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Wednesday, June 18 • 11:00am - 12:30pm
PSD.39 – Assessing Transformation in a Discipline: One Free-Writing Approach

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How do we know if our students’ thinking is transformed in a meaningful way? My departmental colleagues and I feel confident that our students who major in history learn a great deal about the past. After all, they complete a broad range of courses and pass a rigorous senior assessment that involves doing primary and second source research and developing an original argument that is well-supported by evidence. But we feel less certain about whether they are actually “transformed” in the terms used by O’Sullivan, Morrell, and O’Connor in Expanding the Boundaries of Transformative Learning (xvii): that of experiencing a “deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions…that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world.” 

 The literature about threshold concepts suggests that transformative learning often involves a shift in epistemological understanding, provoking learners to “mov[e] on from their prevailing way of conceptualizing a particular phenomenon to new ways of seeing” (Land, 2011).  Threshold concepts – ones that are transformative, irreversible, foundational and also “troublesome” – differ by discipline. Although faculty in many fields (including history) have been writing and postulating about the specific threshold concepts in their disciplines, hearing from students is crucial. Students can help us identify how their thinking has changed, what impacted them the most, and how they encountered and grappled with transformative ideas and concepts. The method I will share is easily transferrable to other disciplines and quick to administer.

Based on some of the components that scholars have suggested are key to transformative learning, I and two colleagues designed five questions students were asked to free write a response to in multiple classes of our senior seminar undergraduate courses. The students wrote for 4-5 minutes on each prompt, including about how their thinking changed and what prompted it to change. We crafted a couple of other questions to explore issues of identity and identification and whether classes impacted their values and feelings.

I will share the questions we used and some results from the writings of about 40 students. Most of the students explicitly stated that their understanding of "what history is" had indeed changed - from simply a factual description of events to a more critical and interpretive approach that appreciated the evolving nature of the field. They were self-aware about and pleased with the development of their thinking. The questions related to identity provided more varied answers, but sometimes touched upon topics related to race, ethnicity, religion, gender, government policies, and the media.

The goal for this session is to spur discussion about: ways that our disciplines may be “transforming” our students; ways participants have already tried or might try assessing changes in our students’ thinking and/or threshold concepts; and the implications of our findings for pedagogy, advising, and curricular design.


Wednesday June 18, 2014 11:00am - 12:30pm EDT
A236 McArthur Hall

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