Journal of Nursing Education

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Independent Study As A Learning Experience in Baccalaureate Nursing Programs: Perceptions and Practices

Margaret R Dear, RN, PhD; Genevieve Bartol, RN, EdD

Abstract

ABSTRACT

While nursing education recognizes the need for independent study in baccalaureate nursing education, the literature suggests that nursing educators hold diverse views on the meaning, purpose, and conduct of independent study. This study reports the findings of a survey of nursing faculty designed to learn more about the perceptions and practices of independent study in baccalaureate nursing education. A mailed questionnaire was used to gather information from a random sample of nursing faculty at 40 baccalaureate nursing programs in the South. Fifty-one percent of the 441 faculty members responded. Of the 219 respondents, 95% reported independent study in their schools; however, wide variation in practices and faculty perceptions was evident. Limitations in curriculum design, available resources and time were influential factors in provision of opportunities for independent study. The lack of consensus suggests that faculty examine independent study options so that efforts may be better coordinated.

Abstract

ABSTRACT

While nursing education recognizes the need for independent study in baccalaureate nursing education, the literature suggests that nursing educators hold diverse views on the meaning, purpose, and conduct of independent study. This study reports the findings of a survey of nursing faculty designed to learn more about the perceptions and practices of independent study in baccalaureate nursing education. A mailed questionnaire was used to gather information from a random sample of nursing faculty at 40 baccalaureate nursing programs in the South. Fifty-one percent of the 441 faculty members responded. Of the 219 respondents, 95% reported independent study in their schools; however, wide variation in practices and faculty perceptions was evident. Limitations in curriculum design, available resources and time were influential factors in provision of opportunities for independent study. The lack of consensus suggests that faculty examine independent study options so that efforts may be better coordinated.

Independent study for the college student has been identified as a valuable mechanism for promoting selfdirected learning. Nursing education recognizes the importance of independent study in the baccalaureate curriculum, both through past literature (Lysaught, 1969; Seedar, 1963; Sorensen, 1968), and through the professional accrediting body, the National League for Nursing (NLN), The purpose of this paper is to describe perceptions and practices of independent study which are evident at present in baccalaureate nursing education.

Background

Paduano (1979) traces early efforts to provide selfinstructional programs in nursing to projects undertaken at the University of South Dakota in 1962 and later at Columbia University and the University of Rochester. These early programs and other such projects were generally intended for students with honor grades. Paduano and her colleagues developed an independent study option for nursing courses and concluded from their experience that their option provided a vehicle for effective teaching and learning. In their view, less academically talented students, as well as more proficient students, can utilize independent study to become more resourceful in dealing with new issues as they appear in future decades.

Hausdorff (1973) characterized independent study as a method which promised dynamic possibilities within higher education. She identified the need for further review of independent study programs already in existence as well as the examination of the educational and psychological climate of the school in which independent study takes place. Hanson (1974) identified the attraction which independent study opportunities hold for students. She pointed out the potential for personal and professional growth in the student who engages in independent study in nursing. Among positive outcomes Hanson stressed the fostering of leadership qualities, the possibility of immediate feedback, and the student's assumption of responsibility for her own learning.

Nevertheless, the literature suggests that nursing educators hold divergent views on the meaning and purpose of independent study (Hegge, 1973; Kayser, 1973; Stein, Steele, Fuller & Langhoff, 1972). For example, more recently Sommerfeld and Hughes (1980) identified independent study in their baccalaureate nursing curriculum as a specific, faculty-designed course in which senior students participated in a variety of outpatient clinical settings. Preceptors guided clinical experience while faculty members worked with students in seminars and other learning activities which took place away from the clinical setting. The course was intended to promote development of critical thinking and judgment skills in senior students yet learning activities were prescribed.

Fischbach (1977) also acknowledged the eagerness of nursing students to develop professionally at their own pace using their personal skills. This author views today's nursing students as more sophisticated than students of the past, and points out the need for a climate supportive of open-ended clinical experience. Other authors point out the valuable contributions of various types of independent study opportunities for their students (Schare, 1977; Lionberger, 1975). Bumbalo and Steele (1970) developed an independent study experience in their university-based nursing program which was open only to senior students. Jones (1974) also described projects for senior students in which the faculty wrote the objectives and identified expected behaviors. In this situation students' independence was limited to their selection of the faculty for clinical supervision. Finch (1971) identified a program called independent study in which the objectives, tasks, outcomes and study guides were clearly defined. Clearly, variations in independent study are evident both in conceptualization and in implementation in baccalaureate nursing education within the past decade.

Little is known, however, about what actually occurs within most baccalaureate nursing programs in regard to independent study. The NLN has identified the presence of opportunities for independent study as being among the criteria for accreditation of baccalaureate nursing programs. Given its importance in the curricular concerns of baccalaureate education, the authors contacted the NLN concerning the "official" definition of independent study which is used for accreditation purposes. According to the response of a League official, no definitive statement on independent study has been made by the NLN in order to permit baccalaureate nursing programs to develop independent study approaches which would suit the individual program's goals.

Purpose of the Study

In order to add to the knowledge of this important area of the teaching-learning process, an investigation was initiated under the auspices of the Nursing Curriculum Research Project, Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Prior to the study, a review of the available literature showed a limited amount of information on the topic. Although the presence of opportunities for independent study is a criterion for accreditation by the NLN, relatively few authors have addressed this subject within the last decade. Of the articles reviewed, a number described specific independent study experiences in a particular nursing education program. Information concerning current practice within nursing education as a whole was lacking.

It was decided that a survey of perceptions and practices concerning independent study in baccalaureate programs would contribute to nursing education through identification of the current thinking of nursing faculty and administrators on this important topic. The purpose of the investigation was to learn more about the perceptions and practices of independent study within baccalaureate nursing programs in the SREB region. A working definition of independent study was adopted for use in the investigation:

the student's self-directed pursuit of academic competence in as autonomous a manner as he is able to exercise at any particular time; a capability and goal to be achieved. It is acknowledged that it requires practice to foster an individual student's autonomy (Dressel & Thompson, 1973, p. 1).

Research questions included: 1. What are the perceptions of independent study as a learning experience in baccalaureate nursing programs? 2. What are the practices of independent study as a learning experience in baccalaureate nursing programs?

A survey design was employed in order to identify current perceptions and practices concerning independent study in baccalaureate nursing education.

Methods

To survey a broad section of nursing educators, a sample of faculty members was drawn randomly from the SREB list of baccalaureate programs. Four hundred fortyone faculty members were selected for participation in the study, as well as 15 deans or department chairmen from the same region. A questionnaire was developed which incorporated separate sections to be addressed by faculty members and administrators as well as an opinion questionnaire which both groups answered in common. The questionnaire included items concerning the current state and practice of independent study in each school, as well as purposes, definitions, illustrations, and descriptions of student activities. In this way, perceptions of independent study, as well as the practices current in the school, could be examined. The early form of the instrument was pre-tested using a convenience sample of 14 faculty members and three administrators. Data from this pilot study were used to develop the questionnaire further so that it would be a comprehensive and accurate tool for use in the investigation.

After refinement, it was mailed to 441 nursing faculty members at 40 baccalaureate nursing programs in the South, as well as to 15 baccalaureate program administrators in the same region. All participants were asked to sign a consent form in accord with usual guidelines for protection of human subjects. Data reported here are from the faculty respondents only.

Findings of the Survey

Of the sample addressed, 57% returned the questionnaire, of which 51% were usable. Teaching experience of participating faculty members ranged from one year to 26 years, with the median at seven and ahalf years of experience. Experience in the present faculty position ranged from one to 22 years with the median at five and a half years in the present position.

Table

TABLE 1INDEPENDENT STUDY DESCRIPTIONS BY PERCENTAGES OF FACULTY (N = 219)

TABLE 1

INDEPENDENT STUDY DESCRIPTIONS BY PERCENTAGES OF FACULTY (N = 219)

Table

TABLE 2FACTORS AFFECTING IS NURSING COURSES BY PERCENTAGES OF FACULTY PERCEPTIONS (N = 219)

TABLE 2

FACTORS AFFECTING IS NURSING COURSES BY PERCENTAGES OF FACULTY PERCEPTIONS (N = 219)

Table

TABLE 3DESCRIPTION OF PRACTICES RELATED BY FACULTY AS SYNONYMOUS WITH IS PRACTICES (N = 219)

TABLE 3

DESCRIPTION OF PRACTICES RELATED BY FACULTY AS SYNONYMOUS WITH IS PRACTICES (N = 219)

Percentages are used to report the data from participating faculty. Of the 219 faculty members included in the study, 95% reported that their schools provided opportunities for independent study (IS) in nursing courses; of these, 75% involved clinical nursing practice while 83% involved library study. Seventy-six percent of the IS student activities assigned credit; however, only 54% allowed self-pacing and 57% allowed program flexibility. Goals were described as mutually developed by students and faculty by 71% of the respondents (Table 1).

The variation in the factors identified points out the need for nursing educators to look closely at the constraining influences which affect independent study practices. Particular problems of special concern relate to program and curriculum limitations which influence independent study, as well as those factors concerning faculty preparation and their willingness to sponsor IS programs. These factors become more significant in reflecting on the fact that 33% of the faculty reported that all students are required to take IS study courses in their programs.

Again, the differences of opinion suggest a wide variety of perceptions and practices regarding independent study in baccalaureate nursing education.

The variation in perceptions of what Independent Study is and is not appears in the wide differences of opinion in all areas identified above. Table 2 shows the percentages of faculty responses concerning factors affecting IS nursing courses in their programs.

Discussion

Current literature encourages nurse educators to develop and implement independent study opportunities in baccalaureate nursing programs. The NLN includes the presence of such opportunities as a criterion for program accreditation. However, the survey of nursing faculty reported here indicates a wide variation in both perceptions and in practices of IS within contemporary nursing education (Table 3).

The significance of these findings relates to several areas of importance to nursing education. First, the findings that show wide variety of opinion on what IS is and how it is defined have meaning for nursing programs which are accredited by measures of structured criteria, including the criterion that opportunities for IS exist in a nursing program. If independent study is so loosely defined as to promote dissensus among nursing faculty as to what it is and is not, this situation poses a problem for faculty and administrators in developing suitable IS opportunities for their students.

Another problem area relates to the number of factors which affect IS nursing courses. While all of the limitations represent serious concerns for nursing educators, the particular effects of time and resources seem especially cogent. Credit allowance limitation acknowledged by 38% of the respondents indicate that the structure of the curriculum itself may preclude or at least cut down on 18 opportunities.

The limited availability of clinical agencies and their restrictions also have their effects. The lack of faculty willingness to sponsor IS programs (reported by 25% of respondents) is a surprising element here. The source of this lack of willingness might well be determined in future research.

The third area involves the practices described by faculty as synonymous with independent study. These range from across the board unlimited cuts (6% reported) to selfdirected learning (80% reported), with all areas showing a variety of thinking as to the nature of IS practices. While such diversity of opinion may well suggest an unfettered approach to Independent Study, the lack of consensus also suggests that nursing faculties should examine their perceptions and practices of IS so that their efforts in this direction become better coordinated.

In conclusion, what appears to be the significant findings of this survey is the dispersion of responses of faculty members in two important areas - the description of the influential factors in, and the practices synonymous with independent study. In the light of these findings, it is suggested that future research be carried out to identify directions which nursing educators need to pursue in order to develop IS opportunities within baccalaureate nursing education.

References

  • Bumbalo, J., & Steele, S. (1970). Independent study: an experience for senior nursing students. Nursing Outlook, 18, 40-43.
  • Dressel, PL., & Thompson, M.A. (1973). Independent study: A new interpretation of concepts, priorities and problems. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Finch, A. J. (1971). For students only: a system for learning. Nursing Outlook, 19, 332-335.
  • Fischbach, P.M. (1977, February). Personal growth and learning of students in an open-ended clinical experience; a motivational philosophy. Journal of Nursing Education, 16, 30-33.
  • Furnell, M. et al. (1976, Summer). Evaluation of the use of independent study modules. Nursing Papers 8, 31-35.
  • Hausdorff, J. (1974). Independent study and experience of baccalaureate nursing students and perceived autonomy. In ML. Pitzpatrick, (Ed.), Present Realities - Future Imperatives in Nursing Education. Research in Nursing, Papers from the 12th Annual Stewart Conference. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Hanson, K.H. (1974, May). Independent study: A student's view. Nursing Outlook, 22, 329-330.
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TABLE 1

INDEPENDENT STUDY DESCRIPTIONS BY PERCENTAGES OF FACULTY (N = 219)

TABLE 2

FACTORS AFFECTING IS NURSING COURSES BY PERCENTAGES OF FACULTY PERCEPTIONS (N = 219)

TABLE 3

DESCRIPTION OF PRACTICES RELATED BY FACULTY AS SYNONYMOUS WITH IS PRACTICES (N = 219)

10.3928/0148-4834-19840601-05

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