract valuable measurements that could be compiled to create a valid assessment. “We had our faculty here take the rubric and work with it to create a very customized, dependable rubric that we believe can serve us well to get solid evidence,” said King.
Operationalizing the STLR Process
In addition to the impressive task of creating a badging system and building a robust reliable rubric, operationalizing the STLR also meant training faculty and staff in Transformative Learning so they could accurately and creatively associate activities and assignments, both in and out of the class, to the Six Tenets. It also required the university to make formerly isolated silos or systems talk to each other, including a deep integration and collaboration within academic affairs, student affairs and IT. Integrated card swipe data had to be tracked, assessed and captured in the STLR, and integrated with more standard forms of student data from the LMS and SIS.
“What we’re especially excited about in all of this is the partnership with Civitas Learning, our work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and EDUCAUSE in the Breakthrough Models Incubator,” said King.
“We have included Dr. Melissa Peet from University of Michigan as a member of our Incubator because we are excited about her work with student agency,” said King. Peet has built the Integrative Knowledge Portfolio Process (IKPP), a technique that is effectively changing students’ limiting beliefs about themselves, and building the tenacity, grit and self-confidence that non-cognitive research is showing as core in student success.
“Students have to believe they can succeed, and Peet’s work, coupled with the TL experiences built into STLR ,will have a profound impact on our student’s changing perspectives about themselves and the society in which they live, learn and work,” said King.
King’s next work is focused on bringing all these data generated from STLR, LMS, SIS and IKPP together into the Civitas Learning platform and apps for a ground-breaking analysis. “The data we are generating from card swipe to LMS to SIS across the curriculum and co-curriculum are deep. When we incorporate in the student agency piece with our IKKP work, and all of our STLR data points, we will see a data environment we believe unique in higher education that allows us to explore the correlation and causality in how students conquer hard educational and social challenges while in college. We feel certain we will find some key actions colleges can take that are completely new to the student success conversation,” said King.
We help our students transform themselves when we give them tools and practice in discovering possibility.
App & e-Portfolio
In addition to an ePortfolio housed on the college LMS, an app is being developed as part of the grant program (to be deployed into student hands Spring 2016) that allows students to see, at any moment, their progress on reaching transformation on each of the Six Tenets – across smart phones, tablets or any device. Students achieve badges for evidence of learning at each level of Exposure, Integration and Transformation, and being able to view them easily and readily can provide motivation and direction. “A student might look at the Health & Wellness Tenet and see that they are at the Integration level with what they’ve done so far,” said King. “They can see their progress across all tenets throughout the course of their undergraduate studies.” Thanks to the elaborate and efficient tagging system students will also be able to search upcoming courses or activities by tenet to identify those that help them acquire the outside-disciplinary skills they need.
Recognition for Mastery
“Our mission to is to help students learn. In addition to Knowledge Mastery, we are committed to student development in each of the other tenets,” said King. “For students who achieve the Transformation level and badge, we provide honor cords in that tenet’s colors for them to wear at graduation, just as we do for academic excellence. And when a student walks the stage with that color cord, we don’t stop assessing there. We follow up with her employer six months later. We’ll ask if the three or four exemplary artifacts she shared as part of her STLR ePortfolio proved relevant to her work, and if she is meeting or exceeding the expectations of the employer.” King is finding big support from employers around this work because it provides a vetted, highly-regarded rubric in an authentic assessment by a trained professional in a way they simply can’t see in a traditional transcript or co-curricular listings.
Benefits of Deep Intentional Focus on Outcomes
“The intentionality of the process means our faculty and staff plan the activities and environments in which Transformative Learning is going to be prompted,” said King. “This is a substantially positive change from the past model common to higher education where Transformative Learning is often a more accidental, but highly-welcomed event as students exhibited ‘aha’ moments throughout their learning,” he said. “By consciously planning to make transformative experiences happen, they happen with much greater frequency, and by measuring the impact we can know exactly what is making the difference in student success. The growth of TL experiences produces a graduate with skills employers and society demand.” King says the work is also creating beneficial deep cross-campus collaborations with Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and IT.
“This is very definitely a BIG, big data project. We are looking forward to growing arms long enough to embrace this new approach and help our students succeed.” – Jeff King
Endowing the Investment in Undergraduate Research
In an unusual move for a grant-funded project, UCO has requested, and been allocated, $200,000 a year for each of the five years of the Title III grant in matching funds to create an endowment for student research. “We know from our work that undergraduate research is an important and viable factor in student persistence, as well as in Transformative Learning,” said King. “With this grant, provided we meet our matching funds commitment, we will build a $2 million endowment to fund student research assistant assignments.” Today UCO has grown their RA program to include more than 200 undergraduate students working side-by-side with faculty in research projects.