Briefing: What is Transformative Learning?

Transformative Learning, sometimes called Transformational Learning (TL), is a conceptual approach to adult learning. It was initially developed by Jack Mezirow (2000) and has subsequently been developed by others. Mezirow says,

A critical dimension of learning in adulthood… [is that it should enable] us to recognize, re-assess and modify the structures of assumptions and expectations that frame our tacit points of view and influence our thinking, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.

Therefore, TL is useful for university academics and students to support the shift into a higher form of education; one that demands that the learner is able to critically assess and develop the beliefs, values and habits of thinking they will have learnt uncritically when younger.

TL allows academics to engage their learners in appropriate and challenging ways. At the same time, it challenges students to adopt graduate-level thinking strategies to achieve success on their course and in life.

Why is Transformative Learning useful to higher education?

TL provides higher educators with a framework that helps students to understand the relevance of, and develop strategies for, ideas such as self-directed, experiential, practical, and applied learning.

It supports the transition of students from being dependent on and acceptant of knowledge delivered by their teacher, to becoming critically engaged, reflective and independent as learners. For example, while our students often expect and demand definitive answers to questions they have about their subject, the development of an independent mind equips a student for engaging with university-level knowledge; knowledge which is often complex, uncertain and inconvenient.

TL recognises the significance of diversity and differentiation in the classroom, and the need to not only teach content, but develop the students’ awareness of their frames of reference and how these can become obstacles to successful learning. Through Mezirow’s 10 stage strategy, TL allows the academic to re-orientate their students so that they are able to challenge their belief systems.

TL encourages students to use critical thinking to check the accuracy of their underlying assumptions and beliefs about the world.

How does Transformative Learning work?

Mezirow offers a 10 Stage process. While it appears to be linear, it can be used recursively so it that accommodates the needs of individual learners.

Mezirow’s 10 Stage process

  1. A disorientating dilemma
  2. Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame
  3. A critical assessment of assumptions
  4. Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation is shared
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and actions
  6. Planning a course of action
  7. Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  8. Provisional trying of new roles
  9. Building 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 new perspective.

Disorientation – The theory targets the adult learner. The first stage intentionally creates a dissonance by identifying a problem or situation through which the learner becomes aware that a belief they may have depended on is no longer viable.

Self-examination – The student’s awareness of a fundamental dissonance in what they believe leads to self-questioning which can be unsettling, possibly inducing anxiety.

Critical assessment – the student may need support from their tutor and their peers to find and apply methods to help them critically reassess their beliefs.

Sharing transformational uncertainty – This support can help the student to realise that they are not alone in questioning what they know, and this can be reassuring.

Exploring options – having critically explored their beliefs, each student needs to form new and viable logics cognisant of the implications they will have for new ways of being, including their own identity, how they work with others, and what they do.

Committing to a course of action – the student must plan to enact they what they have learnt in a social context ensuring that the nature of their relationships (e.g. with peers, tutors, clients, etc) reflects what they now believe.

Preparing to act and provisional testing of knowledge – the student must think through the implications of their transformed thinking so that they can confidently enact their plan. This can be achieved by looking at, developing, and analysing problems or scenarios for example. Preparation and rehearsal allow the student to identify gaps in their knowledge and understanding, and to safely develop these areas.

Confidence and fluency – student self-efficacy comes from engaging with opportunities to apply knowledge and enact beliefs in response to different and unpredictable situations.

Reintegration of knowledge – the final stage of transformation comes through the reintegration of beliefs evident in new disciplinary or professional habits. The student is aware of their transformation and readily applies their new knowledge and ways of thinking logically to new challenges. The student has ‘become’ (Wilcock, 1998).

Continued transformation

TL may help many course designers to reconceive student transition into university creating a way to develop student expectations for learning. However, it may be more useful to understand how the introduction of TL establishes a new and higher level engagement with learning. The use of dissonance as a basis for learning is at the heart of many pedagogies underpinning higher education pedagogy.

TL interventions cannot be viewed in isolation. A new sense of identity and new mental models lead to further dissonance. Through TL, the student not only learns new factual, procedural and conceptual knowledge but, significantly, develops their metacognitive knowledge. They are able to critically evaluate other things they believe and habitually question what they know.

Transformative Learning in practice

Mezirow’s framework is both logical and abstract in nature. Its application to teaching and learning in higher education requires the incorporation of student-centred methods in which the development of each student’s metacognitive knowledge (what they know about themselves and how they learn) builds their capacity to critically develop other forms of knowledge and ways of thinking.

TL, therefore, relates to ideas such as enquiry, problem and scenario-based learning in which the student is supported in a social context to apply and critically assess what they know with peers.


Cranston,  P. (2006). Understanding and promoting transformative learning. Jossey-Bass.

Cutchin, M.P., Aldrich, R.M., Bailliard, A.L., & Coppola S. (2008). Action theories for occupational science: The contributions of Dewey and Bourdieu. Journal of Occupational Science, 15(3), 157–165.

Merrimack,  S. B. (2004). The role of cognitive development in Mezirow’s transformational learning theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 55(1), November 2004, 60-68.

Mezirow’s,  J. & Associates (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress. Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow’s,  J., Taylor, E. & Associates (2009). Transformative learning in practice: insights form community, workplace and higher education. Jossey-Bass.

Wilcock A. (1998). International perspective internationale: Reflections on doing, being and becoming. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65(5), 248–256.

This page is part of the Transformative Learning Toolkit in the Learner Engagement Teaching Essentials site

This briefing was produced by Andrew Middleton, Head of Academic Practice & Learning Innovation, LEAD
February 2018


This page is part of the Transformative Learning Toolkit in the Learner Engagement Teaching Essentials site