Tag Archives: transformative experience

Learning together across courses — our iSSOTL presentation

Last week, Kjersti Daae and I gave a virtual presentation at the iSSOTL conference, and here is a short summary.

We presented an ongoing teaching innovation project, funded by Olsen legat and conducted together with Jakob Skavang, Elin Darelius and Camille Li, that we started last year at the Geophysical Institute in Bergen: Bringing together third semester and fifth semester students to do tank experiments.

In our presentation, we touched on the literature inspiring the design of the teaching project, the study we have conducted, and then our results and conclusions.

Our main goal was to change the way students look at the world around them, by giving them a new perspective on things. A framework that describes this well are “transformative experiences” that I wrote about in more detail here.

Transformative experiences are awesome, because they trap you in a feedback loop: Once you have changed the way you look at the world and notice new things, this feels good and makes life more fun. Therefore you continue doing it voluntarily, noticing more cool things in a new way, feeling happier about it, and so on and so on.

One example of a transformative experience happening was described by Dario after we did some kitchen oceanography (more on that here).

But we don’t want people to go through the transformative experience alone, we want them to do it in a community of practice to support one another and create even more of a feedback. In our case, the community are our students at the Geophysical Institute, who share the interest in dynamics of the atmosphere and ocean and learn more about them by having shared experiences and discussions that they can refer back to.

The topic we wanted to address in our course and make the central topic of this community of practice is the influence of rotation on movement in the atmosphere and ocean. This is the central concept of geophysical fluid dynamics, but it is difficult to grasp because the scales in question are so large that they are difficult to directly observe, and the mathematical descriptions are difficult and unintuitive.

And here is where we invited the audience to become part of the very first steps in that teaching project.

We start out by making sure everybody has a good grasp of what happens in a non-rotating frame so we can later contrast the rotating case to something we know for sure people have seen before (we used to assume that people had a good grasp of what happens in non-rotating fluids, but this turns out to be very much not the case).

At this point in our demonstration, Kjersti showed a live demonstration! (And I was so fascinated that I forgot to take a screenshot)

Once we have established what pouring a denser fluid into a lighter fluid looks like in a non-rotating case, it is time to move on to a rotating case. Considering rotation when we talk about flows on the rotating Earth (in the atmosphere or ocean) needs to consider that the Earth has been spinning for a very long time. We can simulate that by rotating a bucket of water (which needs to rotate for a much shorter period of time because it is much smaller).

When we drip colour into a rotating bucket full of water, the way the colour distributes itself looks very different from what it looked like earlier in the non-rotating case. We now get columns of dye rather than the mushroom-like features.

These experiments are not difficult in themselves, but we wanted students to not just follow cookbook-style instructions, but to actively engage and discuss what they observe.

Therefore, we brought students in their third semester together with students in their fifth semester, who had done the same experiments in the previous year.

The idea was that the third semester students would receive guidance by the older students, and would be able to discuss hypotheses and make sense of their observations together. The presence of the fifth semester students would help them be less stressed about potentially making mistakes and help the labs run a lot smoother.

The fifth semester students had done the experiments in the previous year. We prepared them for their role (you don’t need to know all the answers! In fact, you are not supposed to even answer their questions. Help them figuring it out themselves by asking questions like “…”) and went through the experiments with them to refresh their memory and also talk about how they were understanding and seeing things differently now that they had another year of education under the belt compared to when they first saw the experiments.

And then for us: Distributing and sharing responsibility for learning is something we have been interested in for a while now (see blog post on co-creation here for more information). Having students so engaged in sense-making through discussions gave us a great opportunity to eaves-drop on their arguments and get a much better understanding of what they are thinking and which points we should address in more detail later.

In order to understand how this setup worked for the students, we collected several types of data: We had questionnaires aimed at the third semester students (testing specific learning outcomes, but also on their observations of roles and interactions, and interpretations of the situation) and fifth semester students (on observations of roles and interactions, and interpretations of the situation, and how they would compare the experience as “guide” to that the previous year). We instructors also took notes and reflected on our observations.

So what did we find?

The third semester students all perceived the presence of the older students as very positive and described the interactions the way we had hoped — that they weren’t being fed the answers, but asked questions that help them find answers themselves.

From the fifth semester students, we also got a very positive response. They especially focussed on how they had to think about what makes a good question or good instruction, and that that helped them reflect on their own learning. They also pointed out that the experience showed them how much they had learned during the last year, which they had not been aware of before.

They also really enjoyed the experience of being a teacher and interacting in that role.

Also looking at learning outcomes, we found that the third year students learned a lot more as compared to last year’s third year students (which is a bit of an unfair comparison since last year was dominated by covid-19 restrictions, but still that is the only data we have that we can compare to). Specifically, the misconception that “the centre of the tank is the (North) Pole” seems to have been eradicated this year (we’ll see if that holds over time).

One thing we noted and that students also pointed out as very helpful is that conversations did not just deal with the experiment itself, but that the younger students asked a lot of questions about other experiences that the older students had made already, like for example the upcoming student cruise. We had hoped that this would happen, and that these kind of conversations would continue beyond these lessons!

So this is where we ended our presentation and hoped to discuss a couple of questions with the audience. If you have any input, we would love to hear from you, too!

Why should students want engage in something that changes their identity as well as their view of themselves in relation to friends and family?

Another iEarth Teaching Conversation with Kjersti Daae and Torgny Roxå, summarized by Mirjam Glessmer

“Transformative experiences” (Pugh et al., 2010) are those experiences that change the way a person looks at the world, so that they henceforth voluntarily engage in a new-to-them practice of sensemaking on this new topic, and perceive it as valuable. There are methods to facilitate transformative experiences for teaching purposes (Pugh et al., 2010), and discovering this felt like the theoretical framework I had been looking for for #WaveWatching just fell into my lap. But then Torgny asked the question in the title above. For many academics, seeing the world through new eyes, being asked questions they haven’t asked themselves before, discovering gaps in their argumentations, surrendering to a situation (Pugh 2011), engaging in sensemaking (Odden and Russ, 2019), being part of a community of practice (Wenger, 2011) is fun. Not in all contexts and on all topics, of course, but at least in many contexts. But can we assume it’s the same for students?

In order to feel that you want to take on a challenge in which you don’t know whether or not you’ll succeed, a crucial condition is that you believe that your intelligence and your skills can be developed (Dweck, 2015). A growth mindset can be cultivated by the kind of feedback we give students (Dweck, 2015). The scaffolding (Wood et al., 1976) we provide, and the opportunities for creating artefacts as tangible proof of learning* can support this. But how do we get students to engage in the first place?

One approach, the success of which I have anecdotal evidence for, could be to use surprising gimmicks like a DIY fortune teller or a paper clip to be shaped into a spinning top to raise intrigue, if not for the topic itself right away, then for something that will later be related to the topic, hoping that the engagement with the object can be transferred to the topic.

Another approach, which also aligns with my personal experience, might be to let students experience the relevance of a situation vicariously, infecting students with the teacher’s enthusiasm for a topic (Hodgson, 2005). However, Torgny raised the point that sometimes the (overly?) enthusiastic teacher themselves could become the subject of student fascination, thus diverting attention from the topic they wanted the students to engage with.

A third way might be to point out alignment of tasks with the students’ own goals & identities. Growth mindset interventions can increase domain-specific desire to learn (Burette et al., 2020), identity interventions increase the likelihood of engagement, for example targeting physics identity (Wulff et al., 2018). Goal-setting intervention can improve academic performance (Morisano et al., 2010).

I want to relate these three ideas to feelings of competence, relatedness and autonomy, which are the three basic requirements for intrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017), but I am sadly out of space. But I think that self-determination theory is a useful lens to keep in mind when developing teaching.


  • Burnette, J. L., Hoyt, C. L., Russell, V. M., Lawson, B., Dweck, C. S., & Finkel, E. (2020). A growth mind-set intervention improves interest but not academic performance in the field of computer science. Social Psychological and Personality Science11(1), 107-116.
  • Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week35(5), 20-24.
  • Hodgson, V. 2005. Lectures and the experience or relevance. In Experience of learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education, F. Marton, D. Hounsell, and N. Entwistle, vol. 3, 159–71. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment
  • Odden, T. O. B., & Russ, R. S. (2019). Defining sensemaking: Bringing clarity to a fragmented theoretical construct. Science Education103(1), 187-205.
  • Morisano, D., Hirsh, J. B., Peterson, J. B., Pihl, R. O., & Shore, B. M. (2010). Setting, elaborating, and reflecting on personal goals improves academic performance.Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018478
  • Pugh, K. J., Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Koskey, K. L., Stewart, V. C., & Manzey, C. (2010). Teaching for transformative experiences and conceptual change: A case study and evaluation of a high school biology teacher’s experience. Cognition and Instruction28(3), 273-316.
  • Pugh, K. J. (2011). Transformative experience: An integrative construct in the spirit of Deweyan pragmatism. Educational Psychologist46(2), 107-121.
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford
  • Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.
  • Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry17(2), 89-100.
  • Wulff, P., Hazari, Z., Petersen, S., & Neumann, K. (2018). Engaging young women in physics: An intervention to support young women’s physics identity development. Physical Review Physics Education Research14(2), 020113.

*Very nice example by Kjersti: Presenting students (or fathers-in-laws) with a few simple ideas about rotating fluid dynamics enables them to combine the ideas to draw a schematic of the Hadley cell circulation. Which is a lot more engaging and satisfying that being presented with a schematic and someone talking you through it. If you are willing to surrender to the experience in the first place…

#WaveWatching as “transformative experience”? (Based on articles by Pugh et al. 2019, 2011, 2010)

I was reading an article on “active learning” by Lombardi et al. (2021), when the sentence “In undergraduate geoscience, Pugh et al. (2019) found that students who made observations of the world and recognized how they might be explained by concepts from their classes were more likely to stay in their major than those who do not report this experience” jumped at me. Something about observing the world and connecting it to ideas from class was so intriguing, that I had to go down that rabbit hole and see where this statement was coming from, and if it might help me as a theoretical framework for thinking about #WaveWatching (which I’ve been thinking about a lot since the recent teaching conversation).

Going into that Pugh et al. (2019) article, I learned about a concept called “transformative experience”, which I followed back to Pugh (2011): A transformative experience happens when students see the world with new eyes, because they start connecting concepts from class with their real everyday lives. There is quote at the beginning of that article which reminds me very much of what people say about wave watching (except that in the quote the person talks about clouds): that once they’ve started seeing pattern because they understood that what they look at isn’t chaotic but can be explained, they cannot go back to just looking at the beauty of it without questioning why it came to be that way. They now feel the urge to make sense of the pattern they see, everytime they come across anything related to the topic.

This is described as the three characteristics of transformative experiences:

  • they are done voluntarily out of intrinsic motivation (meaning that the application of class concepts is not required by the teacher or some other authority),
  • they expand peception (when the world is now seen through the subject’s lens and looks different than before), and
  • they have experiential value (meaning the person experiencing them perceives them as adding value to their lives).

And it turns out that facilitating such transformative experiences might well be what distinguishes schools with higher student retention from those with lower student retention in Pugh et al.’s 2019 study!

But how can we, as teachers, facilitate transformative experiences? Going another article further down the rabbit hole to Pugh et al. (2010), this is how!

The “Teaching for Transformative Experiences” model consists of three methods acting together:

  • framing content in a way that the “experiential value” becomes clear, meaning making an effort to explain the value that perceiving the world in such a way adds to our lives. This can be done by expressing the feelings it evokes or usefulness that it adds. For #WaveWatching, I talk about how much I enjoy the process, but also how making sense of an aspect of the world that first seemed chaotic is both satisfying and calming to me. But framing in terms of the value of the experience can also be done by metaphors, for example about the tales that rocks, trees, or coastlines could tell. Similarly, when I speak about “kitchen oceanography”, I hope that it raises curiosity about how we can learn about the ocean in a kitchen.
  • scaffolding how students look at the world by helping them change lenses step by step, i.e. “re-seeing”, for example by pointing out specific features, observing them together, talking through observations or providing opportunities to share and discuss observations (so pretty much my #WaveWatching process!).
  • modeling transformative experiences, i.e. sharing what and how we perceive our own transformative experiences, in order to show students that it’s both acceptable and desirable to see the world in a certain way, and communicate about it. I do this both in person as well as whenever I post about #WaveWatching online.

So it seems that I have been creating transformative experiences with #WaveWatching all this time without knowing it! Or at least that this framework works really well to describe the main features of #WaveWatching.

Obviously I have only just scratched the literature on transforming experiences, but I have a whole bunch of articles open on my desktop already, about case studies of facilitating transformative experiences in teaching. And I cannot wait to dig in and find out what I can learn from that research and apply it to improve #WaveWatching! :)

Lombardi, D., Shipley, T. F., & Astronomy Team, Biology Team, Chemistry Team, Engineering Team, Geography Team, Geoscience Team, and Physics Team. (2021). The curious construct of active learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 22(1), 8-43.

Pugh, K. J., Phillips, M. M., Sexton, J. M., Bergstrom, C. M., & Riggs, E. M. (2019). A quantitative investigation of geoscience departmental factors associated with the recruitment and retention of female students. Journal of Geoscience Education, 67(3), 266-284.

Pugh, K. J. (2011). Transformative experience: An integrative construct in the spirit of Deweyan pragmatism. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 107-121.

Pugh, K. J., Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Koskey, K. L., Stewart, V. C., & Manzey, C. (2010). Teaching for transformative experiences and conceptual change: A case study and evaluation of a high school biology teacher’s experience. Cognition and Instruction, 28(3), 273-316.