Journal of Nursing Education

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The Effect of Freedom on the Learning of Gifted Nursing Students

Phoebe J Becktell, RN, MA

Abstract

The research was defined as a study which would attempt to show that the gifted learn better when provided with (a) the opportunity to meet course objectives as swiftly as individually able, and (b) freedom from time and place requirements tobroaden or deepen their education. Senior Practicum Laboratory, the vehicle through which the hypothesis was tobe tested, was a course designed to provide clinical practice for application of knowledge and skills related to group dynamics and leadership abilities as they apply to the organizational systems related to the practice of nursing. The gifted students were grouped together and separate from their dissimilar peers for their laboratory experience. However, they were included in the theory class which comprised the heterogeneous grouping of all students enrolled in the Senior Practicum course.

The students were told at the beginning of the semester that they were each to be assigned toa hospital unitasa"base of operation;" were to have freedom of time in which to meet objectives; that they could demonstrate mastery of course objectives on their assigned units as swiftly as they were able; and they would have freedom of time and place to broaden or deepen their learning experiences.

Data were collected by anecdotal records which were maintained throughout the semester by the investigator and the students, thereby providing two records for each subject. Data from the anecdotal records which demonstrated behaviors in three hierarchical categories were tallied. The categories were divided into:

1. Learning activities - those behaviors which demonstrated cognitive learning at the levels of knowledge and comprehension.

2. Problem identification - behavior which resulted from the application and analysis of learning.

3. Innovation and leadership - behaviors which demonstrated synthetic and evaluative thinking and its application.9

AU students were started on a schedule of two clinical days every other week. Course objectives and development of learning experiences were discussed with the students on day 1. Students then went to the units for orientation. Each student assigned him/herself to a team of patients.

For the next five clinical days the learning situation was structured in that the students came to the units from 7:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M., and had at least one hour of clinical conference after each week's experience. Students were making their own assignments so that they could broaden their learning as well as meet course objectives. They were also free to add additional clinical time to their schedules. However, only one student actually did this. The investigator was present in the hospital for advice, questioning, and supervision as necessary; and to make regular rounds for observation. Students were instructed to page the investigator if they needed to contact her for any reason.

On day 6 during the clinical conference time, experimental conditions were imposed. These conditions had been approved by the College of Nursing Committee on Human Rights. Freedom was restricted by deception since the students were aware of the investigator's conviction that freedom enhances the learning process for gifted students. They were offered the plausible (but false) explanation that Na tional League for Nursing accreditation requirements made it necessary to file for special permission to allow them freedom from regular faculty supervision. At that time the students accepted the restriction with good grace and without questions.

The plan was to restrict freedom for four clinical days and then to allow complete freedom without the structure of regular laboratory days, times, or places for the final four scheduled laboratory days. In fact, restrictions lasted only two clinical laboratory days. By the next regularly scheduled clinical week the students had devised several plans for removing or circumventing the…

"Nursing has for too long been guilty of promoting conformists and of being punitive to those who are innovative and creative. The demonstration of real leadership in nursing will come when those who are known leaders in the field identify, foster, and promote deliberate preparation of their successors." The emphasis today on the right of every individual to quality health care places an enormous burden for leadership development on all health care professionals, and exponentially, on nursing, the largest group of such professionals. One effect of the women's liberation movement is that all types of professional and academic fields are opening up for women. In nursing we may well stand to lose our share of the gifted who in the past have entered nursing largely because it was one professional area open to and dominated by women.

Background of the Study

The classic longitudinal study of gifted individuals, begun over 50 years ago by Terman, shows that "on entering college a good many (of the gifted) lose interest and make poor to mediocre records."2

Programs which have been developed for the gifted consist of, singly or in combination, acceleration in school, enrichment of curriculum, and homogeneous grouping. Any approach is a positive force in the development of potential in gifted students, and the greatest sin is to do nothing.3 Procedures for acceleration (advanced placement), and homogeneous grouping (Honors courses) for the gifted student are found at the college level. Many faculty have attempted to deal with the brighter student in the classroom by "enrichment." Such assignments are most often the very repetition which the gifted student does not need and which he very soon learns to avoid by masking his unique capabilities. Heist4 has edited a collection of writings pertinent to the creative college student in which the picture emerged of a gifted college student for whom there were high expectations but no predictive principles to insure excellence. Indeed, the student may be failing, troubled, and underachieving. There were no reports of specific teaching approaches from which one could predict outcomes. However, a theoretical framework was outlined in which flexibility of learning opportunities and freedom to engage in activities and experiences which permit development of individual talents were advocated.

The literature was especially meager in references related to the identification, nurturing, and preparation of gifted nurses. Aichlamyr5 has five recommendations for developing creativity in nursing students which are consistent with the theory related to gifted students. An unpublished study done by a group of Nursing Honors Students at the University of New Mexico in 1976 reported on Departmental Honors in Baccalaureate programs. Of 56 randomly selected schools contacted, 43 responded. Of these 43, only 7 had Honors programs. All of these programs identified students by academic performance.

Frequently mentioned in the literature, freedom needs careful limitation and def inition. The relative value of varyingamounts of structure for the free experience was an issue discussed by Torrance and Phillips6 as it pertained to the child. Based on their study, the investigator questioned the maturational reliability of ego control development. Would such control be demonstrated by college students due to their age alone, or would gifted college nursing students benefit from some structure to assist them in learning how to make use of their freedom?

Procedure

Hypothesis: The specific problem to be investigated by this study was the effect of freedom in the clinical learning environment on the learning activities of a group of gifted senior nursing students in order to identify what will stimulate learning and maintain interest. The null hypothesis to be tested statistically was stated: gifted nursing students will show no difference in learning activities when the amount of freedom in the learning environment varies.

In development of the research a number of assumptions were made:

1. Gifted students will complete course objectives sooner than average students.7 A correspondingly large quantity of time will therefore be available for additional learning.

2. Gifted students' learning will be enhanced by homogeneous grouping with other gifted students.

3. Gifted students have valuable contributions to make to a heterogeneous group of gifted and average students. Provision for such interaction should be provided.

4. Response of gifted students to assignments which require repetition or elaboration of learned content will lead to masking of abilities, failure, boredom, and/or anger.

Supported by this structure, the fascinating experience of working with a group of identified gifted nursing students began.

Identification of Subjects: Definition of gif tedness and identification of subjects have varied from study to study. The problem of identifying the creatively gifted has loomed as an especially difficult task. Until more definitive work can be done in this area, the selection of gif ted individuals with an l.Q. of 120 or above will include most of the creatively gifted for, "an l.Q. of 120 is the point below which creativity and intelligence are highly correlated, and above which there does not exist much correlation."8

Identification of gifted college students is especially difficult for two reasons: (l) lack of systematic identification and reporting procedures at the primary and secondary school levels, and (2) deficiency of tools adequate to measure adult intelligence uncontaminated by learning. Therefore, for this study, giftedness was defined in its broadest sense, utilizing the United States Office of Education official definition:

Those (individuals) who are identified by professionally qualified persons as capable of high performance. These are (students) who require differentiated educational programs to realize their contribution to self and society. The abilities, either potential or demonstrated, are: (a) general intellectual ability, (b) specific academic aptitude, (c) creative or productive thinking, (d) leadership ability, (e) visual or performing arts, (f) psychomotor.

Evidences of giftedness and techniques for identification for this study were defined as any one of the following:

1. l.Q. of 120+1 SEM.

2. American College Testing Program (ACT) scores in the 98th percentile or above ± 1 SD. (Standard score 24 or above.)

3. GPA 3.5 or above on a 4.0 scale.

4. Faculty recommendation.

5. Peer recommendation.

6. Self-inclusion.

The latter two were deemed necessary due to the large numbers of ethnically and culturally distinct students who are all too frequently penalized by standardized measurements and/or society's misunderstanding of cultural patterns.

Other non-test characteristics and attributes, selected from the literature on the gifted, were offered to faculty and students toassistthemin making recommendations:

1. Having a repertoire of coping mechanisms, that is the ability to express feelingsand emotions using several outlets.

2. Ability to improvise; to generalize.

3. Being articulate in any language - expressive and colorful speech. (This was announced as especially important in identifying the gifted student who is linguistically distinct.)

4. Empathy.

5. Use of fantasy.

6. Humor.

7. Flow of Ideas. Alert. Keen observer.

8. Originality in problem solving.

9. Multiplicity of interests, curious.

Twelve students were identified asgifted from a senior class of 60. One student withdrew from the course due to family health problems. Two other students chose not to participate in the study for personal reasons. Nine students, then, made up the group of gifted students in the initial study.

Table 1 demonstrates the eclectic approach used to identify subjects for the study. It also shows the necessity for utilizing a variety of criteria for identifying the gifted college student, for no one category was a consistent clue to giftedness. The table, however, in no way demonstrates the dynamic potential of the individuals. It does not, for example, show the"intuitive"problem solving of the creatively gifted subject whose thought processes were primarily simultaneous rather than successive. Nor does it exhibit the growth of another whose early academic career was filled with honors, but who later succumbed to the leveling of abilities frequently found in college students. And certainly it does not reflect humor of another and the powerful impact of the Indian heritage of still another.

Table

TABLE 1EVIDENCES OF GIFTEDNESS

TABLE 1

EVIDENCES OF GIFTEDNESS

The research was defined as a study which would attempt to show that the gifted learn better when provided with (a) the opportunity to meet course objectives as swiftly as individually able, and (b) freedom from time and place requirements tobroaden or deepen their education. Senior Practicum Laboratory, the vehicle through which the hypothesis was tobe tested, was a course designed to provide clinical practice for application of knowledge and skills related to group dynamics and leadership abilities as they apply to the organizational systems related to the practice of nursing. The gifted students were grouped together and separate from their dissimilar peers for their laboratory experience. However, they were included in the theory class which comprised the heterogeneous grouping of all students enrolled in the Senior Practicum course.

The students were told at the beginning of the semester that they were each to be assigned toa hospital unitasa"base of operation;" were to have freedom of time in which to meet objectives; that they could demonstrate mastery of course objectives on their assigned units as swiftly as they were able; and they would have freedom of time and place to broaden or deepen their learning experiences.

Data were collected by anecdotal records which were maintained throughout the semester by the investigator and the students, thereby providing two records for each subject. Data from the anecdotal records which demonstrated behaviors in three hierarchical categories were tallied. The categories were divided into:

1. Learning activities - those behaviors which demonstrated cognitive learning at the levels of knowledge and comprehension.

2. Problem identification - behavior which resulted from the application and analysis of learning.

3. Innovation and leadership - behaviors which demonstrated synthetic and evaluative thinking and its application.9

AU students were started on a schedule of two clinical days every other week. Course objectives and development of learning experiences were discussed with the students on day 1. Students then went to the units for orientation. Each student assigned him/herself to a team of patients.

For the next five clinical days the learning situation was structured in that the students came to the units from 7:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M., and had at least one hour of clinical conference after each week's experience. Students were making their own assignments so that they could broaden their learning as well as meet course objectives. They were also free to add additional clinical time to their schedules. However, only one student actually did this. The investigator was present in the hospital for advice, questioning, and supervision as necessary; and to make regular rounds for observation. Students were instructed to page the investigator if they needed to contact her for any reason.

On day 6 during the clinical conference time, experimental conditions were imposed. These conditions had been approved by the College of Nursing Committee on Human Rights. Freedom was restricted by deception since the students were aware of the investigator's conviction that freedom enhances the learning process for gifted students. They were offered the plausible (but false) explanation that Na tional League for Nursing accreditation requirements made it necessary to file for special permission to allow them freedom from regular faculty supervision. At that time the students accepted the restriction with good grace and without questions.

The plan was to restrict freedom for four clinical days and then to allow complete freedom without the structure of regular laboratory days, times, or places for the final four scheduled laboratory days. In fact, restrictions lasted only two clinical laboratory days. By the next regularly scheduled clinical week the students had devised several plans for removing or circumventing the restrictions. They were willing to do anything from "trading" scheduled times to, as a group, calling in sick. They openly shared all of these plans with the investigator since they were under the impression that restrictions were not her doing or responsibility. That week there were also three absences from clinical assignments among the group- an unusually large number.

The next week the students had formed a cohesive group determined to remove the restrictions to their freedom. They negotiated, then divided the faculty teaching the theory portion of Senior Practicum by approaching them separately and using discrepancies in faculty replies to expose illogical and inconsistent responses. In fact their approach so compromised faculty credibility that the investigator, after consulting with the research committee, decided to reinstate freedom in the learning environment. Freedom without structure was granted for the final six days of the laboratory session. A group conference was held after completion of the research. At this conference research conditions were explained to the students. Although they readily admitted that they had been trying to identify what the experiment was, none of them had suspected the deception.

Results

Numbers of learning activities, as documented by the records kept by the students and investigator, were tabulated with respect to the time frame in which they occurred. The data related to effect of freedom on learning were first subjected to an analysis of variance test to check for significant differences between means of groups. The two groups of data analyzed were (a) number of learning activities of subjects, and (b) numbers of learning activities between treatments. This test showed that there was no significant difference between subjects, a finding which is consistent with the pattern of selection for gifted students and the assumption that there was homogeneous grouping. However, the difference between means of treatments had an F value of 16.88, significant at the p<0.01 level. This value demonstrated a difference rela ted to experimental conditions which necessitated further analysis to identify what the differences were and in which direction. Analysis of the data for comparison was made by use of the correlated t test. The difference between the periods of Freedom With Structure (FWS) and Restriction (R) had a t value of 2.62, significant at p<0.05 level. The difference between FWS and Freedom Without Structure (F) had a t value of 6.39, significant at p<0.001. The difference between R and F, with t value of 2.63, was again, significant at p<0.05 level.

The analysis of data, then, implied superior treatment of gifted students to be Freedom With Structure. A finding which did not support the hypothesis but which demonstrated failure of these college nursing seniors to develop ego control adequate for responsible use of freedom is that both FWS and R were superior to F as educational approaches to the gifted nursing student.

There were data to support the belief that gifted students will benefit from homogeneous grouping with comparably gifted peers. Eight out of nine subjects verbalized a straight-forward preference for this type of grouping. They perceived a peer support in contrast to previously experienced competition; an appreciation of each others' abilities; and a group process which contributed toan acceptance of themselves as unique and gifted. They affirmed, however, that they were made to feel "different" by homogeneous grouping.

Contributions in heterogeneous groups with their dissimilar peers were valuable. Their leadership in academic, creative, intellectual, and organizational endeavors was sought and utilized. These contributions in other classes were noticeable enough to be remarked upon by faculty teaching other courses.

There was a great deal of variation in the time of completion of course objectives. In general, course objectives were approached in combination with other learning activities and therefore show no pattern of "early" completion. In all cases, however, there was considerable learning time available in excess of that necessary to meet course objectives.

Another difference was implied by total numbers of learning activities by category. Sixty percent of the subjects had larger numbers of the higher cognitive processes. That is, synthetic and evaluative processes exceeded knowledge and comprehension processes. Sixty percent, too, had equal or larger numbers of application and analysis than knowledge and comprehension. Averages of all subjects' learning were also higher for cognitive processes.

The Hawthorne effect might be at play in research which has been announced as such and in which subjects are aware that effects are being scrutinized. The Hawthorne effect would tend to increase all learning activities throughout the period of research, however, and would not be expected to show differential and periodic influence. Indeed, the Hawthorne effect would tend to level the numbers of learning activities in all time frames, thus intensifying the statistical differences which do exist.

Discussion

Although the sample N is small, this study has shed some light on the power which the educational environment exerts over the development of talent. Freedom, which is supported by the organization of flexible requirements for learning, is shown to have a positive influence of measureable value for the gifted. These nine students had not previously been exposed to real freedom in learning. They had not had opportunity to test out if such freedom was real or illusory. Nor had they had guidance, experience, or example in the use of freedom in learning. Most of them were aware of this lack of background in the use of freedom, and several verbalized a problem developing their own learning in a setting restricted by time to practice different approaches.

Since this study also contributed some evidence to support the belief that the cognitive style, as altered by giftedness, is largely at higher levels of learning, there is a need to carefully analyze competence levels and make more reasonable and rational decisions concerning selection of instructors, learning approaches, and curricular modifications.

Although this was an interesting group of students who approached learning in an unusual way, one of the more important aspects of their approach to learning was a near total denial of their own uniqueness. The students spontaneously identified the lack of positive reinforcement for their capabilities as the crucial factor in their own failure to accept and utilize their talents. This attitude was so pervasive and so powerful that it was actually crippling in some instances. The principle of equality had permeated the image of these special people. Surely, then, one of the approaches to their treatment must concern itself with acceptance, by themselves and others, of the duty to identify the qualifications and fix the responsibility for performance consistent with capability.

While any new approach to the education of professionals should be looked atcriticalIy, it should be understood that an emphasis on the development of intellectual talent may elicit the suspicion of the nescient and may, indeed, be perceived as undemocratic by those who believe that equality of education consists of uniformity of treatment. However, as Schlotfeldt' points out, "Some of those who will be carefully chosen and nurtured will develop a new kind of leadership. . . It is they who will have the greatest responsibility and yet the greatest opportunity. For it will be they upon whom their fellows will depend for leadership in building a better world in which to live."

References

  • 1. Schlotfeldt R: Knowledge, leaders - progress. Address given at the Installation of Alpha Lambda Chapter of Sigma Thêta Tau, University of Illinois, February 19, 1966.
  • 2. Terman LM: Genetic Studies of Genius. Vol. IV: The Gifted Child Grows Up. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, ? 377, 1947.
  • 3. Gowan JC, Torrance PP (eds): Educating the Ablest. Itasea, Illinois, Peacock Publishers, Inc.
  • 4. Heist P (ed): The Creative College Student: An Unmet Challenge. San Francisco, California, Jossey-Bass, Ine, 1968.
  • 5. Aichlmayr R: A need to identify and develop the creative student. iNursEduc.pp 19-27, November, 1969.
  • 6. Torrance T, Phillips: Development of ego control through creative activities. The Gifted Child Quarterly, pp 271-274, Winter, 1972.
  • 7. Carroll JB: Problems of measurement relative to the concept of learning for mastery. Ei/ Horizons 48(3): 71-80, 1970.
  • 8. Gowan JC: The relationship between creativity and giftedness. Gifted Child Q. 242, Winter, 1971.
  • 9. Bloom BS (ed): Taxonomy of Etlucational Goals: Handbook Í - Cognitive Domain. New York, David McKay Co, Ine, 1956.

TABLE 1

EVIDENCES OF GIFTEDNESS

10.3928/0148-4834-19811101-05

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