Active and Transformative Learning

Although some people refer to active learning and transformational learning as the same thing, I think we should differentiate…

Active learning [emphasis added] is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing… The core elements of active learning are student activity and engagement in the learning process. Active learning is often contrasted to the traditional lecture where students passively receive information from the instructor (Prince, 2004, p. 1). Active learning helps students apply and transfer knowledge from one situation to another – allowing them to move to a ‘what if’ level of understanding. These are higher-level skills in Bloom’s taxonomies.

Transformative learning, on the other hand, changes the way students think about the knowledge. Mezirow defines transformative learning as “the process of effecting change in a frame of reference” (1997, p. 5). Like active learning, transformative learning involves students in actively thinking about the subject and how a particular concept fits within other concepts. However, transformative learning challenges students’ schema and, possibly, their epistemological beliefs. While some people define transformative learning as learning that involves deep learning, others define it as learning targeted at major changes in a student’s worldview. For example, Simsek (2012, p. 3341)  defines transformative learning as “the kind of learning that results in a fundamental change in our worldview as a consequence of shifting from mindless or unquestioning acceptance of available information to reflective and conscious learning experiences that bring about true emancipation.”

Some of my thoughts

Having thought about transformative learning over the last 30-some years, I have come to some tentative conclusions:

  1. Perhaps we should think of active learning as a series of methods and techniques and transformative learning as goals or outcomes.
  2. Active learning is something that happens inside the student (perhaps as a result of a discussion, case study, experiment, etc.). While we can incorporate active learning techniques, we cannot force students to learn more deeply.
  3. Active learning may result in the student understanding and applying information in new ways, but these may not challenge their current schema. While all transformative learning is active, not all active learning is transformative.
  4. Transformative learning may not be a massively huge personal change, although sometimes it is. I think that there are levels of transformative learning. I have defined these based on what level of impact they may have:
SubjectOther subjectsMyselfMy world-view
An understanding that changes how I view an aspect of a subject.An understanding that changes how I see other subjects.An understanding that shows me something about my beliefs about myself.An understanding that changes how I see others and the world.
History is written by the winners.

Knowles adult learning theories can often be applied to children.
The periodic table is arranged in order of increasing protons.

The minimalization of the history of Black contributions to the arts has led to a misunderstanding of how rock music has evolved.

Newton invented calculus to help describe motion.
White supremacy has historically impacted me as a white woman, both positively and negatively.

My culture has influenced my choice to become a teacher.
Other countries are more concerned about the environment than mine is.

Democracy is not the same as capitalism.

My culture of individualism influences my ability to understand Chinese students.

Transformative learning may involve the affective and psychomotor taxonomies

When identifying transformative outcomes for your courses, consider how the transformation may impact the cognitive, psychomotor, and affective taxonomies.

More challenging concepts may require significant affective changes in students, for example understanding and appreciating cultures which focus on societal success rather than individual success (link to info on the affective taxonomy). On the affective scale, students must at least value other people’s opinions and ideas to accept knowledge that shifts their mental schema.

Transformative learning might also involve the psychomotor taxonomy (link to info on the psychomotor taxonomy). For example:

  • An athlete might try a new position for throwing a ball and have a new understanding of how the body works.
  • A nurse might be instructed on a new tool for taking blood pressure which may spark better understanding of how blood pressure works in the body.
  • An engineer tries a new combination of components that provides an unexpected result (like post-it glue).

Closing thoughts

If you are interested in identifying transformative outcomes for your course, you may want to look at the sources I mention here (link to Identifying Transformative Outcomes For Your Course).

And if you do have outcomes that may trouble some students, consider how you can help students through the transformation process (see Helping Students Through Their Transformations)

I would really appreciate hearing your thoughts about this.


Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997(74), 5–12.

Prince, M. (2004). Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223–231.

Simsek, A. (2012). Transformational Learning. In N. M. Seel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning (pp. 3341–3344). Springer US.

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