Gap Year Programs Develop Powerful Learners

This is the fourth post in a series by Andrea Canuel and Robin Pendoley presenting the outcomes of Thinking Beyond Borders’ impact assessment (here are posts #1, #2, and #3). The outcomes and analysis presented here are written for a broad audience. For a deeper look into the study, you can download it in its entirety.

Our third major area of impact is in developing the learning capacity of TBB students. This growth is not about changing the volume students can learn. Rather, it’s about shaping how students learn. Powerful learners are humble, they are introspective, they value good questions over answers, and they understand how the pursuit of knowledge can bring people together. Great innovators are powerful learners. Great social change leaders are powerful learners, too.

These are not the traits being developed by most schools in our K-12 system. Students are rewarded for having answers, not questions. Learning is done at arms length, rarely incorporating student assumptions, values, and emotions into the process. Students compete for top grades, top test scores, and spots at elite universities. They are trained to see the goal of learning as achievement rather than developing a deep understanding of issues that are meaningful to them and the world. Transforming these learners requires intentional and intensive educational programming that changes cognitive processes and self-conception.

As higher education in the US faces its crisis and tries to deliver more educational value to students, it seems logical that having students develop these capacities during their college transition would result in better learning outcomes for undergraduates. For students and parents, intentionally pursuing growth of this sort during the college transition ensures higher education will offer a stronger return on investment.

Those focused on social change will note that these cognitive capacities are shared by great agents of change throughout history. Dr. King, Gandhi, Mandela, Yunus, and many others created meaningful social impact because of how they learned. They exhibited an exceptional capacity for metacognition, seeing societal systems as dynamic, interrelated, and malleable.

Outcomes

To measure TBB’s impact on students’ capacities as learners, we first identified four outcomes related to various skills that combine to create powerful learners.

  • Demonstrates awareness of personal limitations in terms of knowledge and abilities.
  • Can reassess, reorganize and restructure assumptions and knowledge based on new information.
  • Expresses awareness about one’s own reactions and emotional tendencies, especially when confronted with difference or discomfort.
  • Works collectively with others and actively seeks out partners to affect change.

Growth for any one of these outcomes represents progress toward TBB’s mission. However, when we combine the four, we gain a picture of TBB programs creating exceptional changes in the learning capacity in our students. Below are the measurements of growth:

Graph Showing How TBB Gap Year Programs Develop Powerful Learners

Analysis

Blog Quote from TBB Student Katherine KThe “Personal Limitations & Humility” outcome is fundamental for powerful learning. Developmentally, students in the college transition — particularly those who were high achieving in their K-12 schooling — tend to be confident learners who believe they either have or can easily find answers to questions. This outcome measures for evidence that students recognize the limitations both of their knowledge and their ability to wholly understand dynamic issues. Evidence often takes the form of the recognition of the dynamic quality of societal systems that underlie social issues and the realization that their education cannot supplant the knowledge of local stakeholders. TBB develops this by problematizing critical global issues, examining how they manifest for stakeholders in host communities, and challenging students to examine the assumptions underlying their perceptions and those of others.

The “Critically Identifies Assumptions & Perspectives of New Info” outcome measures students’ ability to assess the core beliefs and reasoning of others and themselves. This is an advanced metacognitive skill that students in this developmental stage are naturally developing. However, through daily challenges from Program Leaders and the curriculum, TBB students show exceptional growth in this area.

The “Emotional Self-Awareness” outcome measures students’ capacities to manage emotions as part of the learning process. Developmentally, students in the college transition tend to be heavily influenced by their emotions. When students feel strong emotions, their ability to rationally engage can drop dramatically. This can result in students dismissing some assumptions or perspectives rather than understanding them. TBB explicitly challenges students to be aware of and manage their emotions as part of the learning process. The seminars, pedagogy, and curriculum consistently engage students in explorations of their assumptions and those of others in controlled learning spaces. Seminars and informal processing moments are utilized to explore experiences in the homestays, fieldwork, and community. The Program Leaders provide structure and support to build habits of managing emotions as productive tools in the learning process rather than hindrances. Additionally, emotional awareness allows students to be comfortable in ethically, cognitively, or emotionally ambiguous situations.

The “Seeks Out Collective Action” outcome measures student focus on collaborative approaches to problem solving. Viewing knowledge seeking as an inherently social and collaborative process requires humility and a rejection of the belief that learning is a competitive pursuit of answers. TBB intentionally places learning expectations and goal setting in the hands of students. Seminars problematize the issues being observed and engaged in the host communities, challenging the group to collaboratively share observations and develop nuanced understanding.

Conclusion

Transforming students into powerful learners during their college transition is as much about reshaping learned habits as developing new skills. TBB students and alumni note that they feel more ownership of their learning with TBB and in the college years because it has clear meaning and purpose. By connecting their learning with critical global issues, students focus their learning on issues that are greater than themselves and that align with their core aspirations to contribute positively to society. This is in stark contrast to the competitive and individualized learning of the K-12 system. If students are to gain value from higher education and contribute meaningfully to society, the intentional transformation of their learning capacities must be a key component of their college transition.

Coming Up…

In our final post in this series, we’ll share questions that remain as we continue to assess TBB’s programs and outcomes, including how to create a longitudinal study and how to understand areas where the assessment yielded unexpected and negative outcomes. Stay tuned…

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