7 Steps to Academic Transformation


Have you ever had a transformative experience? I’m not referring to an occurrence in which you made external changes that you hoped would produce internal benefits. I mean a period in which key factors aligned in such a way that produced powerful self-understandings. Such self-revelatory moments don’t just inspire us to change at some later time; they produce immediate and lasting change.

Transformation doesn’t change our situation. Our perspective and perceptions of the circumstances change. We see something of value in ourselves that is deeply and immensely empowering.

Education should be transformative. If more students were transformed in their educational experience, educators and education would hold greater value in the public’s eye.

Transformation can’t be forced, but the conditions can be set to make it more likely.

Below are steps that I’ve found very useful in promoting these defining learning experiences.


  • The student experience is often cast from a negative perspective. A common narrative among educators is, “Today’s students are ________ (You fill in the pejorative of choice: generationally flawed, cheaters, apathetic, coddled, . . . It’s a seemingly endless list.)

Rather than deconstruct students’ past academic experiences, educators attempt to demolish them. The demolition approach leaves students in ruins, while deconstructing methods allow them to build anew.



  • Having vision is typically viewed as an essential ability of an executive. A person with a cogent vision can marshal the needed people from various areas to work together.

Similarly, students need academic vision to marshal the cognitive resources needed to achieve their academic outcomes. Educators serve themselves and students well when they help them establish academic vision.


  • Humans think continuously throughout their lives. We can be certain that students know how to think. However, they don’t know how to think to learn.

    Typically, we think for our own purposes. However, in school students must use their minds to achieve the educator’s goals.

This type of learning requires interpretation, precision, monitoring and evaluation. It requires a framework! The ThinkWell-LearnWell Diagram and Learning Sufficiency Diagram have been useful frameworks for thousands of students throughout the U.S. and beyond.


  • Knowledge work is different from all other forms of work. The major challenges involve cognitive overload, where students try to do too many things at once, and cognitive confusion, where students are uncertain about which skills and processes to use for respective tasks.

This makes studying grossly inefficient, leading to stagnation and frustration.


  • All students have a learning routine. This consists of the actions and resources they rely on to learn content and prepare for tasks. There are numerous flaws in students’ learning routines, leaving them directionless in their studies.

Helping students adapt their learning routines to the environment will pay tremendous dividends.


  • Grades are lagging indicators. It takes a while for those results to come in. Students need leading indicators, internal metrics that students can confidently and consistently rely on well before their tests or tasks. Our interventions must include short-term successes.

  • Success is never a straight line. Students who have been genuinely transformed will revert back to previously unsuccessful approaches at some point.

Use these as lessons to propel them forward rather than evidences of failure. Expect a reversion of practice. However, these setbacks can be short-lived if we help students recognize what is occurring and redirect them back to what works. 


When properly sequenced, these seven steps can transform individual students, entire cohorts, and even institutions.  I’m curious to learn which of the steps is most applicable to you.

Now, it’s time for you to share. Use the comment feature below to share which of the steps you find most applicable and valuable.

 

Comments 55

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      Hi Lea,

      Good question: Students, like all humans, struggle to break free from habits. I’ve witnessed students undergo transformation from academic probation status to making consistent A’s and B’s for a semester or two, only to relapse back to making D’s. When asked what happened, they rather honestly admit that they simply reverted back the bad habits that felt comfortable.

      The good news is that once they recognize their problem as a relapse, then they can resume the good practices that emanated from their transformation.

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      Researcher have found that metacognition is an academic game-changer! Literally, you cannot go wrong by developing students’ metacognitive skills. I believe it is THE missing skill set among students. You can learn about it and learn how to use tools to develop students’ metacognitive skills at the upcoming Effective Thinking and Learning webinar: https://goo.gl/Wxc7vd.

      The webinar will be a visually-rich, exercise-driven experience that focuses on solving authentic academic challenges. We have a few spots left.

      Hope you and your staff can join us.

  1. I think that expecting and planning for “relapses” as part of the process of acquiring new habits is an important aspect of this model and something that is often overlooked.

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  2. Step 4 is most relevant to my students at this time. Recognizing the differences between these four elements – in an efficient and confident way – is a skill deficit. The resistance to viewing these elements in different ways often means they continue using self-defeating approaches out of habit and comfort, and then seem surprised at results that do not improve. Thanks for articulating these so well!

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  3. This is a great article discussing a more proactive approach to take with students. It does not just include techniques or ideas; rather it focuses on identifying motivators and internal energy to assist students in their academic challenges. Also, it focuses on the idea that we will occasionally fall back into old and ineffective ways, yet we have the power to learn and to grow from each of those challenges.

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  4. As an ESL teacher to middle and high school students who come from an even greater distance towards taking charge of their own learning, I would say that the clear articulation of the integration between learning strategies and skills is of high importance. They often put in a lot of time but do not do so using optimal skills and strategies.

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  5. Hi Tonie–

    I like #3. I never thought about how to think specifically about learning. And adding other senses to make the learning richer. I’ll have to think more about this.

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      Be sure to post your thoughts once you’re done contemplating. By the way, I will be participating in the Maricopa Summer Institute in early June. Perhaps, I’ll see you there.

  6. This is interesting. Just yesterday, I was asked by a colleague to help them identify data demonstrating the “transformative” aspect of a stated mission.

  7. As a learning specialist, I work on the student end to help them clarify their role and goals as a student. I spend a lot of time on their learning routine, but I think I could spend more time discussing frameworks for thinking to learn and how they can align their strategies with the instructor’s outcomes and the assigned tasks.

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      Liz–

      Sounds like you’re doing quality work. Helping students align their efforts toward instructor outcomes are extremely useful. It works even better when instructors intentionally teach to meet the learning outcomes:). Unfortunately, this is rarer than you’d think, leaving students to learn despite the oversight.

      I have a faculty training program on Choice Architecture theory; A considerable portion of of this event is devoted to helping faculty deconstruct their thinking and strategically use it to trigger students’ thinking.

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  8. Love the philosophy! As an educator and an academic coach, I believe that all of the seven steps can work and are necessary to mold the student into a learner.
    Echoing the other posts, more information would be beneficial and a new link sent for the upcoming seminar. I clicked it off and now cannot locate it! Hopefully will be able to attend if not in the classroom. Thank you very much for the information.

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  9. I find steps 6 and steps 7 valuable. So often students will say that everything is fine, until a grade is posted. They need to know how they are doing, and where they are throughout the semester.
    And lastly, yes success is not a ‘straight line’. There are curves and roadblocks along the way. The travel is not always easy, but the final destination is usually well worth the trip.

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      Eileen,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree completely. The line gets a bit straighter with time, but it’s never completely straight.

  10. At this point of time, Step 6 rings most true. Students can sometimes get discouraged and focus only on how long earning their degree will take, where the money will come from, where to go for help, etc. Planning for and creating successes along the way, can work towards a focus on the present. Students can then become more engaged and empowered in the learning process. Thank you for sharing.

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  11. I have found all of the tools provided by The Learnwell Project to be very valuable and this one also achieves that bar. I as a learning specialist understand the distinctions in step 4, but when trying to convey this to a student an example would be useful.

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      Annette– It’s great to hear that you’ve found the tools useful. Were you asking for an example of how to convey Step 4 to students?

  12. Nicely done! All of these steps are important and integral to success, but number six can really keep a student on track in between the positive feedback of assignments and tests. Sometimes students don’t realize how well they are doing every day and that those days can, and do, add up to big success!

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      Theresa–
      You got it! Feedback is crucial. It should be close in proximity, formative and informative.

  13. Melinda and Eileen are on target…none of us are on the straight path upwards, there are always times when we fall off the wagon and have to get back on. Thanks for the work you do for the planet!

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  14. I am interested in the first step mentioned…because so many of the students I see have largely had uninspired and unsuccessful K-12 experiences…it is necessary to broaden their own perspective so they’re able to reinterpret their own academic pasts…to see themselves as competent…and recognize the biases of educational systems.

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      Yes, I’m currently revising my 2013 Why Good Students Do “Bad” in College. Keep your eye out for it in the coming weeks.

  15. I will definitely share this information with my learning assistance colleagues and review it with my tutors.

    Everything from The Learn Well Project is informative and delivered clearly. The visuals are very appealing. Thank you for the great job you do. I am sorry that I missed Leonard’s pre-conference session at the ACTLA conference last year. I hope he will re-visit soon.

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  16. I am new to working with college students. This article is very informative and I can incorporate some of the ideas.

  17. I really love how this is outlined! I work with nursing students who have not been successful on their first attempt at a course. I see very clearly in this diagram where they have struggles and breakdown in thinking!

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      Bedelia–

      I have worked extensive hours with nursing students, faculty and nursing programs. I know their struggles well! Thankfully, I can report to you that I’ve witnessed nursing students boost their test scores immediately, significantly and consistently!

  18. Have I ever had a transformative experience? One that produced immediate and lasting change? Yes, I have, so I completely “get” the 7 steps. I got them before I even saw them in this post, and I used them to transform struggling students – from young adults to senior citizens returning to school. Never say die, I say. One is never too old to be transformed. I bring the ThinkWell-LearnWell and Learning Sufficiency Diagrams into many classrooms. Knowledge work IS different from other types of work, but I might add to the definition for “cognitive overload” that the amount of material presented in a short period of time produced cognitive overload as well as simply trying to do too many DIFFERENT things at one time. I add this because I have seen the boatload of homework meted out even in K-12. People are human, and humans need some diversions. All work and no play makes Jack a frustrated and angry student. Grades mean nothing – particularly when administrators say that no student gets below 50 (out of 100). The student might have done zero, but he or she will always get 50. The students know that, too, and some (even one is too many) work to get that 50 by getting … who cares what number below 50? They will always get 50. That sends a rather demoralizing message to the students, to the teachers, to the parents, to the community, and to the legislators.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this piece, Leonard. Thank you so much for the positive impact you have on teachers and students everywhere.

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      Maggie–
      Thanks for the affirmation! I have to completely agree with you about some schools interpreting “rigor” as meaning more work. Rigor is beautiful, desirable and immensely rewarding when crafted well and presented properly. For one example of this, see the article: The Power of Micro-experiences.

      Keep up the good work!

  19. Thanks for this helpful infographic. I am doing a presentation for faculty mentors in a few weeks and I am thinking of ways I might incorporate these tips.

  20. I love the idea of promoting energy management as opposed to time management. For many of the students I work with when they have the time they don’t have the energy. All of these ideas will be helpful when working with struggling students. Thank you.

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      Hi Stephanie,

      Your experience with students confirm my own. As professionals, we can relate, right: we too must harmonize our energy and time with our prioritize. If we show students how to do this in their academic work, they’ll become more effective people and professionals.

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