Transformational/Experiential Learning via International Study Tours
for Adult and Non-Traditional Learners
This study builds upon previous research that aimed to establish a connection between international study tours (as a means of experiential learning) and transformational learning for adult learners. The original study was conducted by M.Ed. candidate Susan Hanny and Dr. Lori Risley. The exploratory study was conducted using both qualitative and quantitative research methods during a week-long study tour to Venice and Padua. Italy for students at the University of Central Oklahoma during the spring of 2018. Qualitative research was conducted via field observations while on location in Italy and the quantitative research was employed by giving the participants pre-trip and post-trip surveys.
The current research aims to serve as ongoing evidence for the authentication that study tours for adult learners are transformational and can aide in meeting the learning needs of this demographic of student. A quantitative research design was used to gather data through a survey administered to students who had enrolled in an international study tour at the University of Central Oklahoma in the past seven years. This study is also intended to inform providers at postsecondary institutions what types of learning experiences adult learners are seeking so they can better meet the needs/wants of the underserved population of their student body.
Keywords: Transformative, Transformational Learning, Experiential Learning, Adult Learner, Non-Traditional Learner
Transformational/Experiential Learning through International Study Tours for Adult and Non-Traditional Learners
Introduction and Background of Research
This research builds upon an exploratory study that aimed to establish a connection between experiential learning via international study tours and transformational learning for adult and non-traditional learners. The current research serves as ongoing evidence in what is intended to be a longitudinal study on how international study tours connect the learning theories of experiential and transformational learning and how this leads to personal transformation for the adult learner demographic of student in postsecondary institutions. This research also examines what types of learning experiences adult and non-traditional students are seeking in order to inform postsecondary institutions how the meet the learning wants and needs of this population of student.
The original study was conducted by M.Ed. candidate Susan Hanny and Dr. Lori Risley using both qualitative (field observations) and quantitative (pre-trip and post-trip surveys) research methods during a week-long study tour to Venice and Padua, Italy for students at the University of Central Oklahoma during the spring of 2018. The study tour was designed to be a course on International leadership in Adult Education and was offered through the Adult Education program. The findings from the original study support the indication that learning experiences that include a combination of these two adult learning theories are probable to lead to the transformation of self within the adult learner. However, there were limitations to the original study as the population of study tour participants that met the demographic of being at least 23 years of age at the time of the tour was small, and only 6 students were able to participate in the study. There were 82 participants that completed the current post-study tour survey and this increase in responses should address those limitations. The independent and dependent variable remained the same throughout both quantitative portions of the two studies and are as follows:
Independent Variable: Age at time of enrollment in an international study tour at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Dependent Variable: Personal Transformation
Adult and non-traditional learners are seeking transformative learning experiences and international study tours provide structured experiential learning opportunities that can lead to meaningful personal transformation. Global travel can serve as a catalyst for personal transformation as it challenges previously constructed assumptions of other cultures as well as help one to gain a global, rather than local, perspective of the world (Steves, 2018, p. 4). Jack Mezirow (2000), one of the founding theorists attributed with developing the adult educational theory of transformative learning, describes transformation as occurring within oneself when there is a change of contextual understandings, previously formulated assumptions, values, or beliefs, brought on by an experience or a change in circumstances (pp. 3-4). Experiential learning has been defined as the process in which knowledge is created through the transformation of experiences (Kolb, 1984). When travel is examined in the context of these two learning theories, both a theoretical and conceptual framework can be used to ascertain a connection between transformation within oneself and experiential learning via international study tours for adult and non-traditional learners.
When synthesizing the connection between transformational and experiential learning as they relate to international study tours, it is imperative to examine the experiential learning theories championed by John Dewey and David Kolb, and the transformative learning theory developed by Jack Mezirow. Dewey (1938), who is credited with being the founding father of the approach later known as experiential learning, recognizes the principles of continuity and interaction as the foundation for his philosophy of experience and education. Continuity infers that all of one’s experiences are carried forward and have an impact on all future experiences, and interaction builds upon the concept of continuity and implies interaction between the learner and what they have learned and how past experience interrelates with the present circumstances to create one’s present experience (Pacho, 2015, p.8). This theory leads to the conclusion that the entirety of a person’s past and present experiences creates their current world view (Hanny and Risley, 2018).
As stated previously, Mezirow (2000) concludes that transformation transpires within oneself when there is a change of contextual understandings, previously formulated assumptions, values, or beliefs, brought on by an experience or a change in circumstances (pp. 3-4). When this idea is contextualized as it relates to international study tours, it becomes quintessentially applicable to personal transformation because according to Mezirow (2000):
“Transformation theory’s focus is on how we learn to negotiate and act on our own purposes, values, feelings, and meanings rather than those we have uncritically assimilated from others – they gain greater control over our lives as socially responsible, clear- thinking decision makers (p. 76).”
In their study on transformative and experiential learning during study abroad programs, Researchers and Strange and Gibson (2014) distinguished that while transformative learning focuses on the change in one’s frames of reference, experiential learning provides direction as to how action-oriented experiences are likely to induce personal transformation. A study by Hanny and Risley (2018) summarized the link between the two theories (ELT and TLT):
“Upon examination of the relationship between one theory and the other, a clear connection between the two educational theories becomes apparent. Experiential learning establishes that experiences lead to how one perceives and interacts with the world, and transformational learning uses those experiences to develop a new way of understanding the world.”
It is crucial that postsecondary institutions conscientiously work to understand the learning wants and needs of this rapidly increasing demographic. Researchers Cruce & Hillman (2011) analyzed data from the 2005 National Household Educational Survey to determine that the global demographic shift of people remaining more physically and mentally active longer will have significant implications for the role of postsecondary institutions playing a vital part in providing lifelong learning opportunities. The demographic shift will also have consequences for the changing configuration of enrollment in postsecondary institutions. The adult learner, who is defined as being 25 years or older, is becoming an increasingly critical population for postsecondary institutions to understand as the landscape of continuing education continues to change at a rapid pace.
According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics by Snyder and Dillow (2015. p. 378), enrollment for students over the age of 25 in degree-granting institutions has been increasing yearly and by 2023, the NCES predicts that the rate of increase for students over 25 will be 20% compared to that of students under 25 is predicted to be 12%. Predictions in enrollment forecast that the makeup of student bodies at colleges and universities will shift from most of the students enrolled being “traditional” students to being “non-traditional” adult students within the next decade. The adult and non-traditional student can no longer take a backseat to the traditional student and postsecondary institutions must learn how to best meet the needs, both academically and personally, of this demographic.
Research has revealed that adult learners are seeking meaningful learning experiences and that they are interested in discovering their role in today’s global community (Talmage, Lacher, Pstross, Burkhart, 2015). Adult learners are also more inclined than traditional learners to participate in learning experiences that expand their worldview, philosophies, and understandings of the universe (Tornstam, 2011; Yenerall, 2003). As enrollment of adult students increases at postsecondary institutions across the United States, it is critical that they understand the learning needs of these students compared to the learning needs of the “traditional” student. It is also important for designers and instructors of experiential learning experiences for adult learners (such as study tours) to take into consideration the unique viewpoints of these students so optimal learning and transformation is achieved. International travel can be a profound method to achieve this and international study tours can be instrumental in providing these types of learning experiences for adult students.
Outcomes from Research:
- Identify how experiential learning experiences such as international study tours help facilitate the transformation of the adult learner.
- Gain an understanding of the types of learning experiences, such as international study tours, that have been found to be impactful to this group of learners (adult and non-traditional).
- Assessment of cultural awareness of international post study tour participation.
- Inform postsecondary educational providers how to best meet the needs of adult and non-traditional students enrolled in their schools.
- Promote a dialogue within the field of adult and lifelong learning about the intrinsic value of transformational/experiential learning experiences for adult learners.
Materials, Procedure, and Participants
The current research aims to strengthen the integrity of the findings from the original study. A quantitative 20 question post-study tour survey instrument originally designed my researcher Susan Hanny was used to gather data for the current research. The survey questions administered were identical to the post-study tour survey questions from the previous exploratory study on transformational learning via international study tours for adult learners conducted by Hanny and Risley in the spring of 2018. Survey questions were formatted using Qualtrics and were emailed to approximately 1,000 students (present and former) from the University of Central Oklahoma who participated in an international study tour while enrolled at UCO during the last seven years. Of the surveys sent, 83 responses were received and 82 (98.78%) of those were completed and submitted. Of the 82 responses, 66 met the required adult and non-traditional learner demographic of 23 years of age at the time of the completion of the post-study tour survey. All survey questions were designed to be reflective of the participant’s involvement in their individual international study tours. The following numeric values were given to the responses using a Likert Scale: 1) Strongly Disagree, 2) Slightly Disagree, 3) Undecided, 4) Slightly Agree, 5) Strongly Agree. The chart below (Figure 1) shows the data from the participant responses.
The data was collected and analyzed so a comparison could be made to look for similarities or differences in how participants responded in both surveys. The research will contribute to the body of knowledge pertaining to the adult and non-traditional learner demographic and their specific learning needs. The goal is to establish a connection between international study tours and transformational learning for adult learners as well as the previously stated learning outcomes.
Results from Quantitative Data
Figure 1: From Current Study
Fig. 1 identifies 7 factors as significant takeaways of adult students based on past enrollment in an International Study Tour (4.5% average or higher, listed in order of highest average to lowest):
1) The study tour was an enriching learning experience for me. (4.93% avg.)
2) The study tour was a learning experience in which I broadened my understanding of the world. (4.8% avg.)
3) The study tour was a transformative learning experience for me. (4.79% avg.)
4) The study tour helped me have an appreciation for cultural diversity. (4.75% avg.)
5) The study tour was an immersive learning experience for me. (4.73% avg.) tied with: Participating in the study tour broadened my worldview (4.73% avg.)
6) The study tour was an important way to learn about the world. (4.72% avg.)
*Below are the results from the exploratory survey (Figure 2) conducted by Hanny and Risley (2018). It is important to include these in the findings because the current research builds upon those findings.
Figure 2: Average Participant Score Post-Trip Survey from Exploratory Study (Hanny and Risley, 2018
Fig. 2 identifies 8 factors as significant takeaways of adult students based on past enrollment in an International Study Tour (4.5% average or higher, listed in order of highest average to lowest):
1) The study tour was a transformative learning experience for me. (4.83% avg.)
2) The study tour was a learning experience in which I broadened my understanding of the world. (4.67% avg.), the study tour was an enriching learning experience (4.67% avg.), the study tour was an important way to learn about the world (4.67% avg.), and the study helped me have an appreciation for cultural diversity (4.67% avg.)
3) By participating in the study tour I was able to meet goals for myself (4.5% avg.) participation in the study tour helped me feel that I am a relevant part of the global community (4.5% avg.), and participating in the study tour broadened my worldview (4.5% avg.).
Discussion of Findings from Post Study Tour Survey Results
The results from the current survey demonstrates that the adult and non-traditional student found that participating in an international study tour was an enriching learning experience for them as well transformational. This supports the connection between experiential learning experiences via international study tours as a method in which transformation of an individual is likely to occur. When compared to the exploratory research results conducted by Hanny and Risley (2018) in Figure 2, these responses present as evidence to strengthen the previous findings in that both surveys share the same top three responses out all survey questions. They do present in a different order, but they are similar in the averages.
The other significant findings from both surveys exhibit the relevancy of international study tours as a means of experiencing cultural appreciation, broadening one’s personal world, and learning about the world.
It is of significant importance to this research to analyze the results and their implications as they relate to the first three intended outcomes that were discussed previously. Listed below are the intended outcomes with supporting evidence discovered from an analysis of current survey results as well as literature reviewed for this study:
1) Identify how experiential learning experiences such as international study tours help facilitate the transformation of the adult learner.
- From Survey Results- Participants reported that they found the study tours they participated in to be transformative learning experiences for them (4.81% avg. form both surveys). They also reported with an average response of 4.70% avg. from both surveys that they found the study tour to be an immersive learning experience.
- From Literature Review- As researchers Strange and Gibson (2017) explained, by nature, international study abroad programs involve experiencing unfamiliar environments and when combined with effective program design, concrete learning is promoted. Adult education theorist Jack Mezirow (2000) explained transformative learning as “learning that transforms problematic frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, reflective, open, and emotionally able to change.” When these two statements are analyzed in context of one another, a connection between study tours and transformative learning leading to personal transformation can be established.
2) Gain an understanding of the types of learning experiences, such as international study tours, that have been found to be impactful to this group of learners (adult and non-traditional).
- From Survey Results- Participants reported by answering either strongly agree or slightly agree that study tours are transformative, immersive, and expanded their world view. These findings show that as a result of participating in an international study tour, adult and non-traditional students found these factors to be significant upon reflection.
- From Literature Review- As discussed previously, a study by Talmage, Lacher, Pstross, and Burkhart (2015) found that adult learners are seeking meaningful learning experiences and that they are interested in discovering their role in today’s global community. To further support the result findings, adult learners are also more inclined than traditional learners to participate in learning experiences that expand their worldview, philosophies, and understandings of the universe (Tornstam, 2011; Yenerall, 2003).
3) Assessment of cultural awareness of international post study tour participation.
- From Survey Results- Four of the top seven significant findings reported by participants demonstrate that issues having to do with expanding their world view, cultural awareness, cultural diversity, and learning about their world are important to adult and non-traditional learners.
- From Literature Review- According to a study on short-term cross-cultural study tours and their impact on cultural intelligence by Wood and Peter (2014), the nature of a structured short-term cross-cultural study tour can initiate the experiential learning process so as to convert the experience to knowledge and, thus, further develop cultural intelligence.
The purpose of the research was to serve as ongoing evidence for the substantiation that study tours for adult and non-traditional learners are transformational and can be a vital instrument in meeting the learning needs of this underserved population in postsecondary institutions. The intrinsic value of these types of learning experiences cannot be ignored as they aide individuals in finding their true authentic selves in order to reach self-actualization (Maslow, 1943), which in-turn leads to an improved sense of life-satisfaction. By theoretically framing the research in the adult educational theories of transformative and experiential learning, and then providing both supporting evidence via an in-depth literature review as well as quantitative data by means of a survey, a connection between experiential learning and transformative learning through international short-term study tours resulting in personal transformation is strongly palpable.
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While short-term study tours within one’s native country may be as impactful study tours in a foreign country for some adult learners, there is much to be said about being immersed in culture much different than your own to help you appreciate cultural diversity and improve your cultural intelligence. The quantitative data from both surveys demonstrate this rates very high upon reflection of their study tour experience. As mentioned previously in this study, research has found that adult learners are seeking learning experiences that help them explore their relevancy in this growing global community (Talmage, Lacher, Pstross, and Burkhart, 2015).
The last two items previously listed as intended outcomes for the current research, point out the future implications for the conclusions of the study. A fundamental goal for this research is to inform postsecondary educational providers how to best meet the needs of adult and non-traditional students enrolled in their schools. The more educated a society is, the better off it will be as a whole. This research from the beginning was intended to be longitudinal over a period of years by administering the identical post-study tour survey questions to adult and non-traditional students enrolled in international study tours in the future. As Hanny and Risley (2018) discussed in their previous research:
“Providers of postsecondary education must offer enriching and transformative learning experiences to aid their students in the journey towards self-actualization, and international study tours are quintessentially relevant.”
Last but not least, it is to promote a dialogue within the field of adult and lifelong learning about the intrinsic value of transformational/experiential learning experiences for adult learners. This goes beyond grades, profits, and collegiate reputations, this is about individuals living their best lives with an overall sense of belonging and happiness, because in the end, that is truly what transformative learning is all about.
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- Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.
- Hanny, S., & Risley, L., (2018), An Italian experience study tour.Excellence and Innovation in Teaching and Learning, 39-51.
- Kolb, D. A. 1984. Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Maslow, A., & Langfeld, H. S. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.
- Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (1st ed., The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Pacho, T.O., (2015). Unpacking John Dewey’s connection to service-learning. Journal of Education and Social Policy. 2(3), 8.
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- Talmage, C. A., Lacher, R. G., Pstross, M., Knopf, R. C., & Burkhart, K. A. (2015). Captivating lifelong learners in the third age: Lessons learned from a university-based institute. Adult Education Quarterly: A Journal of Research and Theory, 65(3), 232-249.
- Tornstam, L. (2011). Maturing into gerotranscendence. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 43, 166-180.
- Yenerall, J.D. (2003). Educating in an aging society: The university of the third age in Finland. Educational Gerontology, 29, 703-716.
- Wood, E., & St. Peters, H. (2014). Short-term cross-cultural study tours: Impact on cultural intelligence. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 25(4), 558-570.