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Leading Academic Innovation | How to Capture Transformative Learning from UCO’s Jeff King

Jeff King is the Director of the University of Central Oklahoma’s (UCO) Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching and Learning. We first met Jeff at the Inaugural Leading Academic Change Summit, and have stayed in touch with him over recent months particularly due to his exciting work with STLR (Student Transformative Learning Record) – a program to evaluate and recognize co-curricular and “transformative” learning campus-wide.


The Program’s Beginnings

To date, 31 faculty and 2,654 students at UCO have engaged with a bold program to capture and measure “transformative learning” in and beyond the classroom. They’ve just broken ground on a brand new living and learning community that quite literally and physically embodies some aspects of the program, and in fall 2014 received a Title III grant to fund the program over five years.

The program, embodied by the Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR), captures and measures student transformative learning experiences through in-class assignments, student affairs events, co- and extra-curricular activites, all of which are connected to one or more of the programs six tenets and are assessed using a campus-wide STLR rubric. The program appears to have won broad acceptance and adoption in a very short time. Learn more about how it works.


But to understand the program’s successful beginnings, you must first understand how the stars aligned to make it possible. In the 2006-2007 school year, the University of Central Oklahoma added the phrase “transformative learning” to its mission statement. As Jeff describes,

“A decision was made to use ‘transformative learning’ in how we will prepare students for lifelong, life-wide learning. It was a decision to formalize what had already been popping up grassroots — think service learning, study abroad, several other initiatives — in ways of educating and engaging students in expanding their learning.”


There was a good response to this addition, even from their regional accreditor. But during a fall 2012 site visit, their accreditor implored, “This is all well and good, but now how are you assessing ‘transformative learning’?” UCO had to formalize the assessment of “transformative learning” in order to prove they were fulfilling their mission statement.

STLR UCO Student Transformative Learning Record University of Central Oklahoma
Student view of STLR dashboard

In a way, UCO’s process of formalizing and measuring this “transformative” co- and extra-curricular learning happened in much the opposite way that many other institutions who want to integrate alternative credentials, badges and other non-credit hour based proof of competency into their curriculum have to go about it. That is, while most other institutions must experiment and pilot these alternative credentials and then present them to their accrediting bodies for approval, UCO had the opposite experience. This is the first in a set of circumstances that accelerated UCO’s progress.

Another is that in anticipation of a Title III grant application in 2012, UCO committed to developing a full “transformative learning” program whether they received the grant or not. UCO didn’t receive the grant they first two years they submitted it, but kept laying the groundwork for what would become the Student Transformative Learning Record program (STLR, pronounced “stellar”). Finally, in fall 2014, UCO won the Title III grant and continued to implement STLR full force.

These three somewhat rare factors – a formalized mission statement including the phrase “transformative learning”, an accrediting body demanding proof and measurement of this transformative learning, and significant Title III grant funding – have led UCO to develop an impressive model for what engaging students in, measuring, and credentialing co- and extra-curricular learning could look like, the full details of which can be found here. Of course, our goal is not to paint a picture of what can only be achieved with the most ideal circumstances, but rather to tease out what aspects of Jeff’s work with STLR might be meaningful or applicable to others interested in this type of work. Jeff has insight to share that can apply to even the most grassroots effort around these alternative credentials; we’d be remiss to not share it simply because the breadth of STLR might seem impossible in most other universities’ current contexts.

Today we’re hoping to draw out from Jeff some insight into things like gaining faculty trust and buy-in, engaging students in the program, and engaging departments across the campus. I sat down with Jeff to talk about getting STLR off the ground, some of the program’s more unique aspects, and lessons he’s learned along the way that might help other colleges looking to build or expand their capacity to capture co-curricular learning.


Faculty Buy-in

Faculty, of course, are the main implementers of STLR and are critical to its success. Participating professors (STLR is currently optional for faculty) must align one course assignment to one of the six STLR tenets.  Each professor has the freedom to choose the tenet with which to align her course assignment, and she then has to evaluate and award each student a level of mastery in that tenet based on a campus-wide rubric. In a way, UCO faculty were primed for STLR adoption because of the formal commitment the university had already made to “transformative learning”, but they’ve still hit all the same challenges that any university would in terms of actually getting STLR off the ground and securing faculty buy-in and participation. Jeff King shares the strategies he used at UCO for this very purpose:

UCO STLR six tenets badges
The six transformative learning tenets

“From the get go, we have been very sensitive about faculty load. We did not want to create anything that faculty perceive as adding to their load. Here are some strategies we used:


1. First line of defense: How we frame the message is extremely important for both faculty and advisers (advisers can be worried about having to help students with another thing they have to do or achieve before graduation). So we framed it as, ‘What we want this to do is to help you achieve what you are already wanting to achieve in your course’, instead of, ‘This is another assessment.’ We’ve succeeded to the level we have because of the very definition of “transformative learning”:


Transformative Learning develops beyond-disciplinary skills and expands students’ perspectives of their relationships with self, others, community and environment.


There’s really not anyone who can argue with the fact that that’s what we want college students to have. It’s hard to argue against it. Defining and framing it that way meant that we could go to faculty and say ‘This is the business that you’re about, so we have devised a way to minimize your work and maximize ‘How well am I doing this?’”


We also tell professors, “We are not requiring an additional assignment, we’re just going to provide a training to help you adapt your existing assignments to connect to one of the tenets.”

2. For very resistant professors (long-term), long time uninterested faculty, student transformative learning projects are very helpful for gaining buy-in. One example is of a student who was already working on creativity as a skill, who engaged her previously unengaged professor in STLR, and that was the first her professor has shown any interest in the program.

Additionally, if faculty are resistant, at some point in the future, students will have the opportunity to know that, and may opt out of taking that section of the course in favor of one that is part of STLR. Again, the messaging is ‘It’s helping you do what you want to do and it’s helping you assess that, and nothing is taken out of your control.’


3. Some departments have decided to adapt a common tenet because that’s the way the department is set up, which is fine! That’s totally their business. All we’re saying is, at the end of the grant period, at least one assignment connected to at least one tenet.


Other notes on gaining faculty buy-in: the time it takes to assess one student using the STLR rubric is getting better. Faculty is saying it’s really not that much. They first grade as they would normally, then pull up the STLR rubric, and make their assessment in our LMS. Professors say it takes only about a minute. And we have seen good reliability on the use of the STLR rubrics. We’ll also soon have faculty training other faculty, which is important for faculty to take ownership over the program.”

Unexpected Co-champions

During the course of our interview, I asked Jeff King if he has discovered any unexpected or unique co-champions. I’m always interested in asking academic change-makers this question because it has such potential to reinvigorate the buy-in strategies of others working in higher ed innovation. His response:

“My immediate reaction is Athletics! “Leadership” is one of the STLR tenets, so there are clear examples of that on sports teams, and the athletic department has gotten on board with assessing that for its participating students. STLR has been expanding faster and with less resistance than they expected.

Another is the HR department. One way students can gain STLR credit is through internships. The HR department loves the idea of students who are in a degree where an internship in HR makes sense. So HR popped up in two ways as a co-champion:


  • They love being able to set up student transformative learning projects in their department, and;
  • With student workers on campus, as there always has been, students can learn a bunch of transformative learning lessons through their jobs. So STLR has been working with HR within the existing student worker evaluation system. It used to be a form that was filled out by a supervisor, but now we’re getting student workers in a personnel review process as part of assigning a STLR piece in their portfolio.


This is all part of our mission to be able to capture transformative learning experiences wherever, whenever they happen on the campus.”


A 30,000 Feet View

Finally, I asked Jeff to share any big picture advice for anyone else working on similar projects aimed at capturing co- and extra-curricular learning on their campuses.

“In a project like this where you’re helping students think about their experiences, and helping faculty improve their teaching, it’s tough to not do that to your own work… so I try to zoom out to a 30,000 feet level.


It really involves helping people see in a different way. What I mean by that: when we started figuring out the solutions to make STLR work here, we very quickly discovered that conversations could easily be derailed by typical higher ed speak – meaning, higher ed has for decades relied on credit hours. ‘This is how we do things, this is how we track student learning’ and the LMS doesn’t talk to personnel management, etc. We have all these systems in place, so you can easily get, ‘yes, but…’ or, ‘no this is impossible.’


It’s not really that conceptually there’s resistance to the idea, more that there’s an inability to for the idea within the existing structures. So at times we’ve had to do some clumsy work-arounds because higher ed is not built to do things like this. The framing and explanation is really important. Without a way to mitigate the challenges, really quickly there will be a resistance …


And working on helping students succeed in the 21st century is just flat gonna have to look different. People agree on that. but they’re still scared, concerned, worried about workload, etc.


Unless you always focus on, ‘We are doing the business of what is the business of the University, and we’re working hard on mitigating pain points.’”


We’ll be checking in with Jeff again soon to learn more about how UCO is measuring and proving success with STLR, and talk about one of the more unique aspects of the program: stipended student-led interdisciplinary, extracurricular projects that can be completed for STLR credit. We’ll also hear about engagement with local employers.


In the mean time, what questions do you have for Jeff?

Did his experiences spark any new ideas for your innovation efforts?