Transformative Learning Emerging from Challenges First-Year Students Experienced

Margaret M. Plack*, Marjorie Johnson Hilliard, Ellen Costello, Karen Huhn, Joyce Maring, William E. Healey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction.Doctor of physical therapy (PT) (DPT) programs are rigorous, and students report facing overwhelming challenges. Faculty may not be cognizant of the extent of these challenges and miss opportunities to support student learning. The purpose of this article is to describe factors affecting student coping abilities and the lessons they learned from managing their self-identified challenges.Review of Literature.Given the growing body of evidence surrounding mental health issues in DPT students, educators are exploring ways to support student well-being and promote their professional development.Subjects.This study is a component of a larger multisite study of first-year DPT students from 3 private universities.Methods.Participants submitted written narratives in response to a critical incident questionnaire designed to better understand first-year challenges. Responses were deidentified, researchers were blinded to participation, and confidentiality was maintained throughout. A consensus-driven interpretivist approach to qualitative data analysis was used. Strategies to ensure trustworthiness included triangulation of researchers, peer review, prolonged engagement, and use of thick rich descriptions.Results.Seventy responses were analyzed. Two major themes are presented: (1) students described factors internal and external to the learning environment that inhibited and facilitated their ability to cope with challenges and (2) students shared academic successes and lessons learned from overcoming challenges, including the development of new behaviors, enhanced self-awareness, and personal and professional growth.Discussion and Conclusion.Building on previous work, analysis of the lived experiences of first-year DPT students revealed a process of transformational learning through challenge. This process highlights the importance of recognizing and supporting the significant incidental learning that occurs in our students during their journey through PT school. Faculty focusing solely on content knowledge, skills, and even critical thinking may not recognize and support the incidental learning occurring and may be missing significant transformational learning opportunities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)43-51
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Physical Therapy Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2023


  • Grit
  • Growth mindset
  • Persistence
  • Social supports
  • Transformative learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy
  • Rehabilitation
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation


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