Using Transformative Experience to Facilitate Authentic Connection in Higher Education

19 Nov 2021 3:51 PM | Anonymous

Jacqueline A. Goldman

Oregon State University

One of the best components of the psychology major is its ability to be applied to many other fields and occupations (Gurung et al., 2016) but also its ease of self-reference of material (Dunn et al., 2010). Even though we as educators in this field find this to be obvious, it seems that many of our students struggle seeing the personal and meaningful connections of psychology course material. This lack of meaningful connection or utility value being especially prominent in statistics, research methods, and other high-level courses (Sizemore & Lewandowski, 2009). When many of our psychology majors do not have intentions of going to graduate school in the psychology field, these courses can feel even less relevant for our students (Conroy et al., 2019). At first this may not seem like an issue, as you do not necessarily need to find personal relevance in every piece of content that is learned, but we do know that helping students to find connection in meaningful ways to course content can help them better retain material in the long term (Heddy & Sinatra, 2017; Pugh, 2004) which is arguably the goal in any course. Given Psychology’s self-relevance, it seems that relating course content to students’ every day experiences would be almost second nature, but for many students this does not occur spontaneously (Vansteenkiste et al., 2018). One way we can encourage and facilitate meaningful and personal connection to course content is through a construct called Transformative Experience (TE).

The development of the transformative experience framework came from research by Pugh (2002) who based the construct on John Dewey’s work on learning and aesthetics. Research by Pugh (2011) combined various components of transfer (applying learning to a new task in a new context; Marini & Genereux, 1995), conceptual change (a cognitive reconstruction of knowledge; Dole & Sinatra, 1998), and task value (a students’ belief of the degree to which an academic task is worth pursuing, Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Thus, a transformative experience, refers to using course content in an everyday experience to see and value the world in new ways (Wong et al., 2001). Within the construct of TE, there are three pieces that need to occur for a true transformative experience to have happened: motivated use, expansion of perception, and experiential value. In essence: students apply concepts to their everyday experience, that then changes the way they see that concept/phenomenon, they then value that concept for its ability to influence their experience, and as a result, their everyday experience is enhanced (for a review see: Pugh, 2011). So, what might that look like in a course setting?

A Demonstration

Let’s look at an example of a student who has a transformative experience with the construct of positive reinforcement within operant conditioning. Motivated use, in this case, refers to the application of course content into a context where it is not required, similar to transfer but without prompting. An example of this would be a student using positive reinforcement to understand why giving their dog a reward for going potty outside increases that behavior. Expansion of perception focuses on the change in that person’s perception or existing schemas being altered by the concept/construct. In this example, our student who used their knowledge of positive reinforcement (giving a reward to increase behavior) to perceive rewarding their dog in terms of the effects of the reinforcement. Before, the student may have given rewards to their dog (or withheld them) without much consideration because they were not aware of the impact on behavior. Now this student sees this everyday even through a different lens because of the course content. Finally, experiential value is the value perceived due to the direct consequence of their motivated use of the construct or content. Back to our example of our student now seeing rewards through the lens of positive reinforcement, they now experience and value their world in new ways due to their experience of using course content in their everyday life. They now are more efficiently potty training their dog and that is valuable because they can increase desired behavior. This entire experience of motivated use, expansion of perception, and experiential value are the necessary components of a transformative experience. The question now becomes, how do we create these opportunities in our classes?


Applying TE in the Classroom

First, I like to lead with the research that demonstrates the advantages of TE. Although its construct creation is still relatively new, the findings associated with facilitating TEs in classroom environments (both K12 and higher ed) have demonstrated clear benefits (Heddy & Sinatra, 2017; Heddy et al., 2017; Pugh et al., 2010). Previous research in STEM courses found that engagement in TE was related to increased interest and perceived instrumentality (Pugh et al., 2017); TE engagement generated positive affect and interest in social studies education (Alongi et al., 2016); and contributed to scientific conceptual change and academic achievement (Heddy & Sinatra, 2013). Several methods have emerged regarding how to elicit TE within classrooms. I will discuss the most common methods: the Teaching for Transformative Experience in Science (TTES) model and the Use Change Value (UCV) discussions. Both methods are effective but have varying amounts of educator and class time requirements. In a perfect world we would use the most successful interventions in our courses, but as educators we must balance what is feasible and what is effective given class time restrictions.


The TTES model was developed in 2010 by Pugh and colleagues and has ample evidence of having been effective in inspiring TE within classroom settings (Alongi et al., 2016; Heddy et al., 2017). This model includes three general components: framing the content in terms of its experiential value, scaffolding re-seeing, and modeling transformative experiences. These components are to be modeled by the instructor and are to be conducted during class time. 

Framing the content is specifically having the instructor refer to content in terms of its value and ability to enrich everyday experience. This can be done through discussing the immediate usefulness of the content in everyday life, or simply conveying the purpose of learning this content to enrich daily experience. This can be in terms of their immediate experience (using positive reinforcement to increase desired behavior) or even in reflecting on previous experiences. 

Scaffolding re-seeing refers to going beyond your current perception of everyday events and objects and seeing them through the lens of a new construct or idea. By scaffolding re-seeing, the instructor is providing structure and effort to help students perceive everyday objects in their own experiences through the lens of the course content. For instance, using classical conditioning to discuss why we might respond to hearing a text message ‘ding’ in public, when it’s not our own phone. By providing these examples and coaching their re-seeing, you can then have students share examples of their own re-seeing of everyday objects and events and give feedback to guide their experiences.

Finally, modeling of transformative experience is just as simple as it sounds. Within class, take the opportunity to share your own personal experiences of TE and how you have applied curricular content in your own everyday life and how you have used it to re-see the world. This should also include expressions of how this has led to a developed interest and experiential valuing of the content. Although this model has been adapted into various courses and contexts with benefits of increased conceptual change, and higher levels of TE (Alongi et al., 2016; Heddy & Sinatra, 2013) it does require extensive class time use as well as hands on scaffolding and feedback from the instructor which is a major shortcoming.

UCV Discussions

Noticing the need for a TE intervention that took up less course time, but still allowed for scaffolding of student TEs research by Heddy et al., (2017) developed a small group discussion format called Use Change and Value discussions. The UCV acronym aligns with the three components of TE (Use – motivated use, Change – expansion of perception, and Value – experiential value) and most of the work happens outside of the classroom with less peer and instructor feedback than with the TTES model. Originally the UCV discussions had students keep journals where they wrote out responses to the UCV prompts:  1) Discuss how you saw an example of course content in your everyday life (Use) 2) Discuss how seeing that content in your real-life experience has changed how you see that topic (Change) 3) Discuss why that experience was/is valuable to you (Value). Students would then bring these experiences back to the classroom and would take some class time to share their TEs with their peers and instructors to receive feedback and scaffolding. These discussions took a fraction of the time that the TTES model did and allowed for peer feedback on their experiences as well. Research using this format had been successful in facilitating higher levels of TE, interest, and academic performance compared to students who did not use UCV discussions (Heddy et al., 2017). Since previous research has also demonstrated a positive connection between TE and task values such as intrinsic, utility, and attainment value (Goldman et al., 2021) it seems no surprise that engagement in TE can be beneficial beyond just engagement.

Further, UCV discussions can be formatted in a journal/weekly discussion format to have students continually be thinking about how the content is related to their own experiences and how events in their own life can be explained through course constructs. This method may be more appropriate for online courses, adding an additional benefit of allowing students to provide examples from their own lives. This can bring a further connection to the course through autonomy of choosing what to write about as well as relatedness in sharing personal experiences, which can be an obstacle in online courses. 


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