Journal of Nursing Education

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A Comparative Study of Learning Characteristics of RN and Generic Students

Aletta Z Linares, EdD, RN

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The constructs of locus of control, self-directed learning readiness, and learning style preference are related components of an individual's learning characteristics. If group differences between registered nurse and generic students on these constructs could be documented, then the educational process could be directed toward facilitating educational goal attainment for these two distinct groups of students. Three instruments were used for this study: the Adult Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External Scale (ANS-IE), Guglielmino's Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS), and Rezler's Learning Preference Inventory (LPI). The sample consisted of 175 generic and 170 RN students enrolled in two BSN programs. No significant group differences were found for the three constructs except for the interpersonal mode of learning, a subscale of the LPI. Although no group differences were found, the data showed an ethnic and age effect involving all subjects. Although there are no wide differences in learning characteristics between generic and RN students, the individual variations support the use of teaching strategies that incorporate independent study and self-paced methodologies.

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The constructs of locus of control, self-directed learning readiness, and learning style preference are related components of an individual's learning characteristics. If group differences between registered nurse and generic students on these constructs could be documented, then the educational process could be directed toward facilitating educational goal attainment for these two distinct groups of students. Three instruments were used for this study: the Adult Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External Scale (ANS-IE), Guglielmino's Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS), and Rezler's Learning Preference Inventory (LPI). The sample consisted of 175 generic and 170 RN students enrolled in two BSN programs. No significant group differences were found for the three constructs except for the interpersonal mode of learning, a subscale of the LPI. Although no group differences were found, the data showed an ethnic and age effect involving all subjects. Although there are no wide differences in learning characteristics between generic and RN students, the individual variations support the use of teaching strategies that incorporate independent study and self-paced methodologies.

Introduction

The largest single category of registered nurses in the United States is still those without a baccalaureate degree. However, motivated by forces both within and outside of the profession, increasing numbers of these diploma and associate degree graduates are returning to school for a BSN degree (NLN, 1984; NLN, 1986). The ability, however, of traditional baccalaureate nursing programs to meet the needs of this particular group of students has been questioned (Baj, 1985a; Muzio & Ohashi, 1979; Norris, 1980) because it is felt that there are major differences between the traditional nursing student (generic student) and the registered nurse who returns to school (RN student). RN students are often assumed to have demographic and learning orientation differences and are generally classified as adult learners.

Adult learning theory (Knowles, 1980) suggests that adult learners are characterized by the ability to be selfdirected, have past experiences that serve as resources for future learning, are interested in immediate applicability of learning within a problem-solving framework, and are ready to be actively involved in increasing their competence to perform adult roles and tasks. Therefore, it is probable that RN students may exhibit learning characteristics related to self-directedness, independence in the learning situation (ie, less need for structure), resources of past experiences, and a problem-solving approach to learning. These characteristics may make traditional curricula inappropriate for RN students. Many authors have alluded to the unique characteristics of RN students but definitive studies documenting these characteristics and contrasting them with generic nursing students are scarce.

Traditional generic nursing students enter college shortly after completing high school and generally identify with the student role, are often somewhat dependent on their parents for financial support, and have, in general, little or no prior nursing-related work experience. In contrast, RN students are generally older and are often enrolled on a part-time basis because of family and work commitments. Experientially, RN students also differ from generic students in that they have already completed nursing education at the diploma or ADN level and have, in general, a varied degree of work experience (Baj, 1985b; King, 1986; Merritt, 1983). Many RN students are highly motivated but anxious about their ability to compete academically with younger, "sharper" generic students (Lenning & Hanson, 1977; Shane, 1983). RN students may bring with them a wealth of personal and professional experiences, which may potentially influence their selfdirectedness, learning style preference, and locus of control orientation.

Self-directed learning is generally viewed as intentional learning where the individual's major goal is to gain and retain a clearly denned knowledge or skill, or to produce a lasting change in behavior, attitude, or knowledge in himself. The learner determines what is to be learned and how it is to be learned, taking primary responsibility for the learning process. Various studies have attempted to identify the self-directed learning activities of RNs in relation to their continuing education activities (Bell & Rix, 1979; Kathrein, 1982). Only a few have investigated self-directed learning readiness of nursing students (Box, 1982; Wiley, 1983). Even though a learner may be very selfdirected in his personal life, this characteristic may not always carry over into the educational setting. Many RN students may be self-directed in activities related to their personal lives, but confused and bewildered when demands are made for self-direction in the educational environment. Many of these RN students may have experienced a rigid, authoritarian approach to learning and are not familiar with being self-directed in the context of formal education.

Learning style has generally been described as an attribute or characteristic of an individual that interacts with instructional circumstances in such a way as to produce differential learning outcomes (Payton, Hueter, & McDonald, 1979). Learning style preference, as one aspect of learning style, relates to the likes and dislikes that individuals have for certain sensory modes and conditions of learning as well as preferred learning strategies (Ostmoe, Van Hoozer, Scheffel, et al, 1984). Merritt (1983) investigated differences in learning style preferences of RN student and generic students. Both groups preferred structured learning environments where course expectations and requirements were clearly defined. Neither group was particularly oriented toward instructional situations that allowed them to set their own goals, pursue their own interests, or promote positive relationships with peers and instructors.

Locus of control refers to a person^ beliefs about control over life events. Some people feel responsible for, or in control over the things that happen to them (internal control) whereas others feel that the outcomes in life are determined by forces beyond their control (external control) such as fate, luck, and powerful others (Findley & Cooper, 1983; Rotter, 1966).

The locus of control construct has generated numerous studies among a variety of populations (children, college students, males, females, minorities) as well as various investigations involving nursing students Levine, 1978; Rahr, 1980; Sanchez, 1983; Stevens, 1982; Tornasela, 1975). Tornaseli! (1975) intended to determine how BSN students who elected independent study differed from those who chose to remain in traditional lecture classes. Those in independent study were significantly more internal.

The growing number of RN students enrolled in baccalaureate schools of nursing necessitates a better understanding of their learning characteristics, locus of control orientation, and self-directed learning readiness to facilitate their educational goal attainment. It was postulated that the constructs of self-directed learning, learning style preference, and locus of control are related components of an individual's learning characteristics. If the profile of nursing students on these attributes were known and differences between RN and generic students based on this profile could be documented, then the academic process could be directed to enhance the educational goal attainment for these two groups of nursing students. Thus, the purpose of this study was to investigate if differences in selfdirected learning readiness, learning style preference, and locus of control could be found between generic and RN students enrolled in two baccalaureate nursing programs in the Southwest.

Instruments

The following instruments were used: the Adult Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External Scale (ANS-??), the Learning Preference Inventory (LPI), and the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS). A demographic questionnaire provided information that was used to describe the sample characteristics. The ANS-?? is an adaptation of the Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External control scale for children (Nowicki & Strickland, 1973; Nowicki & Duke, 1974). The scale is comprised of 40 items requiring a yes or no answer and is keyed in such way that the higher the score, the more external the subject's locus of control is.

The LPI was developed by Rezler and French (1975) to identify preferred modes of learning preferred by students in the health professions. The instrument consists of six subscales that tap the following learning style dimensions: interpersonal (preference for learning or working with others, with emphasis on harmonious relations between students and teacher and among students); individual (preference for learning or working alone, with emphasis on self-reliance and solitary tasks such as reading); abstract (preference for learning theories and generating hypotheses with focus on general principles and concepts); concrete (preference for learning tangible, specific, practical tasks, with focus on skills); teacher-structured (preference for learning in a well-organized teacher-directed class, with expectations, assignments, and goals clearly identified); student-structured (preference for learning via student-organized tasks, with emphasis on autonomy and selfdirection) (Rezler & French, 1975). Each subscale yields a score from 15 to 90, with a higher score indicating greater preference for that learning mode.

The SDLRS is a self report scale with 58 Likert-type items developed by Guglielmino (1977/1978). Possible scores range from 58 (indicating low readiness) to 290 (indicating high readiness).

Methods

Volunteer subjects were recruited during three consecutive semesters from all entering nursing students (junior level) enrolled in nursing courses at two statesupported baccalaureate schools of nursing in the southern region of Texas. The first school provided 118 generic and 125 RN students, whereas the second school provided a total of 66 generic and 65 RN students. The response rate varied from 100% to a low of 74%.

Table

TABLE 1DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS OF BSN STUDENT SUBJECTS*

TABLE 1

DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS OF BSN STUDENT SUBJECTS*

The self-report instruments were administered in a classroom setting to 190 RN and 184 generic students enrolled in their first nursing courses during the first week of classes. Twenty-one (5.6%) Asian students were deleted from the overall sample because a preliminary analysis of the data suggested that they might confound the results. The literature also provided some evidence that Asians differ in their locus of control beliefs from other ethnic groups and that this difference seems to vary between subgroups (McGinnies, Nordholm, Ward, et al, 1974; Parson & Schneider, 1974; Reitz & Groff, 1972; Tin- Yse Hsieh, Shybut, & Lotsof, 1969). In addition, eight subjects were deleted from the study sample because of incomplete data. Thus, the data generating sample consisted of a total of 345 subjects, 170 RN and 175 generic students.

Discussion of the Findings

The demographic data revealed that the age of the generic student sample ranged from 19 to 52 years, with a mean age of 24.87 years, which is similar to the mean age (24.39) reported by Stevens (1982) for a comparable sample of nursing students (Table 1). Sixty-nine percent of the generic students were between the ages of 19 and 25. However, 31% were over the age of 25, which evidences current trends whereby more older female students are continuing their career preparation where it was dropped at the time of marriage or motherhood (BaJ, 1985b; Stevens, 1982). The age of the RN sample was consistent with national trends. The ages ranged from 21 to 55 years, with a mean age of 34 years. Approximately 26% of the RN students were between the ages of 26 to 30 and 22% were between 36 and 40 years of age. It is noteworthy that approximately 13% of the RN sample was younger than 26 years of age. Recent nursing graduates are evidently continuing their nursing education soon after initial licensure.

The proportion of white (84.9%), American black (9.9%), and Hispanic (5.2%) students was consistent with ethnic distributions in BSN schools for this region. Stevens (1982) encountered similar ethnic distributions for her sample of nursing students.

The majority of RN students (75.9%) received their initial nursing education at the ADN level (!able 2). Although this may not be similar to other regions of the nation, particularly the Northeast (McLean, Knoll, & Kinney, 1985; Merritt, 1983; Zorn, 1980), this educational background reflects current conditions in Texas (NLN, 1986).

The findings further revealed that the majority of the RN sample had held their RN credential for 5 or more years; however, about 37% were licensed for fewer than 5 years. The overwhelming majority was employed in acute care settings as staff nurses and continued to be employed while pursuing baccalaureate education (Table 2). These findings are, in general, comparable to those described by Baj (1985b). The demographic characteristics of the sample confirmed that it was representative of the general nursing student population for this particular region and reflected current trends in nursing education.

The research assumption that there would be significant differences in self-directed learning, learning style preference, and locus of control between RN students and generic students could not be supported. However, statistically significant ethnic differences were found for locus of control, self-directed learning readiness, and learning style preference in the concrete mode only (IaJbIe 3). In addition, age influenced a subject's self-directed learning.

Table

TABLE 2GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF RN STUDENT SUBJECTS*

TABLE 2

GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF RN STUDENT SUBJECTS*

Locus of Control

The mean scores for locus of control for both groups were nearly identical (7.8 for generic and 7.7 for RN students). There was evidence of individual differences; scores ranged from 1 to 18 for both groups with the lower scores indicating a more internal locus of control orientation. The mean scores for this sample were similar to those reported by Rahr (1980) for a sample of undergraduate nursing students, but lower (more internal) than a previously reported mean locus of control score of 9.06 for college students (Roueche & Mink, 1976). As Rahr (1980) suggests, it may be that nursing students feel a greater ability to exert control over themselves and the life events of others. This might reflect the usual motivation for persons who select nursing as their career, which is to help and influence peoples health.

Table

TABLE 3ANOVA RESULTS FOR THE EFFECT OF ETHNIC BACKGROUND

TABLE 3

ANOVA RESULTS FOR THE EFFECT OF ETHNIC BACKGROUND

In this study, ethnicity influenced locus of control orientation (Table 3). White students were more internal in their locus of control orientation than both black and Hispanic students. This finding is comparable with those described in the literature. Generally, black subjects tended to be more external than white subjects (Dyal, 1984). Studies comparing Hispanic Americans with white Americans are, however, not always consistent in their findings. Socioeconomic background, age of the sample, and/or education have been suggested as confounding variables for the Hispanic ethnic group (Dyal, 1984).

Self-Directed Learning Readiness

The mean scores for self-directed learning readiness for the generic student sample (230) as compared with the mean scores for the RN student group (233.9) were different but the difference was statistically insignificant. Both groups scored much higher (greater degree of self-direction) than a large sample of adults (N=818, mean=214.4) reported by Guglielmino (1980). Comparing this study's SDLRS scores with mean scores obtained by Wiley (1983) from a group of undergraduate nursing students (N =104, mean=225.2), it was evident that nursing students appear to be self-directed in their learning.

Age (across groups) had a statistically significant influence on readiness to engage in self-directed learning (ANOVA, f=8.83, p>f=.0032). Subjects in the 19 through 30 age category were . relatively similar in their SDLRS scores, with the majority of the mean scores around 227. The 31 through 50 age group (35.65% of the total sample), in contrast, was more self-directed with the majority of the mean scores above 235. This finding, that older subjects were generally more ready to engage in self-directed learning, would agree with the basic assumptions of adult learning theories (Cross, 1976; Houle, 1980; Knowles, 1975, 1978, 1980).

Ethnic background influenced the way in which subjects responded to the SDLRS (Table 3). Hispanic students, as a group, scored lower than either black or white subjects. This seems to indicate that for this particular sample, subjects from a Hispanic background are less ready to engage in self-directed learning. Although the available literature did not address ethnic differences, it seems plausible that female students from a Hispanic background, which for this study is predominantly Mexican American, are less self-directed because cultural values emphasize a more passive female role.

Table

TABLE 4ANOVA RESULTS FOR THE EFFECT OF TYPE (GENERIC VS RN)

TABLE 4

ANOVA RESULTS FOR THE EFFECT OF TYPE (GENERIC VS RN)

Learning Style Preference

Because the LPI consisted of six subscales and generated a score for each of these subscales, they were considered as separate variables. Of the six subscales, only the interpersonal mode of learning differentiated between RN and generic students (Table 4). Generic students showed a stronger preference for this type of learning (working or learning with others with emphasis on harmonious relations between students and teachers). This finding was similar to what Merritt (1983) described in her study. There was no significant difference between mean preference scores for RN students and generic students on the other five subscales. Both groups of students expressed a strong preference for teacher-structured learning (with almost identical scores), indicating preference for learning in wellorganized teacher-directed classes where expectation, assignments, and goals are clearly identified. This finding again was comparable to the results of Merritt's research. In the present study, RN students indicated a slightly stronger preference than generic students for the individual, abstract, and student-structured modes of learning. Thus, although the difference was statistically insignificant, there was a tendency for RN students to indicate a more adult learning orientation than generic students.

Overall, both groups of students indicated a strong preference for learning tangible, specific, practical tasks with a focus on skills in a well-organized teacher-directed class. These findings were similar to those described by others who have used the LPI (Rezler & French, 1975; Rezler & Rezmovick, 1981; Vittetoe & Hooker, 1983). It is worth noting that although the mean scores for the SDLRS were relatively high, indicating greater readiness to engage in self -directed learning with a concurrent internal locus of control orientation, both groups of subjects (RN and generic) indicated a strong preference for the teacherstructured mode of learning. It would be logical to postulate that self-direction and internalization would correlate with a more independent learning mode such as exemplified in the student-structured mode with its emphasis on autonomy and self-direction. However, this was not demonstrated in this study.

Ethnic background influenced a student's learning style preference. Hispanic and black students indicated a greater preference for the concrete learning mode than did white subjects (Table 3).

Conclusions

The findings of this study did not support the premise that wide differences in learning characteristics exist between generic and RN students. Evidence presented supports the position that such groups of students are more similar than different in their learning characteristics. Wide individual variations were found but these were individual differences and could not be attributed to group membership.

Several conclusions were made based on these findings. No group differences were found for the locus of control attribute; both RN and generic students were relatively internal in their locus of control orientation. In addition, no significant group differences were found for self-directed learning readiness; both groups were relatively selfdirected in their learning. Learning style preference did not differentiate between RN and generic students except for the interpersonal mode of learning, for which generic students indicated a stronger preference. Both student groups indicated a strong desire for concrete learning and a teacher-structured instructional situation.

Age was found to influence an individual's self-directed learning readiness: older students indicated a greater readiness to be self-directed in their learning than younger students. Ethnic background also influenced a student's learning style preference, locus of control orientation, and self-directed learning readiness. Hispanic and black subjects showed a greater preference for the concrete mode of learning than did white subjects. White subjects in this sample were more internal in their locus of control orientation than both black and Hispanic subjects, and Hispanic students were less self-directed than white and black students.

Recommendations

A variety of teaching/learning strategies should be provided instead of basing the curriculum on one specific teaching methodology. The unique learning style of each individual rather than membership in a specific group (such as RN versus generic) should be the foundation of any teaching approach. This concept is central to the work of learning style theorists, who consistently argue that learning is not a function of age but of individual learning style preference. Learning effectiveness has been found to increase when students are taught through their preferred style.

Faculty need to be sensitive to the need for structure while promoting self-direction and autonomy. The evidence provided in this study suggests that RN and generic students prefer teacher-imposed structure in the educational environment.

Teaching strategies that incorporate independent study, self-paced, and auto-tutorial methodologies seem to be appropriate for both RN and generic nursing students. Such teaching methodologies would encourage students to be self-directed, a highly desired attribute for the professional nurse.

Future research efforts might be directed to study the nature of the relations among self-directed learning and need for structure for both groups of students. A comparison of several learning style instruments could be undertaken to determine which one best measures learning style preference of nursing students. Such study could provide an answer to questions related to similarity of findings between instruments, sensitivity to group differences, and appropriateness for adult learners. Furthermore, the effect of age and ethnic background on learning characteristics of both RN and generic students could be investigated.

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TABLE 1

DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS OF BSN STUDENT SUBJECTS*

TABLE 2

GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF RN STUDENT SUBJECTS*

TABLE 3

ANOVA RESULTS FOR THE EFFECT OF ETHNIC BACKGROUND

TABLE 4

ANOVA RESULTS FOR THE EFFECT OF TYPE (GENERIC VS RN)

10.3928/0148-4834-19891001-06

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