Navigating New Experiences: A basic social process

Kara L. Vander Linden, Ed.D.


This grounded theory study was initiated to discover the process
adult learners go through when engaging in new learning
experiences. Data came from 12 open-ended intensive interviews
with adult learners involved in various educational endeavors.
Theoretical sampling led to several additional interviews with
individuals not engaged in post-secondary education but more
generally in new learning experiences. The basic social process of
navigating explains three cyclical stages of behaviors used to
successfully traverse new experiences. The stages are Mapping,
Embarking, and Reflecting. Mapping consists of three behaviors:
locating, assessing one’s location in relation to the goal;
surveying, gathering information; and plotting, creating a plan.
Embarking involves engaging in normalizing and strategizing
behaviors to guide one’s self through the experience while
encountering unexpected factors that influence one’s course and
progress. Reflecting techniques and approaches are discussed in
the third stage. Although providing an understanding of the
process and behaviors used by adult learners, the theory is also
applicable in other settings.


One cannot go through life without encountering new
experiences. While at times people find themselves in experiences
of no choice of their own, many new experiences are entered
voluntarily. One such experience is adults returning to college
classrooms to continue their education.

Today, more than at any other time in history, adults are
returning to the college classroom to continue their education.
These adult learners are referred to as “nontraditional” and are
characterized by “one or more of the following characteristics: not
a high school graduate; did not enroll in an institution of higher
education directly after high school; are attending part-time; are
working full-time; or are financially independent, married, or
have dependents” (Wolanin, 2003, p 7). While adult learners have
prior experience in education, many factors and conditions of
adult life make the experience very different than their earlier
experiences. These factors and conditions also contribute to lower
retention rates. As Bosworth et al. (2007) reported, “Financially
independent, working full time, with dependents and family
responsibilities to juggle, and back in school after an extended
time out—adult learners are at great risk of not achieving their
postsecondary education goals” (p. 8) .

There is substantial research and numerous theories and
models on adult education and learning. Research repeatedly
categorizes the challenges faced by adult learners into four
general categories: accessibility, affordability, lack of time and
other responsibilities, such as family and/or job responsibilities
(Merriam, S. & Caffarella, R., 1999; Bosworth et al., 2007).
Research has also suggested and studied strategies to increase
learner retention and degree achievement. These strategies
primarily address the issues of accessibility and affordability.
While education institutions are making strides in these areas,
there is a dearth of research on strategies for addressing the
categories of lack of time and other responsibilities faced by adult
learners. Although outside the control of educational institutions,
these issues still affect adult learners’ success in reaching their

As an instructor and mentor of adult learners, I have little
control over the four categories of factors that affect the retention
and degree achievement of adult learners. Despite this lack of
control over, part of my job is to help adult learners be successful.
Often this means helping them succeed in spite of these factors. A
desire to understand the learning experiences of adults and the
challenges they face from their perspective provided the original
area of interest and starting point for this study which was
conducted for my dissertation.

Classic grounded theory (GT) was selected as the
methodology for this study because it provided the opportunity to
explore this area in a new way and with an open mind. The
purpose of using this method was to develop a theory about “the
pattern of behavior which is relevant and problematic for those
involved” (Glaser, 1978, p. 93) and was “sufficiently general to be
applicable to a multitude of diverse daily situations” and allowed
“the user partial control over the structure and process of daily
situations as they change through time” (Glaser and Strauss,
1967, p. 237). Such a theory could provide a framework for
working with learners based in their needs.


Grounded theory is “a general methodology of analysis
linked with data collection that uses a systematically applied set
of methods to generate an inductive theory about a substantive
area” (Glaser, 1992, p. 16). Fundamental to the method is the
emergent process that occurs as the researcher engages in an
integrated, cyclical process of collecting, coding and analyzing
data using constant comparative analysis with memoing
interwoven throughout.

Levy (2000) states, “social systems are subject to
intervention by cognizant agents, whose behavior is essentially
unpredictable at the individual level” (p. 76). While true on an
individual level, the grounded theory methodology allows a
researcher to discover a common “pattern of behavior which is
relevant and problematic for those involved” (Glaser, 1978, p. 93)
and develop a theory about the core variable that “accounts for
most of the variation in a pattern of behavior” (Glaser, p. 93).

A GT study begins with data collection from the substantive
area of interest and preconceptions suspended so that the
researcher remains open to the data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967;
Glaser, 1978, 1992, 1998). Although any type of data can be used,
following the GT dictum “all is data” (Glaser, 2003, p. 15), a
common source of data is open-ended interviews as used in this
study. Initial data collection began using a grand tour question in
an interview with an adult attending an institution of higher
education. The grand tour question was “describe a recent
learning experience.” Four interviews were with adults earning
graduate degrees and one with an adult who was unable to
complete her graduate degree. Three interviews were with
individuals enrolled in bachelor programs and four interviews
with adults who had earned bachelor degrees. Theoretical
sampling led to two additional interviews with adults who had
never attended college. One had no plans to ever attend college
and one was considering it.

Concurrent with the first interview, data analysis begins
using constant comparative analysis to substantively and
theoretically code the data allowing latent conceptual patterns
and concepts to become apparent by conceptualizing empirical
evidence and raising it to a higher level of theoretical abstraction
(Glaser, 1978, 1992). Throughout coding, memoing is used to
record theoretical ideas grounded in data. “Memos are the
theorizing write-up of ideas about substantive codes and their
theoretically coded relationships as they emerge during coding,
collecting and analyzing data and during memoing” (Glaser,
1998, p. 177). The data collection, analysis, and memoing
continue until all the categories and properties are saturated. As
saturation occurs, memos are sorted conceptually to form the
theoretical outline, relevant literature is integrated by analyzing
it like any other data, and the theory is written up.

Navigating: A Basic Social Process

While a desire to understand the learning experiences of
adults and the challenges they face provided the original area of
interest and starting point for this study, the use of the grounded
theory methodology resulted in the emergence a theory about a
basic social process that transcends the substantive area. The
basic social process, navigating, explains three integrated,
cyclical stages of behavior that individuals engage in when they
voluntarily enter new experiences and factors and conditions
which affect their decisions and behaviors as they successfully
traverse through the experience. The three stages of navigating
are mapping, embarking, and reflecting; these consist of
purposeful behaviors that are utilized to assess one’s location
within a new experience, to develop a plan or chart a course
through the experience, and successfully traverse the experience
while encountering factors and conditions that affect the course
and progress. Although each stage will be explained sequentially,
in a linear fashion, each stage and behavior may be repeatedly
engaged in as new factors and conditions are encountered and
can occur almost simultaneously in an integrated cyclical process.

Stages in Navigating a New Experience


The first stage of navigating, mapping, encompasses three
behaviors people commonly use when deciding whether or not to
voluntarily enter a new experience. These three behaviors are:
locating, surveying, and plotting.

Locating involves identifying the reason or purpose for
entering a new experience and assessing the person’s present
location in relation to this goal. The reason or purpose for
entering the new experience becomes the goal toward which the
person strives. As one participant explained, “there has to be a
reason to get into it (the new experience).” Ford (1992) similarly
explains that the goal “provides direction for that episode and
triggers an organized pattern of cognitive, emotional, biological,
and perceptual-motor activity that, in coordination with the
opportunities and constraints in the environment, is designed to
attain the goal” (pp. 23-24). The data illustrated that this goal
may relate to career aspirations, personal interests, personal
improvement, social relationships or any number of other areas.

The goal also acts as a motivating factor. As one participant
summarized, “your goals are the motivation that gets you started
and keeps you going.” Motivation affects both the level of
commitment and the effort put into navigating a new experience
and is as reflected in a person’s choices, actions, behaviors,
thoughts and emotions.

Locating also involves evaluating the person’s current
location in relation to the goal. At the beginning of an experience,
this location is the starting point. More than a physical location,
it is a perspective on the individual’s current location based on
various personal factors, such as level of competence and personal
obligations, which have an impact on the person’s preparedness
and ability to successfully reach the goal. Areas of weakness,
natural abilities and level of experience shape a person’s level of
competence and ability to successful reach a goal. Bigby (2003)
explains that competency results from

…factors working together, which include innate
characteristics (natural ability, personality) and learned
characteristics (knowledge, experience and skills)…
People who have the right competencies or who have a
good potential for developing these competencies will be
able to do the right things (behaviors) to produce the
desired results (effective outcomes). (p. 3)

With a higher level of competence, a person is likely to
evaluate the starting point as closer to the goal than someone
with areas of weakness or less experience. As exemplified in one
participant explaining that when deciding to get a Masters in
Social Work she had to consider that she did not have any
previous experience or courses in the area so she had a lot more
to learn and more courses to take than classmates who had
undergraduate degrees in the same field.

Personal obligations, such as time commitments, financial
obligations and relationships, can also affect a person’s ability to
reach his goal and his perspective on his current location in
relation to the goal. Most of the participants spoke of the effect of
family commitments on new experiences. Carver and Scheier
(1998) expound on influence of personal obligations saying,

…dealing with a problem [personal obligation] in one
domain tends to interfere with other aspects of life…If too
much has to go into one domain (because it’s demanding
or because it intrudes at unpredictable and inopportune
times)…progress in those [other] domains begins to
suffer… (p. 153)

While locating occurs at the beginning of a new experience, it
can also occur at various times throughout the experience as
unexpected, or previously unthought-of, factors affect a person’s
progress and cause the reassessment of one’s location in relation
to the goal. Some participants described how they considered
these factors prior to entering the experience while other
explained that they had to reassess their ability to reach their
goal when these factors, that they had not previously considered,
became apparent. When one’s location is reassessed, a person
typically tries to identify three things (1) one’s current location;
(2) if one’s current location is where one needs to be in order to
reach the goal; and if not, (3) how to get back on course.

In navigating a new experience, a person uses surveying to
gather and interpret information on how to proceed towards a
goal. When surveying occurs prior to entering the experience, it is
a way of gathering specific information regarding the person’s
goal, current location and possible paths to the goal. However,
surveying also occurs at various times throughout the experience,
especially when a person confronts unexpected factors and
conditions or when verifying that one is on course to reach the

In surveying, information is gathered from a variety of
sources using a variety of methods, including conversations,
observations, and reading. Some of the sources of information
exemplified in this study include written resources, media,
interpersonal communication, formal education/training, and
even previous experiences. This information can be gathered
proactively, being specifically sought out, or acquired passively,
by chance. One participant explained proactively gathering
information from a number of different sources to “build that set
of data needed to form opinions” and aid him in making decisions
on how to proceed. Another participant explained passively
encountering information, hearing about a university from a
person she was sitting next to in an airplane, that she later used
when she decided to go back to school.

Surveying is dependent on a person’s level of competency in
gathering and interpreting information. Availability and
accessibility of information varies depending on the type of
information being gathered and the source. The person’s level of
competency also has an impact on the interpretation of the
information. This is especially true when the person comes across
material that he/she doesn’t understand. For example, one person
interviewed explained that while he was able to gather
information he needed from some sources, his progress stalled
when he encountered information he did not understand.
Gathering and interpreting information aids in making decisions
and plans as the person transitions from surveying to plotting a
course of action.

Plotting is planning a course of action to reach one’s goal
and is based on the analysis and evaluation of information
gathered while surveying. It often involves alternates between
locating, surveying and plotting because “planning is a
multistage process that produces a plan to be implemented in
action” (Berger, 1997, p. 26). Plotting involves making decisions
about the type of experience need to reach a goal. Choosing an
appropriate experience involves considering how other factors,
including the structure of the experience, level of competence,
and personal obligations, could affect reaching the goal.

The structure of an experience is one factor that has an
influence on the type of experience chosen when plotting a course
of action. In more structured experiences, there are preestablished
ways of navigating the experience and a person must
fit into the existing structure. The individual may need to
possess, account for and/or demonstrate a certain level of
competency in order to fit into this existing structure. As such,
structured experiences are less flexible and adaptable to
individual needs and desires. Such an experience may not work
depending on personal obligations, especially in regards to time
commitments. In more structured experiences, time commitments
are often at specific times and/or for specific lengths of time.
Other commitments must fit around those of the structured
experience. If this is not possible, it can preclude a person from
the experience. Formal educational experiences of participants in
this study provide an example of more structured experiences
that often have a predetermined course of action. One explained
that all the classes within her masters program were pre-set and
she wished for more flexibility.

When plotting a course of action for a less structured
experience, the individual is often responsible for designing and
implementing any structure required based on personal needs
and desires and the factors and conditions of the experience.
Thus, the course of action is more individualized and flexible to
the individual’s needs and desires. As one participant explained,
“I was able to guide my own experience to achieve the goal in
whichever way I felt was best. So, I had the independence.” This
flexibility often allows more flexibility in balancing personal
obligations with obligations and responsibilities within the
experience. Finding this balance is often easier said than done.
The participant went on to say “It would not have worked had I
not been motivated. It would have been too much freedom but
since I was motivated, the independence helped a lot.”

Regardless of the experience’s structure, a person’s
competence at using the information gathered through surveying
and previous knowledge, skills, and strategies influences the
design and implementation of the course of action when moving
from the mapping to the embarking stage. When moving forward
a person often discovers, as one participant put it, “planning it,
you know, from a distance and doing it, were really two very
different things.”


The second stage, embarking, is the process of using the
information gathered and the course of action developed during
the mapping stage to guide one through the experience while
encountering unexpected factors and conditions that influence a
person’s course and progress. While embarking, a person engages
in two cyclical behaviors: normalizing and strategizing.
Normalizing is the process of establishing priorities and a
schedule and routine while implementing the course of action.
However, as the course of action is implemented unexpected
factors and conditions are encountered that increases a sense of
disequilibrium and must be addressed in order to reach the goal.
At this point, strategizing is used to identify and develop
approaches to deal with these factors and conditions and
minimize their affect on the person’s progress. Once these
strategies are developed, the person returns to normalizing as the
new strategies are incorporated into navigating the experience.

While normalizing, a person prioritizes and creates a
schedule and routine to identify where and when to focus time,
energy and attention in order to reach the goal. Prioritizing is
deciding which aspects of an experience are important in order to
determine how to distribute resources, including time, energy and
attention, so that priorities and the goal are supported. As one
participant explained, “If I have a goal and I know good things
will come if I make that goal, then I will do the tasks that need to
happen for that goal to take place. It helps me to prioritize.”
These priorities affect the person’s commitment and the effort
exerted to reach the goal. The participant went on to say, “My
goals either happen or don’t happen based on the effort I put
forth and that’s the main key.”

Prioritizing enables creating a schedule and routine that
reflects and supports individual priorities and goals. Scheduling
is the process of deciding what to spend time on, how much time
to spend, and when it will be spent. The structure of the
experience affects how much control a person has over scheduling
various aspects of the experience. The more structured an
experience, the less control a person has over the schedule
because such experiences often have specific time elements that
are part of the established structure.

Creating a routine involves the implementation of a schedule
and a course of action to reach the goal. It often means modifying
actions and behaviors to support the priorities and goal.
Establishing a routine helps a person stay focused on progressing
through the experience and working on priorities so that the goal
can be reached. Initial schedules and routines may need to be
modified as their effectiveness is determined and as new factors
and conditions are encountered.

Strategizing. Within any new experience, unexpected
factors and conditions are encountered which can affect a person’s
progress towards a goal. When encountered, the person suspends
normalizing to engage in strategizing in order to deal with and
limit the effect of these factors and conditions. One of the first
factors encountered is newness. A person often encounters
unfamiliar issues, factors, and/or conditions in unfamiliar
settings or environments. This newness also results from the
difference between the person’s preconceptions and/or
expectations and the reality of the experience. This can
contribute to a state of disequilibrium. A number of the
participants discussed the disequilibrium created by the
unexpected issues, factors and/or conditions they encountered.
One person expressed her disequilibrium by saying, “the concept
or idea that we have of how something may be is really changed
or challenged by the experience of doing it, of going through it.”
According to Mezirow (1991), an experience that creates a state of
disequilibrium is “disorienting dilemma” that is “an emotionally
charged situation, that fails to fit our expectations…or we
encounter an anomaly that cannot be given coherence…within
existing schemes” ( p. 94). Therefore strategies must be developed
to deal with them.

Avoidance and/or “giving up” are common strategies for
dealing with newness and other unexpected factors and
conditions. However, they do not help in successfully reaching a
goal. More productive strategies include being open, sampling,
relationships, training, practice, evaluation, and feedback. There
are also strategies used to deal with emotions experienced while
navigating a new experience.

Being open is being receptive to ideas and input from others
and a willingness to consider and try new strategies. One
participant demonstrated her openness when she let her
internship supervisor know that she did not have any experience,
but that she was really open to learning what she needed to do.
Sampling is a trial and error process of trying out new strategies
to investigate which ones are useful. When sampling, a
provisional commitment is made to try a strategy within certain
parameters, such as for a specific amount of time, in order to
evaluate its usefulness before fully committing to using it. This
can be seen in one person’s statement regarding a new strategy
she was using. She said, “I am going to just give it a try and, you
know, I can always pull the plug if it gets really out of line.”

There is a relationship component to every new experience
and these relationships can be used to help a person develop
strategies. Some strategies include finding a mentor and creating
a support system. A mentoring relationship provides a less
experienced or knowledgeable person with support and guidance
from someone more knowledgeable and/or experienced. One
participant described how a mentoring relationship helped her
through a new experience by saying, “I think that she is my
biggest support because I feel comfortable asking her questions. I
meet with her an hour a week…I can ask her any questions that I

Creating a support system of peers can also be very
beneficial. As one participant explained, “It was important for me
to establish a support system. To identify people that I
trusted…To have support people that I could confide in or that I
could work with or that I could use as a sounding board.”
Burgstahler and Cronheim (2001) provide a good summary of the
benefits of forming a support group with peers.

Peers can coach and counsel, offer information and
advice, provide encouragement, act as sounding boards,
function as positive role models, and promote a sense of
belonging (Kram & Isabella; Shapiro, Haseltine, & Rowe,
1978)…[Peers] offer unique opportunities for sharing, are
easier to locate and approach than mentors, and typically
develop relationships that are longer lasting than mentor
relationships…Peer relationships offer a higher degree of
mutual assistance, where both individuals give and
receive support (Kram & Isabella; Shapiro et al.). Peers
facing similar challenges…can share strategies to
overcome …barriers (Byers-Lang & McCall, 1993). (pp.

Friends and family can also form a support system. While these
relationships may be external to the experience, they can provide
an individual with emotional, financial or other types of support
and help.

Another strategy involves taking advantage of opportunities
for further training and additional practice. These opportunities
increase the person’s levels of competency by acquiring and
mastering new skills and knowledge. One participant described
how she did not feel like she was acquiring the knowledge and
skills she needed through her coursework so she decided to take
advantage of an internship. She found an internship more useful
in helping her gain the knowledge and skills needed, because it
also provided her with an opportunity for practice. Another
participant emphasized the importance of having opportunities to
practice new skills by saying, “if you don’t feel comfortable with
it, then you won’t put it into practice.” Training and practice is
especially helpful when paired with objective evaluation and
constructive feedback because it helps a person discover and work
on areas which can use improvement. As one participant

It’s really helpful to get someone to objectively evaluate
you…You are so busy just trying to do everything you are
supposed to do that it is hard to be as objective as you
need to be. Plus, they give you tips… So it’s really helpful.

However, evaluation and feedback can also hinder a person’s
progress if it is not constructive or if the person is not open to it.

Emotions and Strategies

While many factors and conditions encountered while
navigating a new experience are external to the individual,
emotions can be a powerful influence on decisions and behaviors.
Emotions vary throughout the experience and also from person to
person. While some emotional reactions are mild and pass quickly
without much influence, others are intense and greatly affect a
person’s decisions and behaviors. Yet, despite these variations,
emotions are a powerful factor that can impact the entire process
and, as such, must be deal with so as not to prevent individuals
from reaching a goal. Ford (1992) says, “emotions help people
deal with varying circumstances by providing evaluative
information about the person’s interactions with the
environment…and by supporting and facilitating action designed
to produce desired consequences…Emotions provide a very potent
mechanism for regulating behavior” (p. 51).

One common emotion is a fear of failure, which may prevent
entering or continuing with a new experience. This is using
avoidance as a strategy and, as said earlier, it does not help in
reaching a goal. Fear may also motivate working harder so as not
to fail. More productive strategies used to deal with fear and
other emotions experienced include positive self-talk, increasing
competency and forming support systems.

Self-talk is the process of repeatedly telling one’s self that a
goal can or cannot be accomplished. The repeated message often
becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the messages used are
positive and designed to encourage the person, self-talk can be
useful. One participant exemplified this when she explained, “So
I kind of bolstered myself, my psyche, with the concept that I am
working on it so it won’t be as hard. So, I kept telling myself that
I can do it.”

Another way of dealing with emotions is increasing levels of
competency so that the person is well prepared with the tools and
skills needed to navigate the experience. One way this can be
accomplished is by taking advantage of opportunities for further
training and additional practice. As skill sets increase, fear,
anxiety and nervousness decrease and confidence is restored.

Support systems are another strategy for dealing with the
emotional aspect of navigating a new experience. As strategies
are discovered that help deal with the unexpected factors and
conditions, a person returns to normalizing to establish a new
schedule and routine incorporating the newest strategies. The
process of cycling back and forth between normalizing and
strategizing continues throughout navigating the new experience.


Reflecting is the cognitive examination of various aspects of
an experience and/or the experience as a whole. Reflecting
enables a person to return to the experience, examine the feelings
and emotions that were felt during the experience and reevaluate
them. Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) explain that
reflection is a process through which people “’recapture their
experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it” (p. 19).
Although presented as the third stage of navigating a new
experience, reflecting also occurs throughout the experience, as
part of the preparation, engagement and processing of an
experience. As Boud and Walker (1992) state, “we experience as
we reflect and we reflect as we experience” (p. 168).

The inherent complexity of an experience generally limits
the comprehensive examination of the experience through
reflection. Instead, individuals often identify specific incidents,
properties, factors or conditions that seem significant to the
process of navigating a new experience. While at times a person
will reflect on a series of events, at other times a person reflects
on a defining moment which is “a critical incident that gets the
person’s attention in a way that nothing [else] could…” (Kollter,
2001 p.32).

Reflecting Techniques

Although reflecting is a cognitive process, individuals use
several techniques to facilitate the process, including reflecting
through conversation and through writing. Both provide some
insight into the working of mind during reflecting. Reflecting
through conversation
provides an opportunity to “talk through”
the experience and its significance to the individual. Asking and
answering questions can help a person reflect by clarifying the
experience and help them recognize things not previously
identified or understood. Conversation also enables a person to
hear others’ perspectives and opinions and allows them to
compare the experience with that of others.

Writing or journaling can also facilitate the reflection
process by providing a means of recording actions, behaviors,
choices, thoughts and feelings. It creates a written record of the
experience that can be re-read and reflected on at a later time to
gain additional insights into the experience. Griffiths (2004)
states, “There is evidence that although reflective writing is
challenging, the scope of development is more valuable and
longer lasting when the activity is structured through a written
account” (p. 20). One participant expressed this by saying, “It was
pretty darn hard to try to write anything about it…Emotionally
speaking, I felt like I wasn’t up to it but I was able to make a
reaction to it in writing and make it meaningful.”

Approaches to Reflecting

People use various approaches to reflecting that not only
affect the reflecting process but also the results experienced.
Approaches to reflecting can be viewed as existing along a
continuum from reactive to proactive. A reactive approach is
characterized by the use of one of three different types of
behavior: deflecting, self-rumination or avoidance. Deflecting
involves blaming external factors and conditions and failing to
recognize and/or acknowledge the influence of personal choices,
actions, behaviors, thoughts and emotions on the navigating
process. This is exemplified in one person’s reflections on why he
was failing his classes. He said, “Right now, as a learner, my
problems consist of 20 things a day that I have no control over,
including, for example, having teachers who forget the
assignments they have assigned and grade you down for their

In contrast, self-rumination involves blaming one’s self,
including personal choices, actions, behaviors, thoughts and
emotions, and failing to recognize and/or acknowledge the
influence of factors and conditions outside individuals’ control on
the process of navigating a new experience. Research by
Joireman, Parrott and Hammersla (2002) explains that excessive
self-focus in self-rumination limits a person’s ability to focus
outward and think about others. Repeated use of such phrases as
“my fault” can indicate that an individual is claiming
responsibility for aspects of an experience regardless of whether
they were within their control or not. In both deflecting and selfrumination,
a person perceives that specific factors or conditions
have an exaggerated influence on navigating the experience and
limits reflection to these factors or conditions.

The final reactive approach to reflecting is avoidance. Some
people try to avoid reflecting on an experience if they feel exposed
and vulnerable when reflecting. In this case, a person is often
afraid of what may be discovered through the reflecting process
and is often unable to identify or explain the choices, actions,
behaviors, thoughts and/or emotions experienced while
navigating the experience. Sometimes, a person will avoid
reflecting because re-living the experience is too painful.

In proactively reflecting, a person may consciously identify
various aspects of an experience that affected their progress
through the experience including, but not limited to, individual
actions, choices, behaviors and feelings. Ford (1992) refers to as
cognitive regulation which he states

involves several different kinds of evaluative thoughts
designed to help people make wise and effective choices
among alternative goals, plans, and actions…it is an
evaluative decision-making function that is responsible
for determining whether a pattern of activity should be
initiated, altered, or terminated given a variety of
relevant factors: the person’s goals, values, capabilities,
emotions, and bodily states; and the facilitating and
constraining conditions currently operating in the
environment. (pp. 44-45)

The person analyses and evaluates these aspects to gain a
deeper understanding of their significance and influence on
navigating the experience or on the self. Reflection facilitates
gaining a deeper understanding of the experience through “adults
connecting what they have learned from current experiences to
those in the past as well to possible future situations” (Merriam
& Caffarella, 1999, p. 246). This understanding can help the
person navigate the current experience or future ones. Mezirow
(1996) defines this as learning when he states, “Learning is
understood as the process of using a prior interpretation to
construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s
experience in order to guide future action” (p. 162).

When proactively reflecting, a person is more likely to
recognize the transformative nature of the experience; to discover
both expected and unexpected benefits, including the acquisition
of new knowledge and skills; and/or to recognize personal growth
and gain a greater self-awareness. Brems (2001) identifies
individual, interpersonal, cultural, physical, and professional selfawareness
as different types of self-awareness that can be
developed through reflecting. Participants discussed how going
through the new experience and reflecting on it enabled them to
develop greater self-awareness in many of the areas identified by
Brems. A proactive approach to reflecting helps individuals
recognize the value and benefits of navigating the experience,
going beyond simply deciding what to do next in reaching one’s
goal. Proactively reflecting on navigating a new experience can
shape, affect and/or transform a person’s perspective, beliefs,
emotions, thoughts, actions and/or behaviors.

The results of reflecting vary depending on the experience
and the approach taken. Deflecting, self-rumination or avoidance
can result in a person failing to discover the benefits of
navigating a new experience or, even worse, can inhibit their
willing to navigate new experiences in the future. A proactive
approach can facilitate the discovery of expected and unexpected
benefits of navigating a new experience.

Implications for Practice

One cannot go through life without encountering new
experiences, many of which are entered voluntarily. As stated
earlier, one such experience that many adults enter voluntarily is
returning to school to continue their education. Although this
provided the original area of interest and starting point for this
study, the use of the grounded theory methodology resulted in the
emergence of a theory from the data which depicts the broader
social process of navigating a new experience. The resulting
theory transcends the substantive area and explains a basic
social process that occurs when people voluntarily enter and
successfully navigate new experiences. As Glaser (1992) explains,

Grounded theory often starts off with a study located
within a structural unit, such as in a particular business,
hospital or school. The conceptualization going on in
grounded theory automatically leaves the time and place
of this unit. The theory is no longer generalized to a unit,
but to a process which goes on in many other similar
units. (p. 137)

Mentoring Adult Learners

The theory of navigating can be used by mentors as a
framework for mentoring adult learners throughout a new
learning experience. It can help them identify and foster patterns
of behavior that enable adult learners to successfully traverse
new learning experiences. These behaviors help adult learners
deal with the challenges they face as they continue their
education, included but not limited to personal obligations. Each
of the three stages, Mapping, Embarking and Reflecting, and
their related behaviors, is discussed in relation to mentoring
adult learners. In each stage, it is about working with the learner
on developing these behaviors, not about telling the learner what
to do.

Mapping. When deciding whether or not to continue with
education, adults engage in three mapping behaviors: locating,
assessing one’s location in relation to a goal; surveying, gathering
information; and plotting, creating a plan. While some or all of
these behaviors often occur prior to entering a new educational
experience, mentors can investigate how these were used to help
the learner select the institution/program to enroll in. When this
is done early in the learner’s new educational experience, it can
help identify potential problems, such as a mismatch between
personal and institution goals, the individual’s level of
competence and what is needed to successfully complete the
program and personal obligations which may conflict with
program requirements. This mismatch is likely to occur when
learners are uncertain about their goals and/or when surveying
has been limited to such an extent that learners have not
gathered enough information on the institution/program to see if
it fits their needs. Thus, a mentor can help insure that the new
learning experience will work for learners and fits their needs.

Mentors are often involved in plotting as they advise the
learner on the best path through the new learning experience.
While mentors may have knowledge of the best sequencing and
pacing through the program, it is important that they know the
learner’s goal, level of competence and personal obligation so that
the plan fits the individual’s needs. This may mean altering the
sequencing and pacing. A “one-path fits all” approach to plotting
is unlikely to meet individual learner needs.

As the theory suggests, an individual may periodically reengage
in certain mapping behaviors as they navigate a new
experience. For example, locating can occur at various times
throughout the experience to reassess current location, consider
whether the current location is where one needs to be to reach the
goal and if not, how to get back on course. Surveying also occurs
at various times throughout the experience, especially when a
person confronts unexpected factors and conditions or when
verifying that the individual is on course to reach the goal.
Mentors can help learners with locating and surveying behaviors
as they go through their program. This is especially important if
a learner is “off course” or if the learner’s goals have changed.
When learners discover that they are off course, they are at
greater risk of giving up on their goals. A mentor can provide
guidance and support on how to get back on course. If the
learner’s goal has changed, the mentor can help advice on
plotting a new path to the new goal.

Embarking. While some learners may be able to
independently engage in normalizing to establish priorities, a
schedule, and a routine assisting them to identify where and
when to focus their time, energy and attention in order to reach
their goals, others may need the help of mentors, especially if
they fail to recognize the need to engage in this behavior. It is
important that a mentor remembers that this is about the
learner’s priorities, not the mentor’s. It can, at times, mean
focusing on personal obligations, rather than academics, in order
to manage personal obligations in such a way that they do not
derail learning. As a course of action is implemented, unexpected
factors and conditions are encountered that must be dealt with in
order to reach the goal. Often these relate to personal obligations.
When learners fail to successfully navigate new learning
experiences, it is often because they do not know how to deal with
these unexpected factors and conditions. Those who are
successful, engage in strategizing.

As learners encounter unexpected factors and conditions,
they often consider giving up and need the help of mentors to
develop other strategies that are more productive. Yet, this is
often when they avoid mentors because they do not want anyone
to know that they are struggling. Emotions, such as fear of
failure, are very influential at this point. While specific strategies
are dependent upon individual factors within the situation, being
open to the advice of others and to sampling different strategies
are key to dealing with unexpected factors and conditions and
minimizing their impact a learner’s progress.

Unexpected factors and conditions often change the
dynamics of a new learning experience. Learners may need help
returning to normalizing as new strategies are incorporated into
navigating the experience. A mentor can be very instrumental in
helping the adult learner cycle back and forth between
normalizing and strategizing while navigating.

Reflecting. As explained earlier, reflecting occurs
throughout the experience, as part of the preparation,
engagement and processing of an experience. Mentors can
encourage learners to proactively reflect by providing an
opportunity for conversation regarding past and present
experiences. Facilitating proactive reflection can help learners
identify various aspects of the present or past experiences that
impacted their progress including, but not limited to, individual
actions, choices, behaviors and feelings. This type of reflection
can help learners gain a deeper understanding of the experience
and apply this to current or future experiences. Encouraging and
facilitating proactive reflection can also help learners recognize
the value and benefits of navigating the experience that go
beyond deciding what to do next. It can shape, impact and/or
transform perspectives, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, actions
and/or behaviors, resulting in a more significant impact on
learners’ lives.

The application of the theory of navigating to mentoring is
not meant to imply that this is all mentors can or should do in
relation to adult learners. Rather the theory can be used as a
framework or tool to help identify and foster behaviors that
support successful traversing of new learning experiences and
can be used in conjunction with other best practices.

Mentoring and Coaching

While the theory of navigating can be used to mentor adult
learners, mentoring is not limited to educational settings.
Mentoring is also common in organizations and businesses. It
involves an informal or formal relationship between a mentor and
protégée designed to enhance performance, development and
career potential. The three integrated, cyclical stages of behaviors
identified in the theory of navigating can likewise be used as a
tool or framework for mentoring a protégée.

Many of the ways that an academic mentor can utilize the
stages of navigating as discussed above apply to career mentoring
and coaching. Personal and professional coaching involves a
working partnership between a coach and client to help the client
maximize personal or professional potential (International
Coaching Federation, 2008). Each relationship is individualized
to the specific needs and goals of the client. According to the
International Coaching Federation (2008), “Professional coaches
provide an ongoing partnership designed to help clients produce
fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives….and to
customize their approach to individual client needs” (pp.2-3). The
theory of navigating can be used as a framework for helping
individuals through new experiences, identifying and fostering
patterns of behavior that help in successfully traversing the

A key difference, however, in using the theory as a career
mentor or coach occurs during the mapping stage. Unlike an
academic mentor who is not present during the initial mapping, a
career mentor and coach would likely be very involved at this
stage as they help the individual (1) identify and clarify the goal,
(2) recognize personal factors, such as level of competence and
personal obligations, which have an impact on individuals’
preparedness and ability to successfully reach the goal and (3)
gather and interpret information on how to proceed towards the

Career mentoring and coaching are just two examples
beyond the substantive area where the theory of Navigating can
be applied. Undoubtedly, the theory of navigating has broader
implications to the many different types of helping professions
that assist people as they go through new experiences.

Limitations and Further Research

The theory of navigating a new experience would benefit
from future research in two directions. First, to maximize its
applicability in various settings, the theory would benefit from
further data collection and analysis in order to discover
variations that may emerge from navigating new experiences
within other substantive settings. Second, the specific
applicability of the theory to adult learners could be further
explored and developed. Of particular interest would be exploring
further strategies that can be used during the embarking stage to
help adult learners deal with unexpected factors and conditions
encountered in new educational experiences as well as exploring
further the role of reflecting in adult learning and how mentors
can facilitate the reflection stage. Two other discovered behaviors
that people use when encountering new experiences – drifting and
docking – merit further research. Both behaviors prevent an
individual from successfully navigating a new experience.
Finally, the use of grounded action (Simmons and Gregory, 2003)
would also be a logical and practical method for conducting
further research on the applicability of this theory. As the
authors explain, “grounded action is the application and
extension of grounded theory for the purpose of designing and
implementing practical actions such as interventions, program
designs, action models, social and organizational policies, and
change initiatives”.


Kara L. Vander Linden, Ed.D.
Fielding Graduate University
San Diego, California


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