Transformative Learning at the University of Central Oklahoma
Like many institutions in recent years, the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) has seen the emergence of several developing challenges. For example, public officials regularly express concerns about the value of higher education, while potential employers question the relevance of graduates’ preparation. There is also diminishing public support for the need to subsidize public higher education, and many students are now required to bear larger portions of their educational expenses, leading to less access to college for lower-income students. In addition, there is increasing competition from online courses and programs being delivered by institutions and entities that do not carry the operational costs associated with traditional university activities, such as public service and research.
In 2007, after several years of experimentation and development (Cunliff and Hughes 2011), UCO formulated a response to these challenges through an initiative called “Transformative Learning” (TL), a term originally applied more narrowly to the transformative educational development of adult learners (Mezirow 2000) but articulated at UCO as a learning-centered education model for all students (Barr and Tagg 1995). Since student transformative experiences (and, hence, student learning) can take place both in and out of the traditional classroom, UCO’s approach to TL encompasses all aspects of student learning, including curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular activities (Barthell et al. 2010). Student transformative experiences are encompassed in a set of six developing practices, all of which promote student success through high levels of student engagement and directly match or are similar to the high-impact educational practices espoused by Kuh (2008), the service learning and civic engagement practices of Astin (Astin and Sax 1998), and others. These six practices became known as UCO’s Central Six tenets of Transformative Learning: (1) Discipline Knowledge; (2) Leadership; (3) Research, Scholarly, and Creative Activities; (4) Service Learning and Civic Engagement; (5) Global and Cultural Competencies; and (6) Health and Wellness.
The Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR)
Many UCO faculty and staff members have had difficulty defining their roles in guiding students through the Central Six and in being able to tangibly grasp the concept of TL. In response, the university began several efforts to develop a “transformative learning transcript.” These ultimately resulted in the development of several non-credit certificates and similar student experiences attached to subsets of the Central Six but not the single integrative tool that was originally envisioned. Renewed efforts to develop a university-wide tool began again two years ago. Over concerns that the TL transcript might be confused with an academic transcript, the tool was renamed the Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR, pronounced “stellar”). It was recognized that the first tenet in TL, Discipline Knowledge, was already tracked with the academic transcript and, over this past year, development of STLR was implemented with emphasis on the remaining five TL tenets.
STLR utilizes three badge levels for each tenet: exposure, integration, and transformation. To earn a TL badge in Leadership at the exposure level, for example, a student must successfully demonstrate achievement of the criteria for that badge as measured with a rubric. Faculty and staff members who manage the curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular programs identify activities that are suitable to meet badge criteria. Artifacts associated with badge learning outcomes are captured in e-portfolios along with any assessments of student work. Many activities, particularly those associated with exposure-level badges, are earned through assignments captured in the first-year seminar course, core curriculum courses, and tenet-related student activities. Students find themselves engaged with STLR simply by taking classes and participating in normal student activities. At some point, however, they must make a conscious effort to pursue STLR badges and badge criteria on their own.
The STLR process is designed to promote student participation in transformative learning experiences, as well as the development of workplace and life skills competencies. The STLR tool utilizes a student app interface that is available to students on any smart device. This app shows students the tenet-related learning opportunities in the upcoming semester, which allows them to take better control over their educational activities as they are provided more information about which courses and activities focus on enhancing skills and knowledge in a particular tenet (or perhaps multiple tenets). Figures 1 through 4 show screenshot mock-ups of the student app interface.
This screenshot shows a student’s current progress in the five TL tenets.
This screenshot shows specific progress at the Integration badge level in one of the TL tenets.
This screenshot provides recommendations to the student based on his or her curricular and badge-level progress.
This screenshot presents a drill-down into the course description of one of the recommendations provided in Figure 3.
Were the figures’ hypothetical student to enroll in ENG 1234, one of the Service Learning & Civic Engagement (SLCE) recommendations provided among all SLCE-tagged courses that would be shown as a scroll-through list (Figure 3), he or she could do so by pulling up the ENG 1234 course description (Figure 4). From there, the student could link to the student information system to register for the course. In that course, he or she would encounter at least one assignment/activity specifically designed by the instructor to develop SLCE competencies. The instructor’s assessment of the student’s tenet achievement, along with the learning artifact itself, would be ported automatically into the student’s STLR e-portfolio.
As a student progresses beyond the exposure level, badge criteria reflect deeper levels of learning, much as upper-level courses are more challenging and complex than lower-level courses. Whether students pursue multiple badges or focus on just one, they will develop many of the skills and abilities that employers indicate are critical to successful job performance (Hart Research Associates 2013; Murphy 2006; National Association of Colleges and Employers 2012). In the future, UCO will test correlations between employer assessments of student skills and associated aptitudes and earned STLR badges.
Assessing the High-Impact Educational Practices Embodied in STLR
While many institutions have developed programs that embrace high-impact practices (HIPs), assessment of the associated learning outcomes has often been elusive. Built into UCO’s STLR are direct assessments of the learning outcomes associated with UCO’s Transformative Learning tenets. For each tenet, faculty and professional staff members use one or more rubrics to assess student performance. Where appropriate, UCO has matched a tenet to one of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ VALUE Rubrics (2013). For instance, for Global and Cultural Competencies, UCO uses the Global Learning VALUE Rubric and the Intercultural Knowledge and Competence VALUE Rubric. For the Health and Wellness tenet, UCO has created a rubric in the style of the VALUE Rubrics, with the same four levels of performance.
The VALUE Rubrics use a scoring scheme from 1 = benchmark to 4 = capstone, with two milestones (2 and 3) between. In aligning its badge levels with these VALUE levels, UCO has made its exposure badge level equivalent to the VALUE benchmark level. Scores of 2 or 3, the VALUE milestones, are aligned with the integration badge level. The VALUE capstone score is aligned with the transformation badge level within each tenet. Both the student work and the scored rubric for the work are stored in the student e-portfolio so that behind each badge “credit,” there will be documentation, which might be, at the exposure level, simply an affirmation that the student attended an event or activity. At this point, the alignments are not precise, especially at the exposure badge level. For example, a student who attends a “Healthy Lifestyle Choices” activity in the residence halls may get “credit” at the exposure level for the Health and Wellness tenet “just for showing up,” even though the student’s understanding may still be, upon closer examination, pre-benchmark. The idea is to engage students in basic learning related to the tenets, increasing the likelihood that they will choose to get more involved, learn more deeply, and be motivated to earn higher badge levels. It is hoped that each student will earn the transformation-level badge in at least two of the tenets. As of fall 2014, UCO will have required capstone experiences in each of its majors, so every student will have the potential to earn the top badge in Research, Scholarly, and Creative Activities.
The connection of so-called soft skills (often achieved outside the classroom) to success in the workplace is increasingly well established among surveys of employers (Stratford 2013). Looking forward, UCO will solicit feedback from employers of its graduates with regard to the badges that the graduates have earned. The validity of the university’s system of assessment and documentation will be affirmed if employers agree that UCO graduates exhibit the knowledge, skills, and attributes that are reflected in the learning required for each of the badges. Feedback from employers will give the university important data to use for the continuous improvement of the kinds of student learning and development that can be emphasized in the STLR process.
At UCO, there is a belief that an undergraduate educational experience is a melding of disciplinary programs, the university’s general education core, and the cocurricular (and extracurricular) activities in which a student engages during his or her academic career. The learning outcomes associated with all of these activities are reflected in the student who walks off of the UCO campus and enters the workforce after graduation. STLR provides a tangible and practical method for verifying the skills that employers indicate are crucial to career success, thus providing demonstrable evidence to students, employers, and the public of the critical added value that high-impact practices bring to a student’s preparation and career readiness. Through employer surveys, UCO plans to eventually correlate employer perceptions of career readiness with participation in STLR. This will be especially relevant to UCO’s status as a university that is well integrated into the innovation districts and clusters that constitute a metropolitan area like Oklahoma City (Katz and Bradley 2013).
While other institutions have implemented cocurricular transcripts, very few have attempted to integrate curricular and cocurricular activities in this manner, and fewer still have tied results directly to outcomes assessment. There are several other institutions that have developed or are in the process of developing tools that have aspects similar to STLR, including Loyola University, University of St. Francis, Northern Arizona University, and Elizabethtown College. Many other institutions are beginning to explore mechanisms for tracking student participation in high-impact practices.
This proposal is synergistic with a growing interest in tracking learning outcomes with online badging systems that are used to track program-level skills. The approach that STLR takes in using badges for TL is unique and presents an innovative approach that could easily be adopted at other institutions. In addition, the accumulating evidence of student transformative learning as automatically captured within the STLR e-portfolio may also be replicable on other campuses, thereby providing other graduates a means of substantiating to prospective employers their workplace-ready skills as they customize the presentation of themselves both on their résumés and as they select key evidence from their e-portfolios.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2013. VALUE: Valid assessment of learning in undergraduate education. http://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/.
Astin, A. W., and L. J. Sax. 1998. How undergraduates are affected by service participation. Journal of College Student Development 39 (3): 251–263.
Barr, R. B., and J. Tagg. 1995. From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change 27 (6): 13–25.
Barthell, J., E. Cunliff, K. Gage, W. Radke, and C. Steele. 2010. Transformative learning: Collaborating to enhance student learning. A collection of papers on self-study and institutional improvement, 2010, 56–60. Chicago: The Higher Learning Commission.
Cunliff, E., and C. Hughes. 2011. Transformative learning is H.I.P. in Oklahoma. A collection of papers on self-study and institutional improvement, 2011, 139–141. Chicago: The Higher Learning Commission.
Hart Research Associates. 2013. It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. An online survey among employers conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf
Katz, B., and J. Bradley. 2013. The metropolitan revolution: How cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges and Universities.
Mezirow, J., and Associates. 2000. Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Murphy, M. 2006. Leadership IQ study: Why new hires fail. Public Management 88 (2): 33–34.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. 2012. The skills and qualities employers want in their class of 2013 recruits. National Association of Colleges and Employers, October 24. http://www.naceweb.org/s10242012/skills-abilities-qualities-new-hires/.
Stratford, M. 2013. Broad education vs. industry-specific skills. Inside Higher Ed, September 18. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/09/18/poll-most-americans-and-business-leaders-say-graduates-should-be-well-rounded.
Note: Scores of faculty and staff members have contributed to this project over the various stages of its development. We would like to recognize a few individuals who have been instrumental in STLR’s most recent developments: Bucky Dodd, Mitch Green, Rob Howard, Sharra Hynes, Mark Jones, Amanda Keesee, William Radke, Liliana Renteria, Cynthia Rolfe, Cole Stanley, Sonya Watkins, and Rachel Winters.
About the Authors
John Barthell is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs; Myron Pope is Vice President for Student Affairs; Jeffrey King is Executive Director, Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning; Cia Verschelden is Executive Director, Institutional Assessment; Charles Hughes is Associate Vice President, Institutional Effectiveness; and Gregory Wilson is Assistant Vice President, Research and Grants, at University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, Oklahoma.