Transformative Learning

Such learning is not only possible but also measurable, write Rebecca and Daniel Haggerty, who describe an approach that other institutions might consider adopting.

December 21, 2017
 
Sanctuary of Ignatius of Loyola in Spain
 

Social justice is embedded in the mission of the University of Scranton, based on the principles of discernment first articulated by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century. The university strives to help each student discover his or her values, beliefs and path in life, and that outreach includes students of all faith traditions, as well as those who identify as agnostic or atheistic.

We are always gratified to learn that our students are being deeply impacted by the learning experiences we offer them. But why are they so affected? Is the key the experience or the required reflection after the experience -- or a combination of the two? Can we measure this kind of education, and can such measurement be applicable to all types of institutions of higher education?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes. We are studying outcomes of an honors course that includes a summer trip to Europe and a fall follow-up course. We have found a way to assess the value of reflection and contemplation, and how this leads to a transformational learning experience -- particularly vis-à-vis the mission of our university. And we believe this kind of assessment is transferable.

The basic question is whether educators and institutions are truly committed to undergraduate education designed to help students make positive contributions toward making the world a better place. If the answer is yes, you do not have to be Jesuit or religious to tailor our formula to your institution’s distinct mission and identity.

Our long-standing Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program recently began offering students a mission-driven trip to Spain and Italy that puts them up close and personal with the spiritual journey of St. Ignatius. And we have added a fall course that is academically rigorous and writing intensive but also highly reflective.

We created the course because we realized students wanted more. They kept coming to our offices to talk about the trip; they asked to discuss it over a meal. They wanted to think and talk more about how the trip related to what they were reading, movies they were seeing, how they shared the experience with their friends and families, how it deepened their understanding of the mission behind the education -- and how it helped them learn about themselves.

Thus, we began the process of assessing one of the university’s signature honors programs not only from a hard-data standpoint -- collecting statistical information, such as grade point averages and classes taken -- but through the softer lens of personal reflection.

A survey of alumni of the honors program from every class since 1980 drew a 40 percent response. More than 90 percent of the respondents credited the program with honing their critical-thinking, writing and speaking skills. The survey also told us that alumni believe the key to deeper learning is not only study but also reflection through personal writing and group conversations that lead to greater insight.

A Holistic View of Student Transformation

We recently presented our findings at a conference at Drexel University, and participants were eager to learn more about how they might use our methods to integrate their missions into student learning, and assess outcomes. Here is a brief summary of the process we followed.

Working with our Office of Educational Assessment, we identified our program as a high-impact practice, or HIP, meaning it is rigorous, helps students develop meaningful relationships and encourages them to engage with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. HIPs also provide rich feedback to students to develop important skills and provide for reflection.

We use direct measures such as exams, essays, papers, projects and portfolios. In this course, we also assigned students to create a PowerPoint presentation on the trip’s connection to our mission. Students presented this in class and across the campus and even produced a documentary film.

The key was linking these direct measures with the goal of transformative learning, so we measured student understanding of our mission before and after the trip and course. We found that their understanding had been advanced, and that was exciting, since evidence of transformation typically is indirect.

We also did use indirect measures like student attitudes, perceptions, values and feelings, which also capture transformational outcomes. The documentary and PowerPoint presentations were both direct and indirect measures, since they included interviews with students who were expressing how their perspectives changed as a result of the experience.

In addition, we encouraged students to keep journals, so they could review the trip prior to class, which enriched class discussions. After class, they were encouraged to record new insights.

One student wrote that he finally grasped what social justice was, and he was moved to discern an appropriate personal response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Another wrote that her understanding and appreciation of the Jesuit mission in education started with the trip and came together in the companion course, and that the university’s mission had become her personal mission in life.

We also interviewed each student to help them process and express what they had experienced. In all, we gathered what we believe was a holistic view of not only student learning and achievement but, moreover, of student transformation, as well.

We are conducting comparative analysis, too, through pre- and posttrip surveys, and we’ve found that students in the first survey were tentative about sharing Jesuit values, while the posttrip surveys show that students have come to embrace those values personally.

We have also found that the trip and course have influenced faculty members, too. In one instance, English literature, philosophy and theology professors linked courses in their disciplines to show students how the subject matter in each could be bridged with common themes.

An academic course that is also transformative might make some educators and institutions uneasy about considering adopting our approach. Some might think that transformation only belongs in institutions with religious identities or military academies.

We beg to differ. Transformation is a natural expression of an institution’s commitment to its mission and identity. Secular institutions are committed to values like civic engagement, leadership in a global context or a diverse and inclusive culture of learning, innovation and discovery. Why not infuse that commitment into undergraduate learning?

Bio

Rebecca Haggerty is assistant dean of assessments and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Scranton, and Daniel Haggerty is professor of philosophy and director of the Special Liberal Arts Honors Program.

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