An adult learner sitting in class
Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

Engaging Adult Learners, Part II: In-class Activities Inspired by Transformative Learning

By Tom Armbrecht, PhD

I recently explained my strategies for structuring a class so that students would have a sense of its direction and purpose. In this entry, I will focus on how to fill class time with learning activities designed specifically for adults by using a personal example.

Background on adult learners

Before discussing ways to keep adults involved, it is worth remembering essential pedagogical principles when designing learning activities. As discussed previously, mature learners are adept at metacognition. In other words, they have the ability to think about what they are doing and how they are doing it. These capacities allow them to be more involved in what they are learning because they can see its relevance.

Adults also tend to learn more efficiently than younger students because they are frequently able to apply skills developed in other classes and in non-academic contexts. The ability to analyze one’s own thoughts, including a learning experience, can also mean that adult students are apt to be more demanding. They may even become skeptical of teaching materials and methods if they do not see the purpose of what they are doing. One of the most important challenges facing instructors is, therefore, to empower their learners so that they are personally invested in both the process and the outcome of the class.

Adult learner thinking

Illustration by Tom Armbrecht

Transformative learning activities

Although there are many theories of andragogy (the science of teaching adults, a term coined by Malcolm Knowles), one of the most influential is transformative learning, developed by Jack Mezirow. Mezirow emphasizes the importance of metacognitive abilities as a means of enfranchising mature learners. He holds that adults engage in two types of learning: instrumental and communicative. Instrumental learning involves making meaning through problem-solving and deductive reasoning. Communicative learning engages social and emotional intelligence.

According to Mezirow, effective teaching engages both modalities and is accomplished through activities that involve distinct cognitive phases:

  1. A disorienting dilemma
  2. A self-examination with feelings of guilt or shame
  3. A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar exchange
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  6. Planning a course of action
  7. Acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan
  8. Provision of trying new roles
  9. A building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  10. A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s perspective

Considering gender as a transformative learning experience

An example of a transformative learning experience that I saw repeatedly in my own classes happened when students dealt with texts that challenged their preconceived ideas about gender and sexuality. In my previous job as a French professor, I taught courses about the intellectual movements of 20th-century France as represented in literature and visual media. Students always had a strong reaction when we traced the history of the development of feminism, in particular. Their negative cultural associations with the word “feminist” — which had anti-feminine, anti-male, and anti-procreative connotations for them — caused them to reject the term. Each time I taught these texts, I would conduct an informal survey to see how many people in the class considered themselves feminists; almost no one raised her or his hand.

To challenge their assumptions about what feminism meant in this particular context and, eventually, in their own lives, I chose texts that deliberately took students through the above cognitive steps. Christine Rochefort’s book, Cats Don’t Care for Money (Les Stances à Sophie, in French) proved one of the most effective books to facilitate a transformative learning experience.

Because of social expectations, Céline, the protagonist, marries a man that does not respect either her intelligence or her autonomy. The story recounts her decision to leave the marriage in order to realize her own potential. (The character herself goes through Mezirow’s phases, in fact.) The author chooses a first-person narrative voice (Céline’s) whose intimate and frank tone invites readers to consider it personally; they can either identify with it or criticize it, but Rochefort’s character is convincingly written enough so as not to leave readers indifferent.

Reaction versus analysis: Communicative and instrumental learning

My task as a teacher was to get students to read in such a way that they would go through the Mezirow’s transformative phases. To accomplish this, I planned a variety of learning activities that taught them to personalize and then analyze their reactions to the book. In a blog post about teaching controversial materials that I wrote for Object Lessons, I discuss the importance of getting students to recognize the difference between reaction (i.e., an emotional response to a text) and analysis (i.e., critical engagement with it).

Although my ultimate pedagogical goal was most definitely analysis, I taught them that their feelings were an excellent way of finding a way into the text. I encouraged them not to disregard their responses, whether positive or negative, but instead to note the passages that provoked a reaction in them. Their task was then to suspend their judgment and to ask why, and more importantly how, the writing had affected them enough that they noticed it.

Teaching my students to recognize their discomfort and to question the cause of it asked them to turn their attention from the effect of reading to the process of writing. In other words, I taught them to stop identifying with the character and to put themselves in the author’s place instead — a way of reading that many had never encountered before.

The initial discussion in which we moved from reaction to analysis often began with distinguishing one from the other. Helping students realize that their feelings about the book were important, but relative, took them through steps one through three of Mezirow’s hierarchy: I asked them to name and face their feelings, although not with the aim of provoking guilt or shame. I wanted them to realize instead that their reactions were what Mezirow would call “meaning perspectives” — ideas that are “acquired uncritically in the course of childhood through socialization and acculturation.” In other words, their reactions were not analyses. Analysis required them to distance themselves from the text to examine how the author managed to get them to react to it in the first place. Even “boring passages” could be a starting place for a fruitful discussion, since this response often stemmed from a lack of instrumental understanding and could, therefore, be identified as a section that needed further critical reflection.

Small-group work for critical reflection and rational discourse

The next step was guiding students through Mezirow’s processes of recognition, exploration, and planning. I found small group work to be an excellent means of getting students to reflect critically and to engage in rational discourse, steps integral to transformative learning.

I organized the activity by:

  1. Asking students to come up with a list of questions or topics for discussion based on the day’s reading — a task usually assigned in advance as homework. They could start with their reactions, but had to formulate analytical questions that were based on the text.
  2. Putting them into small groups to share their ideas, having them prioritize two or three for discussion, and then talking about them amongst themselves.
  3. Identifying the most salient ideas that emerged from their discussion and organizing these thoughts so that they could be shared with the class as a whole.
  4. Having each group present their work by writing their ideas on the board so that the class could identify commonalities among them and prioritize topics for large-group discussion, which would then take place during a significant portion of the remaining class period.

Sharing their ideas in a small group, without teacherly “interference,” helped students to realize that their “discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that [their peers were] negotiat[ing] a similar exchange.” Although I would sometimes circulate among the small groups, when I did, I played the role of a listener who would interject only occasionally to ensure that students’ ideas were directly tied to the text, so that they did not stray back into the realm of reaction.

Our class-wide discussions provided a chance for what Mezirow describes as the “exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions” (i.e., phase number five). I have always believed strongly in the Socratic method of teaching, which I think of like a tennis game: I lob a ball to the students, ask them to hit it back, and then spin their comment into another question. I always allow students to “break my serve,” meaning that I try never to impose my point of view, particularly if the subject is contentious. Experience has taught me that if students feel you have an ideological agenda, they will resist it. (Refer again to the blog post about teaching controversial topics for more information as to why.) To undergo a truly transformative experience, adults must draw their own conclusions, preferably after engaging in a substantive exchange among themselves.

Acquiring knowledge: Ways to provide information

Despite the fact that students are most engaged when they are active, sometimes there is no substitute for presentation. My students needed background information to understand the social, historical, and literary contexts of the works that they were reading. Lecture is one way to provide this knowledge and, curiously enough, I found that it was most appreciated by graduate students, who wanted me to act like a “sage on the stage” every once in a while, perhaps as a way of maintaining my authority in the classroom — particularly at the start of my career, when I was the same age as many of them.

I resisted lecturing at first, but came to appreciate its efficacy and the chance to say my piece, since I saw my role principally as that of a facilitator. I will not discuss the art of lecturing here, but I will say that even though some people do not think it appropriate in a student-centered classroom, allowing the teacher to talk and asking the students to listen and take notes does have its place in modern pedagogy.

While I usually did provide an introduction to a new topic in the syllabus or to a difficult concept to be addressed in class on a particular day, I still found it most effective to let students do the talking, either by asking them to give an exposé about an assigned topic, or by asking them to prepare a summary of the day’s reading and then to lead the class through it. Ironically, although these were the assignments where the students worked most autonomously, I discovered that the key to a successful student presentation is to give them clear instructions about what it should be composed of and how it should it should be delivered. These oral reports provided the presenters with the opportunity to accomplish steps numbers 7 and 8 of Mezirow’s hierarchy, i.e., the “acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plan” and the “provision of trying new roles.”

Requiring each student to act as a teacher at some point in the semester made them responsible for the topic and encouraged a personal interest in it. Although I did not ask class members to adopt any particular attitude towards the material they were presenting, putting them in the role of lecturer usually made them defenders of the topic, most likely because researching it had made them invest in it personally (even if only in the effort to put forth a cogent argument for a good grade). Their ownership of the material provided them with a natural opportunity to construct an argument that made sense to them.

Reintegration through assessment

To put their ideas into practice and achieve Mezirow’s phase of integration, I asked the students to formulate a convincing argument in the paper or project that I assigned after each section of the course, including the study of French feminism. In the case of Rochefort’s text, I returned to the question with which I had begun the study of the novel, but phrased it less personally: after reminding students that the author considered herself to be a feminist, I asked them to locate feminism in the text. They first needed to define feminism as it was represented by Rochefort and then to explain how she had made a case for it using the narrative voice of the protagonist. The sympathy that most students felt for Céline, which was the reaction that Rochefort intended by the way that she wrote the character, made it easy for most students to leave behind their preconceived notions to engage with the character’s struggles. Asking them to define feminism in their own words, although as represented by Rochefort’s ideas, allowed them to try on the role of feminist without explicitly asking them to do so.

Every time students submitted their papers, I had them summarize their arguments with their peers the same day. This step helped them truly integrate their new perspective into their lives, for it reassured them that they were not alone in their thinking. I usually finished the large-group discussion that followed by asking students how many would consider themselves feminists now, after reading Rochefort’s novel. Most of them would raise their hands, having reformulated and personalized what feminism meant to them through Céline’s story. I want to stress that at no time did I define feminism for them, including when I graded their work. I only remarked on the strength of their arguments and how well they supported them by citing the text.

Although I will admit that I wanted to deepen students’ understanding of the term, ideology was not part of my pedagogical goal. I had confidence that through careful analysis that they would undergo a transformative educational experience, regardless of the exact conclusions that they drew. I was rarely disappointed.


Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students before deciding to focus his career on online learning. His current position as an online learning architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to design courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

    You may also like to read

    Tags: , , , ,