Shifting Perspectives: Learning Through Disorientation

As part of our mission to promote new approaches to student-centered teaching, Learning Innovation is publishing this series written by members of Duke’s Transformative Learning Intellectual Community. The TLIC is a group of faculty in the humanities and social sciences whose primary goal is to identify transformative learning moments among Duke students. Through this blog series, they will share what they learn about this approach so that more Duke students can benefit from it.

Reclaiming and Reframing the Disrupted Year of Learning

By Jennifer Hill
Director, Office of Assessment

Like many other Duke entities, the Office of Assessment spent the spring and summer seasons trying to understand the impact of COVID-19 and its associated closures and cancelations on our students, colleagues, and neighbors in the Durham community.  Some truths are emerging from survey data and faculty observations:  many students felt isolated and disengaged, their sense of wellness declined, their courses felt less rigorous and less productive for their long-term learning, and distance learning technologies worked well in many classes but not universally.  These findings are not unique to Duke (example here).

As participants in the Transformative Learning Intellectual Community, we practice reframing life disruptions as critical “disorienting dilemmas” (Mezirow, 1991).  “Disorientation” is a cheeky description of the chaotic first weeks of remote learning in March and April — especially as the situational novelty ebbed into myriad disappointments, challenges, and hazards for faculty and students alike.  Yet it alludes to the enormous potential for productive developmental transformations in periods of disequilibrium.  Pedagogically, it may be the silver lining to this very taxing year.  

“Disorientation” is a cheeky description of the chaotic first weeks of remote learning in March and April…

Transformative learning (TL) doesn’t just happen, however.  It requires structured guidance from mentors to help students encounter, critique and dismantle their assumptions and perspectives.  It is a highly individualized experience.  It may be resisted by the learners themselves.  Some readers will question whether critical self-reflection can occur in all course formats.  And let’s be frank:  when these massive disruptions to learning occurred in the latter half of the Spring 2020 semester, faculty time and energy were in very short supply.  Five months into remote/hybrid/multimodal learning, time doesn’t feel any more plentiful.  

What does assessment have to say about any of this?  When our assessment group crafted a Spring 2020 survey of undergraduate wellness and learning, we did not have the TL model in mind.  Our more urgent questions were:  Were students well, and were they connected to people who could support them academically, mentally, emotionally?  Did students have the basic supplies they needed to continue learning?  Which instructional formats are optimal in a remote learning environment?  Even in April, it was clear then that COVID-19 was going to be with us for a while, so attending to the operational elements of educational delivery and student services became the priority.

Disorientation can yield adaptation and growth when students are provided structured opportunities for self-examination.

Still, followers of TL probably aren’t surprised to learn that the survey results begin to confirm Mezirow’s expectations:  disorientation can yield adaptation and growth when students are provided structured opportunities for self-examination.  Of the learning attitudes and behaviors explored in that survey, adaptability and flexibility in learning were the only areas positively influenced by the “disrupted classroom.” 

In other words, although students’ motivation for learning, engagement with courses, and sense of purpose appear to decline in the second half of the spring term, self-reported adaptability rose.  Is this transformation?  Or does it just mark the fertile ground in which the seeds of transformative learning could germinate, given attentive watering from students’ intellectual mentors?

This conversation invokes student development theorist Nevitt Sanford (1967), who charged us to balance challenge and support in learning spaces.  Disruptions force an evaluation of our assumptions and perspectives, but without parallel structure and guidance from mentors, the student can’t grow through that disorientation.  Our 2020 assessment work reveals that students see instructors as important sources of wellness and learning support, behind only their families and close friends.  They continue to desire face-to-face meetings, even as they flocked to virtual faculty office hours to re-establish the personal connections that are central to student development and learning (link).  Instructors of their best learning experiences in the spring term made time for a rapid course redesign to acknowledge and even leverage the virtual environment.  If we’re to promote the possibility of transformative learning, what else is demanded of the faculty?  In a nutshell, they also need:

  • Clear suggestions for developing self-reflection and critical thinking in the classroom
  • Guidance for helping students express their transformations and find fellow travelers
  • Ideas for real opportunities to test out new mental models

The more sobering truth, however, is that the Spring 2020 semester was experienced unequally, differentiated in large part by students’ access to learning-supportive study spaces, reliable internet connections, and the freedom from work or family care obligations.  Obviously, these are proxies for family and student financial resources.  The University’s unavoidable pivot to remote learning exposed — like most emergencies do — the deeply problematic inequalities that often are hidden in plain sight (see the Duke Chronicle series about the wealth gap at Duke).  

The more sobering truth, however, is that the Spring 2020 semester was experienced unequally…

The Office of Assessment read and coded about 30,000 written responses from our Spring 2020 survey questions.  One student revealed, “[this experience] broadened my perspective on different situations/inequality that people can face that tend to be hidden.”  We celebrate this insight, while also consciously rejecting the notion that the challenges of less-resourced students exist only to “teach” the affluent.  In this example, the shifting of perspectives is experienced by the privileged, but many students, specifically those who identify as first-generation or less-resourced, already were aware of or personally affected by these inequities.   

There is no single solution to this thorny problem, especially as we work towards practical models of TL in the classroom.  The individuality of the experience is essential, but it complicates our aspiration to help colleagues enact it in the learning space.  Moving beyond the conceptual into the practical demands experimentation, vulnerability, and risk-taking among students and faculty mentors alike.  It requires new models of assessment that address process skills (e.g., critical evaluation) as well as outcomes (e.g., changed perspectives).  It requires interrogating who is experiencing transformation, and whether that process creates other collateral externalities.  As difficult as it is, this latter question should help steer future conversations about transformative learning at Duke.

Gratitude to Dr. Alessandra Dinin for her conceptual contributions to this piece.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Sanford, N.  (1967).  Self and society: social change and individual development.  New York: Atherton Press.