Transformative Learning in a Graduate-Level Classroom:  A Third Party Empirical Perspective

Nicolas Gwozdziewycz, Psy.D.

Fulton State Hospital, Fulton, Missouri 65251




 Daniel S. Janik MD MPH PhD FACPM FAAIM (Member)

Argosy University Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii

Self-Design Graduate Institute, Bellingham, Washington, 98225

March 2014

A 2010 - 2011 Hawaii Neurobiological Learning Society (NLS) Choice Article


This paper was presented before:

1 - The Neurobiological Learning Society, Argosy University Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, 5 October 2011

2 - International Conference on Innovation in Teaching, Research, and Management in Higher Education, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 15/16 July 2011

3- Sigma Xi Student Research Showcase, 18-23 March 2013


Address all communication to Nick Gwozdziewycz at

Include "Transformative Learning" in the "Subject"



This report is dedicated to the late Dr. Brent Cameron PhD, who pioneered the application of transformative learning in preschool through graduate level environments under the term "enthusiasm-based learning" and appellation "Self-Design."



Educators the world over, including medical researchers, educators, universities, societies and organizations, are constantly seeking new, more effective styles of teaching and learning that better fit the manner in which learners neurobiologically acquire, process, retain and use information. Transformative learning (a learner-centered, self-designed, curiosity-based, discovery-driven,  enthusiasm-motivated) approach to learning emphasizing "meaning" and flexibility of use/application over information retention is examined as implemented in a postgraduate "medical" classroom. Although reported in the literature since 1970, there remain limited reports involving critical observation and evaluation of this unique pedagogical approach in action. In this paper, a teaching assistant and professor discuss their empirical observations of a graduate-level transformative-style classroom. The mutual goal was to identify, describe, analyze, integrate and report their observations in the medical the literature. 


KEY WORDS:  medical education, transformative learning, enthusiam-based learning, Self-Design, teaching, curiosity, discovery, meaning, transferability



Transformative Learning in a Graduate-Level Classroom:  A Third Party Empirical Perspective


The United States National Research Council in its 2000 work, How People Learn:  Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, has stated, "Deep understanding of subject matter transforms factual information into usable knowledge" (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, p. 16). That there is a need for the acquisition not just of information, but of meaningful knowledge and wisdom remains unquestioned; however, there is a general lack of agreement within the international community of educators as to what constitutes meaningful knowledge and wisdom, and how to best convey them to learners.

That these terms actually have profoundly different meanings than exceptional information acquisition and retention is a relatively new epiphany. In 1998, British educator C. P. Snow (p 19), in an attempt to express the magnitude of this problem within education wrote, "Talk to schoolmasters, and they say that our intense specialization, like nothing else on earth, is dictated by the Oxford and Cambridge scholarship examinations…" Test-based information acquisition, currently the "gold standard" approach to teaching and learning, however, has recently come into question. For example, Janik (2005) places contemporary test-based educational systems in the category of "traumatic learning" with its attendant side effects which include the inhibition of knowledge (knowing how to apply information in new contexts) and wisdom (knowing when to do so appropriately). According to Janik, contemporary test-based teaching approaches owe their effectiveness to the invocation of acute and chronic stress, pressures which when experienced by learners in contemporary test-based learning situations, in the short run invoke classic eidetic traumatic information acquisition but in the long-run inhibit (1) intentional conscious recall of this information, (2) acquisition of knowledge and wisdom as defined above, and (3) critical thinking. In addition, one of the myriad other side effects of this form of "traumatic" learning is a clinically observable syndrome in both teachers and students in many ways not that different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Supporting evidence include information acquisition and retention at the expense of "meaning," and the increasing presence of student/teacher hyper-vigilance, tiredness, irritability, intolerance and "burn out" Quoting Goethe, American educator J. F. Gardner (1978, p. 25) stated, "Every object rightly seen unlocks a new faculty of the soul…yet for many people education has unlocked very little." Many educators today forget that Dr. John Dewey PhD, the widely acknowledged "father" of the United States' current educational system, held in 1897 that "the teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area" (2011; the emphasis is mine). In the process he stressed the importance of cooperation over competition. These prominent educators all believed that educators and learners alike have a responsibility to continually improve upon their knowledge and wisdom, often through reflection upon both what is being taught and acquired.

In this paper, the authors describe an alternative approach to contemporary "traumatic" teaching and learning, through practical application of a "transformative" approach in a university medical classroom setting, and discuss the qualitative efficacy of transformative learning in graduate-level education. We hypothesize that both educators and consequently learners have much to gain from applying transformative learning wherever and whenever possible. 

Review of the Literature

In his classic 1978 study, Dr. Jack Mezirow PhD, currently professor emeritus of Columbia University, introduced the concept of transformative learning theory as applied to post-graduate education. According to Mezirow, transformation theory's focus is how learners negotiate and act on their own purposes, values, feelings, and meanings rather than those uncritically assimilated from others. The purpose is for learners to gain greater control over their lives as socially responsible, clear-thinking decision-makers. (Mezirow and Associates, 2000, p. 8). Cranton (1994) maintains that transformative learning occurs when a learner discovers something new (e.g., concept or novel way of thinking) and uses it to make life changes. These approaches to learning supplement typical classroom learning which emphasizes obtaining information and skills. Unfortunately, contemporary "traumatic" learning approaches assume that learners will also obtain the requisite knowledge and wisdom to utilize the information and skill set appropriately in a wider variety of contexts than just the classroom.

Early research conceptualized transformative learning as a purely adult teaching and learning theory; however, research in this field is constantly expanding its scope and applicable age range (Taylor, 2007; Taylor, 2008). For example, Janik (2004, 2005) explored its neurobiological underpinnings, and its application to young adults and children in the field of language acquistion, while Oliver (2010) discussed its application in terms of multiple intelligence theory including teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in the Republic of Korea. Mezirow (1996) believed that transformative learning and ESL both capable of fabricating significant multi-contextual learning in the lives of learners. 

According to King (2000), “There seems to be a natural bridge between transformational learning and the adult ESL experience” (p. 71). In the same 2000 article, King listed class discussions, class activities, essays, assigned readings, writing about concerns, group projects, personal journals, role-plays, and worksheets as activities that adult ESL learners reported facilitating the movement of acquired information and skills into knowledge and wisdom.

Learners often cite pedagogical, technological, and mentor support from teachers, friends, and classmates as enhancing the transformative process. Using "interesting" photographic resources, for example, encourages transformative learning (Gallo, 2001). Selecting and organizing pictures from each learner's life helps learners envision and explore multiple contexts. Discussing pictures directly enhances knowledge and wisdom though meaningful conversations all the while facilitating the acquisition of newfound communication skills.

Mezirow, Taylor, and Associates (2009) have examined transformative learning in online contexts, the workplace in corporate America, and in African and Bolivian communities. According to Taylor (2008), it is prudent for educators to enable their learners both inside and outside the classroom to act and reflect upon their discoveries and insights in order to aid the transformative process. Without opportunities to apply new perspectives, it is difficult for learners to fundamentally change their internal perspective and thereby acquire knowledge and wisdom. While in the classroom, Taylor (2008) recommended that educators continually evaluate and refine their methods of engaging learners in critical reflection. This process, he said, should be developmentally appropriate for the audience. Suggestions to invoke and aid this process include reflective journaling, classroom dialogue, critical questioning, and more holistically, promotion of "healthy" interpersonal relationships, which further the transformative process.

Cameron and associates (2006) expanded, applied, demonstrated and reported the power of transformative learning, calling it "enthusiasm-based" and "self-directed" learning, in post-secondary as well as pre-secondary schools, both in "classroom" and "online" settings.


The "test" class was a post-graduate psychology course entitled the Biological Bases of Behavior. Eighteen learners attended fifteen sequential three-hour evening "in class" meetings.

Special consent was obtained from the campus President, Vice President of Academic Affairs and administration at Argosy University Hawaii to run the class in a distinctly transformative-style. A skeptical teaching assistant (the author) observed the class, noting the process, interactions between instructor and learners, products and assessments by all three parties, the instructor and co-author Daniel S. Janik, and the students. This report served as the class evaluation.

Half of the first class meeting was taken up by a complex set of classroom discussions that introduced the learners to curiosity-based, discovery-driven transformative-style learning, and allowed learners to determine the meeting topics, assessment devices, and method of assigning "grades." For evaluation purposes, the instructor created a separate list of preferred meeting topics, assessment devices and method of assigning grades, which was shared with learners later in the course. On several occasions, the instructor, at the request or with support of the class, applied the Rand Corporation's Delphi Method (2013) to help bring divergent opinions to consensus.

The instructor, by class choice, served as both instructor and mentor. In rough accord with Cameron's Self-Design approach, the primary role of the instructor was to provide additional optional learning resources where needed, and of the mentor, to participate in a demonstrative co-learner role. Learning resources included primary-source books, articles, videos and phone chats with experts, both in printed and digital form, many of the latter being acquired online from the World Wide Web. The teaching assistant by individual choice, serviced as co-instructor for one class session, co-mentor, and evaluator.

Course evaluation was performed in three stages: (1) the students were asked to evaluate the class, instructor and mentor prompted by four "open-ended" questions; (2) the teaching assistant collated, recorded and discussed with the instructor his weekly class observations; and (3) the teaching assistant and instructor/mentor met three weeks after the course to review and discuss in detail both student evaluations and any issues of relevance as to the efficacy of this example of transformative-style learning with special regard for the resulting products, interactions between instructor and learners, and summarative evaluations by all three parties


Eleven of the learner-designated meeting topics, when collated, overlapped the instructor's; learners indicated special interest in two additional topics, "play" and "the psychology of plants."

To the teaching assistant's surprise, learners quickly began voluntarily searching for, reading and critically evaluating source literature surrounding each week's learner-chosen topic.  Generally, during the first two hours of class, learners taught themselves in small, three to five member groups. For the final hour, they reconvened and presented their discoveries to the entire class, engaging themselves, the teaching assistant, and instructor in animated discussion.

The class proved cooperative in nature; that is, learners began helping each other as long as they did not plagiarize, an "outside rule" placed on the process by the university and strongly supported by the instructor/mentor. While sometimes appearing momentarily "disorganized," classroom management, initially thought to be a "potential issue," proved to not be so, the learners quickly learning to cooperating and "self-police" themselves. The Vice President of Academic Affairs and several administrators joined the class at random times, initially observing, and later eagerly participating as mentors or learners in the transformative learning process.

The mid-term assessment tool chosen by the class was ten-minute individual or small group presentations on any meeting topic. The criteria for grading of the mid-term assessment were attention to topic, completeness of topic presentation, quality of primary resources cited, attention to academic detail, clarity of presentation, and adherence to the time allocation; the "points" awarded for each criteria were on a zero to ten scale (ten being the "best"). By unanimous class assent, "points" for each of the criteria were awarded by the instructor and immediately announced to the class after the presentation. The "points" assigned by the instructor were open to class discussion and revision, but, in the end, were not revised by the class.

The final assessment tool chosen by the class was a short individual or small group argumentative paper in the American Psychological Association (APA) format arguing for or against any meeting topic conclusion. The criteria for grading of the final assessment were the importance of topic; clarity, completeness, conciseness and correctness of argumentation, quality of primary resources cited, and attention to academic detail. The "points" awarded for each criteria were on a zero to fourteen point three scale (fourteen point three being the "best"). By unanimous class assent, "points" for each of the criteria were awarded by the instructor. During the final class meeting, total and categorized final assessment points were announced to the individuals and small groups. The "points" assigned by the instructor were open to class discussion and revision, but, in the end, were not revised by any individuals, groups or the class as a whole. Course grades were assigned in conformance with the Argosy University point scale. There was no grade "curve," and no "adjustments" were made.

All students attended all class meetings and successfully "passed" this course.


The class's learning curve seemed blunted during the first two weeks (meetings), corresponding to an observable collective discomfort after the professor informed the class that they were going to decide their meeting topics, learning objectives, and method(s) of learning assessment. Several learners questioned the competency of the instructor (and, at times, the teaching assistant). With supportive assurances, however, the class, through discussion, came to rapid consensus regarding the topic for each week and ultimately how the students would acquire and document mastery of the material.

In the weeks that followed, the class learning curve quickly exceeded administrative, teaching assistant and learner expectations. On three separate occasions, learners formally co-mentored themselves during meeting sessions, mirroring the mentoring approach the instructor/mentor consistently demonstrated.

To the teaching assistant's surprise, the learners identified nearly the same collated course topics as the professor (e.g. brain trauma, critical periods of language development, instinctual learning, conditioning and neuron theory); however, they opted for two topics that he said he normally would not have included (i.e. play and the psychology of plants). Frankly, both the professor and teaching assistant were surprised that the learners chose almost the same topics that conventional "expert teachers" would have. Furthermore, it was interesting that the learners developed obvious excitement for the class in the process of picking the topics.

Despite learner, teaching assistant, and school administration concerns, the class did not degrade into a loosely structured "free-for-all;" in fact, the class responded positively to most of the instructor's suggestions, e.g. a recommended sequence of the topics, especially when relating to the instructor as a mentor. 

What was observably different about this course was the dynamic of the class: Given permission, students quickly began self-regulating their individual and group behavior, participating enthusiastically in each meeting topic discussion. In fact, the only classroom management "problem," was ending the class discussions, which could easily have continued well past the allotted time.

Determining how to document mastery of the material and grading criteria resulted in particularly lively discussion. In the end, the class decided on the production of individual and/or small group presentations and papers, as well as points for attendance and participation. This process seemed at first uncomfortable for some learners. We hypothesize this was because in all their other classes, learners were inculcated to believe that the professor/teacher is a primary source expert and authority figure rather than a participatory guide and mentor.

Janik (2004, 2005) maintains that there exist at least  two highly effective neurobiological learning pathways, each affective in nature, one involving traumtic learning (sympathetically-engaged learning emphasizing single-context informational acquisition under stress), the other transformative learning (parasympathetically-engaged learning emphasizing multi-contextual reflective meaning resulting from curiosity and discovery). The latter is especially amenable to mentorship rather than traditional "teaching." A major advantage to engagement of the transformative learning pathway, and one we directly observed, is the lack of negative side effects. In fact, the transformative learning experience, once the class got used to it, seemed to re-energize the class, groups, individual learners, instructor/mentor and teaching assistant, inspiring them to consciously take responsibility for their own learning, in the end, giving them a new appreciation of the power of academic learning. What was particularly telling was that, once the class became accustomed to transformative learning, learners quickly became aware of the process and began self-reinforcing the transformative learning process.

'The transformative process ended up engaging not only the learners, but also the teaching assistant, instructor/mentor and observers as well. The teaching assistant, for example, through observing the shift from traumatic to transformative learning, began to reconsider the role of traumatic style learning. When the class discussed Watson and Rayner's "Little Albert" experiment, it became clear to everyone that this classical experiment in conditioning applied to more than just fear conditioning, providing, in fact, the physiological bases for traumatic learning. Students "cramming" or "pulling an all-nighter" in anticipation of a graded test, or of receiving anything less than an "A" grade for fear of losing financial aid or academic withdrawal from one's graduate program of study, like Little Albert's induced fear, would potentially condition themselves to fear any associated sensations, learning objects and/or processes, creating an eventually self-defeating learning situation. Transformative learning, on the other hand, can clearly avoid this to the point of replacing fear of the results of competition with the enthusiasm of individual creative discovery. By course midpoint, it became clear to the teaching assistant that there would be little chance of "burnout" for students or mentors in this learning situation. This point alone constituted a clear difference between traumatic and transformative styles of learning and illustrated to the author the untapped potential of the latter.

Interestingly, the author, reflecting years later back on this particular classroom learning experience and those from previous non-transformative classes, found himself engaged in a continuing process of discovery regarding the effects of traumatic learning. For example, the obvious advantage of acquiring eidetically recallable information during a traumatic learning situation is now blunted by personal awareness of the difficulty many learners have in accessing that largely semi- or subconscious information. Today, conscious information is readily available from computerized databases. Furthermore, non-transformative classes, in retrospect, seem to leave one with many unconscious negative associations that collectively blunt one's learning interest, enthusiasm, curiosity and, ultimately, pleasure in discovery. Traumatic learning approaches furthermore seem a high price to pay at the expense of knowledge and wisdom, both of which are specifically needed in the world today (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000). Traumatic learning has particular trouble addressing the higher-level question "why." Why does one need to memorize information, formulas and procedures? What are their practical applications? How and when can they be applied in new and uncommon contexts?

Eventually, learners, instructors and administrators become more open to, and sometimes, like Mezirow, Cameron and Janik, champions of transformative learning once they've experienced both learning styles and reflected on the totality of their learning experiences. It is the author and co-author's hope that the learners who participated in this particular class will reflect upon and eventually incorporate this style of learning experience into their professional and personal lives.

One particularly interesting attribute of transformative learning noted was that learners naturally formed and enjoyed working in small groups of three to five persons. The group members cooperated, helping each other to better explore and digest the topic material. All students mentioned at some point that "teaching themselve's was more fun and inspiring than listening to a lecture or watching a Power-Point presentation, typical forms of information presentation in other university courses. We conclude that by allowing them more peer interaction, the small group process proved more congruent with how they naturally enthusiastically learned.  The takeaway is that the instructor left the learners the tools they needed to learn independently, and then "got out of their way" so that the learning could occur.

It appeared to the teaching assistant of singular importance that the instructor take the role of mentor or confidant rather than teacher, lecturer or authority. Eventually, the learners came to respect this and their attitude towards the instructor/mentor changed remarkably. As a mentor and co-learner, they see how to access resources, engage critically with them and the instructor, creating a learning environment that was even more conducive to transformative learning than before.

On the final day of class, the instructor requested written individual and oral group/class feedback on their experience. Learners reported that while initially skeptical and, in some instances, temporarily aversive to the approach (feeling "cheated" at having to "do all the work" after paying to have an authoritative teacher to provide them with all the "answers"), in the end, all expressed outright enthusiasm for participating in a transformative course. Learners reported that the class was "fun," "engaging," and that they were sorry to see it come to an end, something not commonly reported by students in contemporary traumatic learning situations. More important, they stated that it had effectively encouraged critical reading, writing, listening, speaking and thinking. Overall, both instructor and teaching assistant were pleasantly satisfied at how much engaged the learners became, how much spontaneous research they performed, the quality of their assessment products, and the level of knowledge and wisdom they demonstrated during discussions.

The transformative approach to learning has demonstrated shortcomings, though they were quite different from those commonly associated with traumatic teaching. For one, transformative learning did not appear to be ideal for preparing learners for standardized recall testing. On the other hand, the traumatic learning approach is not at all conducive to the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. Approaches to successfully passing standardized tests (e.g. "teaching to the test") commonly involve invoking self or teacher-induced hypnotic memorization, and this generally requires a formalized structure (e.g. pre-determined curriculum) commonly used in conventional classroom teaching to facilitate mastery in the most effective and efficient manner.

Transformative learning is not as conducive to multiple choice, and true/false testing in particular. In a transformative environment, the mentor provides a learning model, and through demonstration, the assurance that learner curiosity and discovery will, in fact, not only happen, but will address the group's learning objectives and provide each learner with an experience base to apply what is learned in extra-classroom contexts. This kind of learning can initially appear inefficient and ineffective, especially during the short transition from traumatic to transformative learning styles. In the long run, however, learners reported attaining their learning objectives and acquiring a richer, more complex understanding of the issues than provided through memorization or skill-training.

When learning transformatively, learners are more likely to apply knowledge on multiple levels, think critically, question the truth of information, and ultimately transform what they learn into something more meaningful in reference to their past experiences and future life. In the case of this particular class, the long-term impact is unknown. We did observe, however, that learners became adept at discussing the core information, developed an appetite for continuing their investigations surrounding the class topics, and became more engaged, and seemingly functionally better at reading, understanding, and evaluating research materials. Many mentioned profiting from an overall re-vitalization of curiosity, which, the author's hope, may compel them to keep up with the literature, further their own independent critical abilities and studies because they want to.

On the other hand, given the potential of displeasing respective administrators concerned with maximizing standardized test scores, increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of traumatic learning, minimizing expenses and maximizing the business of education, and national and international accreditation, implementing any new teaching method, especially a transformative one, is risky for the instructor and, to some extent, for the students. Furthermore, given the overall lack of educator, institutional and social valuation of knowledge and wisdom (as we have defined them) over information acquisition and retention, it seems unlikely that public education institutions will, on their own, seek to investigate transformative learning as a viable solution to the present predicament identified by the United States Academy of Science and increasingly disgruntled parents. Based on our observations, it is imperative that educators reflect on the overall course, direction and side effects inherent in traumatic styles of contemporary teaching, and have faith in their students' interest and ability to learn. In our case, we deemed the class a success because the class met the pre-determined class learning objectives and the learners were satisfied, even enthusiastic, with the process and outcome. We therefore present our observations as a transformative learning model for others to invoke, observe, and add further observations. One particularly important area, we think, is further defining a more appropriate and "objective" set of transformative learning assessment and evaluation tools both in terms of acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, and program worthiness.

Properly employed, transformative learning methods assist learners in making a distinction between acquiring information verses knowledge (being able to apply information in different contexts) and wisdom (knowing when to do so). It is possible that this is not a purely methodological issue as implied here, but a manifestation of a more global need to re-examine the fundamental goals of education in light of the increasing need to integrate information, knowledge, and wisdom in today's world. We believe that a transformative approach to learning has the potential to address at least some if not all of these issues, and encourage a proliferation of investigations into more integrated methodologies of information, knowledge, and wisdom acquisition that also invoke the natural curiosity and learning propensity within all humans, in the process promoting critical listening, speaking, reading, writing and thinking.

While the rubric "transformative" seems to be working its way into educational thought and parlance, it is not enough to simply "transform" learners. The core issues are what exactly needs transforming, what the ultimate goal of the transformative process is, and the creation of observational and experimental learning "test-beds" and tools where the transformative process can be more closely examined and evaluated. To our knowledge, there are some discussions in academia surrounding these points, but few transformative-style test-beds and even fewer educators and instructors able or willing to utilize them. It is our hope that our observations will prove helpful to future educator-researchers interested in furthering the short and long-term experience of learners in a transformative learning environment.

Our observations have led us to raise some concerns regarding the initial discomfort that some students experience during the paradigm change from a conventional to a transformative style of learning. This shift is more than just an adjustment to a new methodological approach. It appears, for instance, to provide rich new insight into some of the classical teaching problems such as teacher "burn out," school violence, and issues surrounding class disruption. 


Self-directing one's education, even among graduate-level learners, is increasingly discouraged in conventional education. The preemptory role of the lecturing professor or "teacher" reflects of this attitude. It is even more unusual for graduate-level learners to determine the course of their educational goals, curriculum, lesson plans and grading criteria, as well as participate in decisions regarding how to best "learn" the material, allowing them to "teach" themselves in the presence of a mentor (a more "experienced" learner who can demonstrate by participation in the learning processes involved).

Nevertheless, the authors believe that the transformative-style learning approach demonstrates promise in enabling learners to learn how to learn and critically integrate information, knowledge and wisdom. Above all else, this approach acknowledges and supports belief in the "natural" ability of learners to learn—that learners are capable of identifying, acquiring and learning the material they need with little more than a mentor to demonstrate the self-acquisition process and provide insight into the identification and acquisition of resources. Learners generally know what they need better than any teacher or curriculum committee attempting to play the "expert" role ex post facto. Mentorship complements this approach by providing a demonstration of the process to learners when they are most interested in learning it, enabling them to later apply it themselves.


Transformative learning is a "kinder, gentler" approach to learning that at the least adds several needed new dimensions, namely knowledge and wisdom, to the education process, and may, at the best, provide a meaningful alternative to contemporary traumatic learning, perhaps, with continued research and development, even supplanting it in the end. If used prudently, this learning method enables learners to "learn to learn" and think for themselves, supporting their natural curiosity and empowering the self-discovery process. Once this happens, a traditional professor/teacher is unnecessary, requiring only a mentor in order for learners to continue to evolve the transformative learning process and provide occasional insights into better quality resources closer to the original source, freeing learners to do what they do best: learn.


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