Transformation is all around us. It spans geography, time, cultures, religions and disciplines. Throughout life, events occur when something we thought was certain becomes uncertain and our current mental model cannot make sense of it. This experience causes disorientation and offers a choice: to transform our perspective or remain unchanged. When we revise our mental model to make meaning of our experience we are transforming our perspective. This is a special type of learning called transformative learning (Mezirow, 1978a, 1991a). Across disciplines, a disorienting experience is widely believed to be a catalyst for transformation, however, aspects of this experience remain elusive. It is not well defined nor understood. The purpose of this qualitative descriptive study was to better understand the disorienting experience and develop language to describe its dimensions thus contributing to transformative learning theory and benefiting scholars and practitioners in disciplines such as learning and education, global leadership development, and change management. This study was situated in a constructivist worldview and Mezirow's (1978a, 1991a) transformative learning theory was the theoretical framework; it provided a rich 40-year research stream and is one of the most extensive conceptualizations of the disorienting experience within the larger frame of adult learning theory. Hundreds of scholars have examined populations in diverse circumstances to understand if and/or how they experienced transformative learning triggered by disorientation. The guiding research question was: how do scholars conceptualize the disorienting experience in the transformative learning literature? The data set included 53 empirical studies (2003-2017), yielding 82 disorienting instances, written by 114 scholars representing every continent except Antarctica. Qualitative content analysis was used to explore, understand, and interpret this diverse, global data set of disorienting experiences. This study revealed three findings. First, it generated a Disorientation Index providing eight dimensions that move toward a common language describing the disorienting experience; the most common experience in the data set was also identified. Second, 16 contexts of disorienting experiences were uncovered. Third, 656 coding instances were presented by Disorientation Index dimension across the 16 contexts. This study concluded with a suggested formula for the disorienting experience, implications, and suggestions for future research.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (PhD) -- Global leadership and change; Adult learning; Transformative learning

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Sparks, Paul;