The theory has two basic kinds of learning: instrumental and communicative learning.


The Transformational Learning Theory originally developed by Jack Mezirow is described as being “constructivist, an orientation which holds that the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is, central to making meaning and hence learning” (Mezirow, 1991). The theory has two basic kinds of learning: instrumental and communicative learning. Instrumental learning focuses on learning through task-oriented problem solving and determination of cause and effect relationships. Communicative learning involves how individuals communicate their feelings, needs and desires

Meaning structures (perspectives and schemes) are a major component of the theory. Meaning perspectives are defined as “broad sets of predispositions resulting from psychocultural assumptions which determine the horizons of our expectations” (Mezirow, 1991). They are divided into 3 sets of codes: sociolinguistic codes, psychological codes, and epistemic codes. A meaning scheme is “the constellation of concept, belief, judgment, and feelings which shapes a particular interpretation” (Mezirow, 1994, 223).

Meaning structures are understood and developed through reflection. Mezirow states that “reflection involves a critique of assumptions to determine whether the belief, often acquired through cultural assimilation in childhood, remains functional for us as adults” (Mezirow, 1991). Reflection is similar to problem solving and Mezirow talks about how we “reflect on the content of the problem, the process of problem-solving, or the premise of the problem” (Mezirow, 1991). Through this reflection we are able to understand ourselves more and then understand our learning better. Merizow also proposed that there are four ways of learning. They are “by refining or elaborating our meaning schemes, learning new meaning schemes, transforming meaning schemes, and transforming meaning perspectives” (Mezirow, 1991).

Mezirow’s original theory has been elaborated upon by others, most notably Cranton (1994;1997) and Boyd (1991). The theory has commonalities with other theories of adult learning such as andragogy (Knowles), experiential learning (Rogers), and Cross.


Transformative Learning theory is focused on adult learning, particularly in the context of post-secondary education (e.g., Craig et al., 2001; King, 2002). Taylor< (2007) provides a summary of research studies about the theory.


Applying transformative theory to curriculum evaluation, one looks for evidence of critical reflection in terms of content, process and premise. Content reflection consists of curricular mapping from student and faculty perspectives; process reflection focuses on best practices, literature-based indicators and self-efficacy measures; premise reflection would consider both content and process reflection to develop recommendations.


  1. Adult exhibit two kinds of learning: instrumental (e.g., cause/effect) and communicative (e.g., feelings)
  2. Learning involves change to meaning structures (perspectives and schemes).
  3. Change to meaning structures occurs through reflection about content, process or premises.
  4. Learning can involve: refining/elaborating meaning schemes, learning new schemes, transforming schemes, or transforming perspectives.


  • Boyd, R. (1991). Personal Transformation in Small Groups. London, Routledge.
  • Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco , CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning: A Guide for Educators of Adults. San Francisco , CA : Jossey-Bass.
  • Cranton, P. (1997). Transformative Learning in Action: Insights from Practice. San Francisco , CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Cragg, C.E., Plotnikoff, R.C., Hugo, K. & Casey, A. (2001) Perspective transformation in RN-to-BSN distance education. Journal of Nursing Education, 40(7).
  • King, K.P. (2002). Educational technology professional development as transformative learning opportunities. Computers & Education, 39(3), p 283-297.
  • Taylor, E. W. (Mar 2007). An update of transformative learning theory: a critical review of the empirical research (1999-2005). International Journal of Lifelong Education, 26 (2), 173-191.