Journal of Nursing Education

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A Comparative Study of Adult Developmental Patterns of RN and Generic Students in a Baccalaureate Nursing Program

Joan E King, PhD, RN

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The current influx of RN students into baccalaureate nursing programs has led to many curriculum changes that are based on the unverified assumption that the RN students are "different." This study examined the differences and similarities among RN and generic nursing students using a conceptual framework designed by Weathersby (1977) which incorporated into a single framework Levinson's life stage, Loevinger's ego development, and Kolb's learning styles theories in order to trace the adult development patterns of generic and RN students. Three instruments were used: The Washington University Sentence Completion Test, the KoIb Learning Style Inventory, and Tarule's Educational Experience Inventory. The sample consisted of 49 RNs and 30 generic students enrolled at a large southern state university. The results of the analyses revealed significant difference between RN and generic students on the variables life stages and ego development but not on learning styles. These results substantiated the premise that RN and generic students differ significantly in their stages of adult development, and consequently affect the students' perception and expectations of the educational process.

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The current influx of RN students into baccalaureate nursing programs has led to many curriculum changes that are based on the unverified assumption that the RN students are "different." This study examined the differences and similarities among RN and generic nursing students using a conceptual framework designed by Weathersby (1977) which incorporated into a single framework Levinson's life stage, Loevinger's ego development, and Kolb's learning styles theories in order to trace the adult development patterns of generic and RN students. Three instruments were used: The Washington University Sentence Completion Test, the KoIb Learning Style Inventory, and Tarule's Educational Experience Inventory. The sample consisted of 49 RNs and 30 generic students enrolled at a large southern state university. The results of the analyses revealed significant difference between RN and generic students on the variables life stages and ego development but not on learning styles. These results substantiated the premise that RN and generic students differ significantly in their stages of adult development, and consequently affect the students' perception and expectations of the educational process.

Introduction

Recently there has been an increase in the number of RN students wishing to earn their baccalaureate degree. With increasing numbers of RNs attending college, nurse educators have sought to make curriculum and support service changes in order to better meet the RN students' needs. These changes have ranged from special curricula such as the external degree program and the two plus two program to adjustments such as scheduling changes, special classes, workshops and orientation sessions, added counseling services, and support groups (Coombe, Jabbusch, Jones, Pesznecker, Rubb, & Young, 1981; Curran & Lengacher, 1982; Hasse, 1982; Martens, 1981; Muzio & Ohashi, 1979; Newman & Wyatt, 1981; Parloche & Hirake, 1982). The changes that nurse educators have proposed and implemented have been based upon the assumption that the RN is "different" from the generic baccalaureate student. These differences have been globally described as "special characteristics" (Parloche & Hirake, 1982) as well as demographic differences which describe the RN students as married or previously married, currently working and under financial constraints (Dustan, 1981; Parloche & Hirake, 1982; Wooley, 1973).

One potential major flaw in these developments is that the assumptions about the differences between RN students and generic students have not been empirically verified. The result is that the present direction of curriculum changes created to accommodate RN students are weakly substantiated. External factors such as work and family responsibilities may, indeed, be variables that contribute to the differentiation of an RN student from a generic student, but it is essential to examine the situation at a more basic level.

In an effort to further understand the issues distinguishing RN students from generic students, this study sought to use theories of adult development to document the similarities and differences between RN and generic students. Modeling research Weathersby (1977) conducted at Goddard College, three theories of adult development were combined into a single conceptual framework. These three theories are life phases as defined by Levinson (1978), ego development as defined by Loevinger (1976), and learning styles as defined by KoIb (1974). It is believed that each of these three domains taps a separate area of adult development, and by incorporating them into a single framework, phases of individual development will emerge as distinct patterns. Thus, the basic conceptual framework for the study was that the measurement of life stage, ego development and learning styles will reflect phases of individual adult development which, when correlated with a person's participation in higher education, the significance and the role of education with respect to facilitating adult development will emerge as identifiable patterns (Weathersby, 1977).

Examining the separate components of this framework more closely, life stage refers to periods of stability and transition that occur throughout the life cycle (Levinson, 1978). Levinson theorizes that adult development is not a continuous process; rather, there are definite periods of development that differ qualitatively. He has documented that the life structure, or the pattern to one's life at a specific time, "evolves through a relatively orderly sequence during the adult years" (1978, p. 49). The sequencing is characterized by stable periods which are separated by transitional periods. The stable periods - Entering the Adult World, Settling Down, Entering Middle Adulthood, Culmination of Middle Adulthood, and Late Adulthood - represent "structure building periods" (Levinson, 1978, p. 49) in which an individual's goals are well defined and a persons energies are directed toward meeting those goals. The psychosocial development tasks of each stable period are unique unto themselves, and these tasks represent the relationship of a specific stable period to the entire life cycle. Serving as bridges or "structure-changing periods" (Levinson, 1978, p. 49) are the transitional periods. The transitional periods are Early Adult Transition, the Age 30 Transition, Mid-Life Transition, Age 50 Transition, and the Late Adulthood Transition. Since only part of an individual's self is satisfied during a stable period, the alternations in a life structure can be viewed as an effort to resolve disparities between fulfilled aspects of one's self and unmet needs. The transitional periods, hence, provide an individual the opportunity to question underlying beliefs, goals, or issues that are pertinent to a specified life structure and redirect or redefine one's purpose. Thus, paramount in Levinson's theory is the concept of change.

The second construct, ego development, refers to the "moral development, socialization, character structure and cognitive development" (Loevinger, 1976, p. 4). Loevinger has divided ego development into ten steps ranging from Presocial, where one does not differentiate oneself from others, to the Integrated level, where one strives for complete self-actualization. In between these two extreme stages are the Symbiotic Stage, the Impulsive Stage, the Self-Protective Stage, the Conformist Stage, the SelfAware Level, the Conscientious Stage, the Individualistic Level, and the Autonomous Stage. Each stage or phase represents a sequential hierarchical progression in the complexity of one's views and interpretation of both oneself and others. Using the conceptualization of education as an example, at the Conformist Stage education is a way to get a better job, while at the Conscientious Stage education is viewed as a way to improve oneself. As one proceeds to the Integrated Level education is seen as a right, and a privilege as well as a necessity.

The third construct, learning styles, refers to individual differences in approaches to learning. This theory proposes that "learning becomes a central life task and how one learns becomes a major determinant of the course of his/her personal development" (Wolfe & KoIb, 1979, p. 543). Specifically, KoIb 's theory of experiential learning postulates that the learning process is cyclical and consists of four distinct but interrelated abilities: concrete experiences, reflective observations, abstract conceptualization or theory development, and active experimentation. Expanding on this theory, KoIb (1974) stated that although the learning process consists of these four approaches, individuals tend to emphasize only one or two of them. This has led KoIb to classify learners into four main groups: convergers, divergere, accommodators, and assimilators. Specifically, convergers represent people who employ abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. Divergere use concrete experience and reflective observation while assimilators employ abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. Finally, accommodators are individuals who are proficient at using concrete experience and active experimentation.

Hypotheses

In an effort to obtain a clearer picture of the differences and similarities between RN and generic students, a research project was designed to examine the developmental differences of RN and generic students attending a large state university baccalaureate nursing program. In applying Weathersbys theoretical framework to generic and RN students, the following null hypotheses were examined:

1 . Generic and RN students do not differ with respect to the relative frequency of occurrence on all categorical demographic variables, nor do they differ with respect to the means of the interval scales on all other demographics.

2. The relative frequencies of occurrence of life stages as defined by Levinson are equal for the generic and RN students.

3. The means for the Loevinger Item Sum Scores which measure ego development are equal for the generic and RN students.

4. The relative frequencies of occurrence of learning styles as defined by KoIb are equal for the generic and RN students.

Definitions

The following definitions were used in this study:

RN student - a licensed professional nurse who has enrolled in a baccalaureate nursing program.

Generic student - a student who has matriculated through all four years at the same institution and who was between 20 and 22 years of age.

Table

TABLE 1SUMMARY STATISTICS AND TESTS OF SIGNIFICANCE ON DEMOGRAPHIC VARIABLES

TABLE 1

SUMMARY STATISTICS AND TESTS OF SIGNIFICANCE ON DEMOGRAPHIC VARIABLES

Sample

The sample consisted of the senior class of a baccalaureate nursing program at a large state-supported university. Sixty-five RNs and 95 non-RNs comprised the fall senior class. Criteria for inclusion in this study were that the student had to be either (a) a licensed professional nurse or (b) 20-22 years of age and had matriculated through all four years at the same institution. Thus, transfer students and other non-traditional students were not included in the design of this study. (Further sample description can be found in the Results section.)

Instruments

The following instruments were used in this study: the Washington University Sentence Completion test (WUSCT), the KoIb Learning Style Inventory (KSLI), and the Tarule's Educational Experience Inventory (EEI).

The WUSCT is a measure of ego development designed by Loevinger, Wessler, and Redmore (Loevinger & Wessler, 1970). The test consists of 36 sentence stems. The responses were scored according to the rules outlined by Loevinger (1976), and Item Sum Scores (ISS) were determined. Because of the complexity of the scoring process (which was done at the Social Science Institute at Washington University) random subsamples of 25 RN and 25 generic students' WUSCT forms were read and scored.

The second instrument used was the KLSI. This test consists of nine sets of words. Within each set there are four words which subjects were asked to rank order from the most characteristic of their individual learning style to the least. The KLSI was scored according to the rules outlined by KoIb (1974), and students were assigned to one of four groups - divergere, convergers, assimilators, or accommodators.

The last measure that was used was the EEI. This questionnaire was developed by Weathersby and Tarule in order to measure life phases and the impact of education on adult development (Weathersby, 1977). It contains openended questions, scaled items, and demographic questions which were modified to gain more biographical data as well as to make the questions more pertinent to a baccalaureate nursing program. In order to reduce rater bias, a priori decision rules were made concerning anticipated responses for each of Levinson's ten stages, and these decisions were verified by a second independent rater. Based on these decisions, the investigator developed a computer program which categorized each subject into one of the Levinson stages.

Procedure

After permission was granted from the dean of the school of nursing, a one-time survey of the senior class was conducted midway during the fall semester. Students were asked to voluntarily complete the three paper and pencil instruments - the WUSC, the EEI, and the KLSI. The questionnaires were distributed personally by the investigator and either collected the following day or the questionnaires were mailed back to the investigator. Of the 160 students surveyed, 49 RN students and 30 generic students meeting the inclusive criteria responded. An additional 32 other individuals also returned the questionnaires, but were excluded from the data analysis because they did not meet the criteria for inclusion in this study.

Results and Discussion

The findings revealed that RN and generic students differed not only on several demographic variables but also on two of the three dimensions of adult development. As Table 1 indicates, the demographic variables that emerged as significantly different were: (a) age, (b) the number of semesters completed at this school, (c) previous attendance at other institutions of higher learning, (d) previous degrees obtained, and (e) marital status. These variables did serve to distinguish RN students from generic students, but this narrow perspective failed to tap the core developmental differences that existed between RN and generic students.

Further examination of the data revealed that there were also significant differences among the two groups in respect to life stage and ego development (Tables 2 and 3). Although both groups were predominantly in a stage of transition or change, the majority of the generic students were in the Early Adult Transition (83.3%), while the majority of the RNs were either in the Age 30 Transition (36.5%) or the Mid-life Transition (18.3%).

Since the primary focus of the Early Adult Transition is separating oneself from the pre-adult world and beginning to form an adult identity, activities such as questioning one's place in the world, and creating an initial adult identity were typical of this period. This was best illustrated by the generic students' focus on "becoming a nurse," and securing their first job as an RN. Preparation for entrance into the profession of nursing represented the generic students' means of creating an initial adult identity. The students in the Early Adult Transition focused on the personal issue of "growth and adjustment" further documented their life stage. Their responses reflected a strong emphasis on self-discovery and becoming an adult. Common themes that the generic students mentioned throughout the questionnaire were their social life, boyfriends, or their pending marriages. Specifically, answers such as "discovering who I am," adjusting to "breaking up with my boyfriend," or "starting to develop outside relationships" illustrated the strong focus on and initiated the process of becoming an adult. As Levinson (1978) stated, individuals in this phase are "making and testing preliminary choices for adult living" (p. 57). Another distinction that emerged for the generic students in this period was their reason for enrolling in college. For 43.3% of the students, their enrollment in college was seen as the next natural step after completing high school, and the major "work" issue for 85.7% of the generic students was "graduation."

Table

TABLE 2FREQUENCIES OF RESPONSES AND CHI-SQUARE STATISTICS FOR GENERIC AND RN STUDENTS ON LEVINSON LIFE STAGES

TABLE 2

FREQUENCIES OF RESPONSES AND CHI-SQUARE STATISTICS FOR GENERIC AND RN STUDENTS ON LEVINSON LIFE STAGES

Table

TABLE 3SUMMARY STATISTICS AND TESTS OF SIGNIFICANCE ON THE LOEVINGER ISS

TABLE 3

SUMMARY STATISTICS AND TESTS OF SIGNIFICANCE ON THE LOEVINGER ISS

Table

TABLE 4CHI-SQUARE STATISTICS ON LEARNING STYLES

TABLE 4

CHI-SQUARE STATISTICS ON LEARNING STYLES

In comparison, the RN students' Age 30 Transition represented a different set of issues. In this transitional phase, the individuals had already made a series of choices about work, love, marriage, family, peers, values, and lifestyles, and were not questioning and redefining these life decisions. In some cases, the questioning process resulted in a crisis or a dramatic change such as a divorce, while in other cases it represented finding a new direction or strengthening choices already made. Levinson (1978) indicated that during the Age 30 Transition many individuals focus less on family and more on careers. The responses from the RNs in this period supported this concept. Although many individuals mentioned the satisfaction they derived from their families, there was clearly a strong emphasis on career development and professionalism as well as career advancement. Students in this stage were struggling with family and work responsibilities that tended to stagnate their own personal growth and achievement. They were beginning to focus on becoming their own person. Consequently, their enrollment in college was seen as a way to achieve their personal goals and enhance their careers. It is also important to note that their ambition was to advance their careers through further education. Thus, rather than working toward the Early Adult Transition students' goal of "becoming a nurse," students in the Age 30 Transition were focused on refining their initial decision to become a nurse.

The second major transitional period for the RN students was the Mid-Life Transition. This transitional stage emerged as another questioning period where past decisions were re-examined in order that "neglected parts of the self may more urgently seek expression" (Levinson, 1978, p. 61). Areas of change or questioning that the RNs in this phase expressed included their job, their family, children leaving home, the death of their mate or parent, or divorce. Of particular importance in this period is the role of the "dream" which appeared to take a change in direction. Levinson (1978) stated that one aspect of the Mid-Life Transition is that the dream becomes less illusionary. One RN's response that illustrated this point was "I dreamed such lofty dreams that never could come true. But the realistic dreams that I pursued have all come true."

The second construct, ego development, also emerged as a distinguishing variable. The RNs had significantly higher Item Sum Scores on the WUSC test than the generic students. Specifically, as Table 3 indicates, the means for the RN and and generic students, which were 182.88 and 173.92 respectively, were significant at the .05 level. This implies that the RNs and generic students differed significantly in their conceptualization of the nature and purpose of individuals and events. An examination of the students' response to the purpose of education illustrates these differences. The RNs had perceived education not only as an investment (47%), but also as a life-long process (23.9%), while the generic students had perceived education primarily as an investment for the future (76%).

Although significant differences emerged in the dimensions of life stage and ego development, the differences between the RN and generic students on the learning styles variable were less distinct. As Table 4 indicates, in examining the overall Learning Style scores, over 75% of both the RN and generic groups were categorized as either accommodators or divergent learners. These two learning styles both use concrete experiences and differ only in the use of active experimentation versus reflective observations. One possible explanation for the similarities in learning styles may exist in Kûlb's corollary that particular fields or professions tend to attract certain types of learners (Wolfe & KoIb, 1979).

Thus, these findings begin to elucidate the differences between the RNs and generic students. The issues and ideas the two groups focused on substantiated the assumption that the generic and RN students were at significantly different developmental life stages. Also, by comparing the scores on the WTJSC for both groups, another facet of adult development emerged as a significant distinguishing variable among RN and generic students. These data support the concept that the differences between the RN and generic students at this institution were more than just differences in adult responsibilities. The differences were far more fundamental. They represented significant variations in the dimension of ego development as well as life stage.

Summary

To summarize the results of this study, on the major variables Life Stage and Ego Development as well as six of the eight demographic variables, there were significant differences between the RN and generic students. This supports the primary premise of this study that the distinguishing characteristic of RN students and generic students are not just visible differences in adult responsibilities but, rather, are fundamentally different in various dimensions of adult development. Specifically, the differences in occurrence of Levinson life stages reflected that the RN and generic students at this school had different motivators for enrolling, different personal issues, as well as different work and career issues. For the generic students there was a similarity in responses for the group as a whole. More than 96% of the generic students reflected the Early Adult Transition, and they expressed needs and concerns related to initiating their careers as well as entering the complex world of adulthood. In comparison, the majority of the RN students were individuals further along the developmental process who were focused on questioning and reappraising former life choices, rather than initiating the process. In terms of Ego Development, again the findings illustrated that the perceptions, conceptualizations, and interpretations of the two groups of students differed significantly. This implies that not only were needs and goals different, but the perceptions about their lives and events in their lives also differed.

In conclusion, this study is just a beginning step toward understanding the impact adult development has on nursing education. It offers an initial exploration into a particular sample of students and a process for understanding the differences and similarities. It substantiates the premise that the RN and generic students at this institution differed on more fundamental variables other than demographics, and that these fundamental differences greatly impacted the students' conceptualization process as well as their goals, needs, and issues. In order for these findings to be more general, further research needs to be done in this area. Specifically, larger samples from a variety of settings would help provide greater validity to the premise that RN students are not "different" merely because they have added adult responsibilities.

References

  • Coombe, E., Jabbusch, B., Jones, M., Pesznecker, B., Rubb, C., & Young, K. (1981). An incremental approach to self-directed learning. Journal of Nursing Education, 20(6), 20-35.
  • Curran, C., & Lengacher, C. (1982). RN re-entry programs: Programmatic and personal considerations. Nurse Educator, 7(3), 29-32.
  • Dustan, L. (1981). Buyer beware: The RN as a baccalaureate student. Nurse Educator, 6(3), 10-13.
  • Hasse, P. (1982). Pathways to practice: Planning and operating an RN program. Monographs of the Southern Regional Education Board's Nursing Curriculum Project, 3, 1-8.
  • KoIb, D. (1974). Building a learning community. Washington, DC: National Training and Development Service Press.
  • Levinson, D. (1978). The seasons of a man's life. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Loevinger, J., & Wessler, R. (1970). Measuring ego development: Construction and use of a sentence completion test. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Martens, K. (1981). Self-directed learning: An option for nursing education. Nursing Outlook, 29(8), 472-477.
  • Muzio, L., & Ohashi, J. (1979). The RN student - Unique characteristics, unique needs. Nursing Outlook, 27(8), 528-532.
  • Newman, B., & Wyatt, M. (1981). Prospects of change. Some evaluative reflections from one articulated baccalaureate program. Journal of Nursing Education, 20(1), 40-46.
  • Parloche, P., & Hiraki, A. (1982). Strategies for faculty: Teaching the RN student in a BSN program. Journal of Nursing Education, 27(5), 22-25.
  • Weathersby, R. (1977). A developmental perspective on adults' use of formal education (Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 38A, 7085A-7086A (University Microfilms No. 7808621).
  • Wolfe, D., & KoIb, D. (1979). Career development, personal growth and experiential learning. In D. KoIb, I. Rubin, & J. Mclntyre (Eds.), Organizational psychology: A book of readings (3rd ed). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Wooley, A. (1973). Reaching and teaching the older students. Nursing Outlook, 21(1), 37-39.

TABLE 1

SUMMARY STATISTICS AND TESTS OF SIGNIFICANCE ON DEMOGRAPHIC VARIABLES

TABLE 2

FREQUENCIES OF RESPONSES AND CHI-SQUARE STATISTICS FOR GENERIC AND RN STUDENTS ON LEVINSON LIFE STAGES

TABLE 3

SUMMARY STATISTICS AND TESTS OF SIGNIFICANCE ON THE LOEVINGER ISS

TABLE 4

CHI-SQUARE STATISTICS ON LEARNING STYLES

10.3928/0148-4834-19861101-05

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