Exploring Opportunities to Encourage Life-long Learning through Practical Application

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Learners need positive learning habits to be successful in their degree program. There are many approaches that can be used to help learners develop these life-long learning habits. We will discuss a variety of relevant learning and psychology concepts and explore their application in practical interactions and activities.


Justin Lee is the Innovation Design Lead and Lead Media Designer at Capella University where he partners with school leadership and faculty and the product development teams, acting as a conduit for engaging, effective academic media strategy and direction. With nearly two decades of experience as a graphic and web designer, and as a self-proclaimed experimenter, stretching his creative muscles and trying new things is common place for him. Justin has presented and led numerous innovation workshops, including previous OLC Innovate conferences, MinneWebCon, Games+Learning+Society Conference, and DevLearn.

Extended Abstract

Presentation Topic Description and Details

The majority of the learners that we serve are working adults. The transition into an online degree program, regardless of degree level, is fraught with difficulty and self-doubt requiring significant adjustment to a new educational paradigm and expectations.

Learners seldom come in the door with all the learning habits and skills needed to be successful immediately, and these habits take time and intentional practice to develop.  Our newly enrolled undergraduate learners, regularly first-generation post-secondary learners, find this transition to higher education challenging as they have not developed positive learning habits and are often in a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). 

Most graduate programs rely on the learner to champion their own learning, apply it to their field, and work more intimately and collaboratively with their faculty.  Perceptions of graduate-level education often include both prominence and intimidation for those just starting out, resulting in the tendency to feel that they are unworthy, don’t belong, or are simply not smart enough. This is especially true if the learner was used to easily achieving success during their undergraduate degree, but are only achieving “average” performance in their graduate-level courses and must expend more effort for success.

Finally, navigating their way through new educational responsibilities, in addition to life responsibilities, makes for an even more tumultuous experience (DuVernet et al., 2008). Interestingly, all these probable pitfalls reside outside of the actual act of the intended learning taking place in their courses.

As an educational institution, it is our responsibility to ensure that learners can navigate their degree experience successfully. But it is also our goal to imbue them with positive learner characteristics and qualities, and allow them opportunities to grow and practice these behaviors. During the recent decade, there has been an increasing amount of research that helps to inform a synthesized approach to addressing these issues that learners in higher education face.

As previously mentioned, a crucial outcome for any degree program is to support learners as they develop and strengthen their identity as being a capable and successful learner. DeRue, Ashford, and Cotton (2009) posit that the attainment and attribution of an ambiguous personal identity, such as a capable learner, relies upon cognitive actions supported by reciprocal social interactions. This means that one must “claim” one’s identity role, while others must “grant” one the affirmation of that role, and that by doing so over time, one begins to internalize this identity. This emphasizes the importance of the social interactions and activities between learners, and requirements for mutual support, in reinforcing that internalization of the identity (Redmond, Abawi, Brown, Henderson, & Heffernan, 2018).

Learning is extremely difficult when you believe that you are just not smart enough. Dweck (2006) explains that learners with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is limited and that someone is either naturally good at something or not. In contrast, Dweck introduces the concept of a growth mindset, explaining that through effort, dedication, and intention, anyone can continue to achieve incremental positive results. Dweck’s work shows that a learning environment of encouragement and positive progress is critical for learners.

Developing these positive learning habits is key to the successful completion of any degree program. One must support learners by introducing them to activities rooted in self-regulated learning (Nilson, 2013), by which learners take responsibility for their learning — they are no longer passive learners, but rather are active learners (Kolb & Kolb, 2009). This process is commonly achieved by identifying learning goals, planning subsequent actions they will take to achieve their goals, taking action, reflecting on the success of their actions, and finally modifying their actions to achieve a better result (Chiang & Wrightson, 2012). These metacognitive activities must be enabled and facilitated throughout a learner’s experience. But they must be intentionally integrated early in their program to allow them to build this process and mindfulness into habit.

We also know that working through a degree program with your eye on graduation can feel long and tedious.  It is in the middle of the program that learners are least motivated and engaged in their coursework and are most susceptible towards deprioritizing their education putting it on pause.  This is especially true of undergraduate learners as many of their courses take the form of general education courses and often do not relate to their intended field.  Therefore, this is an opportunity to identify ways to regularly align the work they are doing to a larger purpose to develop greater intrinsic motivation (Dai, Milkman & Riis, 2014), reveal the progress and achievements learners have already made (Harkin et al., 2016; Matthews, 2015), celebrate the small wins (Amabile & Kramer, 2011), foster learner networks and peer support structures (Redmond, Abawi, Brown, Henderson, & Heffernan, 2018), and ideate other ways to build learner engagement.

Though new learners may have many needs and deficits as they come into our degree programs, the above research shows that we have many opportunities to positively support them. These learning concepts are not exclusive, but rather complement each other and can be synthesized into a holistic, unified approach.

Over the past three years, Capella University has, through research and experimentation, developed two iterations of an interactive learner experience attempting to address the above concerns via a holistic approach. The first iteration, the Leadership Profile, was built for the masters and doctoral Public Service Leadership programs and focused on the development of leadership characteristics and identity. The second iteration, the Identity Profile, was built for the masters and doctoral Human Services programs and focused on a wider array of characteristics and the development of a professional identity.  Through the creation, course integration, and active learner usage of these experiences over the last 16-24 months, and through both successes and failures, we have built up a deeper understanding of what works well for learners and what doesn’t.


Presentation Intention

Though we may show a screenshot of the interactive Profiles and briefly share a little information, project background, or a lesson-learned or two, our purpose with this presentation is not to highlight these interactive experiences, as we know that many institutions don’t have the capacity and resources to create such an elaborate tool.  Instead we would like to dive into the essential root concepts that underpin the experience—concepts such as self-regulated learning, identifying and defining ones purpose, development of a personal and professional identity, behavior change and development of a growth mindset, social learning and community building—and discuss  for each a variety of activities and actions that require little or no technology that can be applied to courses and programs in any institution to support the positive changes that successful learners need to evolve into life-long learners through graduation and into the workplace and life.

In addition to presenting, our plan would be to create a companion workbook that attendees would be able to begin to fill out during the presentation with their answers to questions, notes, and ideas in an effort to continue the conversation with their colleagues later at their own institution.  We envision this session to be educational and work towards building awareness of these concepts, but also hands-on, relevant, and pragmatic.



Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review89(5), 70-80.

Chiang, M., & Wrightson, P. S. (2012). Improving adult literacy instruction: Supporting learning and motivation. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), 2563-2582.

DeRue, D. S., Ashford, S. J., & Cotton, N. C. (2009). Assuming the mantle: Unpacking the process by which individuals internalize a leader identity. In L. M. Roberts & J. E. Dutton (Eds.), Exploring positive identities and organizations: Building a theoretical and research foundation. New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

DuVernet, A., Behrend, T., Hess, C., McGinnis, J.L., Poncheri, R., & Vignovic, J. (2008). Adapting and transitioning throughout graduate school. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 45, 85-89.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., & ... Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Psychological Bulletin142(2), 198-229.

Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2009). On becoming a learner: The concept of learning identity. In Essays on Adult Learning Inspired by the Life and Work of David O. Justice. Learning Never Ends. CAEL Forum and News (pp. 5-13).

Matthews, G. (2015). Goals research summary. Retrieved from: https://www.dominican.edu/academics/lae/undergraduate-programs/psych/fac...

Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating self-regulated learners: Strategies to strengthen students' self-awareness and learning skills. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Redmond, P., Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., & Heffernan, A. (2018). An online engagement framework for higher education. Online Learning Journal, 22(1), 183-204.