Journal of Nursing Education

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Aptitude, Previous Achievement, and Cognitive Style: Relation to Academic Achievement in Nursing Courses of Differing Content

Geraldine Talarczyk, EdD, RN

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The questions studied were whether a) cognitive style might predict differential success in nursing courses having a different specialty content focus and b) whether after the inclusion of aptitude measures and previous achievement measures FDI cognitive style would significantly increase the prediction of academic achievement in nursing courses of differing specialty content. Senior baccalaureate nursing students completed the Group Embedded Figures Test as a measure of field-dependence-independence (FDI) cognitive style. Aptitude and achievement scores were obtained from students' files and instructors' grade sheets. The findings were that FDI cognitive style is not a predictor of differential academic success. The junior nursing grade point average was the best predictor of achievement in senior ievel nursing courses.

The prediction of academic achievement of nursing students has received researchers'attention over the years in an attempt to identify data that might aid in the establishment of selection criteria, in program and curriculum planning, and in the establishment of remediation or supportive programs for enrolled students who have been identified as high risk. In most studies, affective factors alone, such as personality characteristics and vocational interests, have not been found to be predictors of academic achievement. Most researchers have found that previous achievement or aptitude measures are the best predictors of nursing course achievement (Schwirian, 1976; Grant, 1986).

While previous achievement and aptitude measures may be used in the selection process, they are not helpful in giving direction for planning teaching-learning experiences. Cognitive style might serve this purpose if it was found to be predictive of academic achievement. Messick (1976) defines cognitive style as "consistent individual differences in ... ways of organizing and processing information and experience" (p. 5). If the cognitive style of individual students is found to be related to overall academic achievement or to academic achievement in courses of differing specialty content, educators could seek ways of structuring the educational environment to maximize achievement for students of differential abilities.

Among the several cognitive styles identified, one of the most extensively researched is that of field-dependenceindependence (FDI), most commonly measured by some variant of the Embedded Figure Test or the Rod-and-Frame Test. The tendency to rely primarily on internal referente to structure situations in a self-consistent way is designated a field-independent cognitive style while the tendency to give greater credit to external referente in structuring situations is designated a field-dependent cognitive style (Witkin, 1978). Witkin and his associates studied this style extensively, and by 1978 had compiled bibliographies of over 3000 reported studies (Cox & Witkin, 1978; Witkin, Cox, Freidman, 1976; Witkin, Cox, Freidman, Hrishekeson, & Siegal, 1974; Witkin, Oltman, Cox, Erlichman, Ham, & Ringler, 1973; Goldstein & Blackman, 1978; Goodenough, 1976; Witkin, 1976; Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977) relating field-dependence-independence, a perceptual dimension, to personality factors, educational-vocational interests, course selection, and performance in a variety of areas. FDI continues to be a focus of researchers as evidenced by the large number of reported studies that continue to be listed in indexes such as Psychological Abstracts.

While Witkin, et al. (1977) found that field-dependent and field-independent students do not differ significantly on the overall achievement measure of college grade point average, it was hypothesized that they are likely to differ on the courses they select which contribute to the same grade point average. In their longitudinal study (Witkin, Moore, Oltman, et al., 1977) they found college students whose original choice of college major was incongruent with their cognitive style tended to shift to more compatible areas, while students with congruent choices tended to remain with their choices. In addition, the researchers examined the relationships between the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) scores and grades in selected introductory courses of an entire class of 1548 undergraduate students.

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The questions studied were whether a) cognitive style might predict differential success in nursing courses having a different specialty content focus and b) whether after the inclusion of aptitude measures and previous achievement measures FDI cognitive style would significantly increase the prediction of academic achievement in nursing courses of differing specialty content. Senior baccalaureate nursing students completed the Group Embedded Figures Test as a measure of field-dependence-independence (FDI) cognitive style. Aptitude and achievement scores were obtained from students' files and instructors' grade sheets. The findings were that FDI cognitive style is not a predictor of differential academic success. The junior nursing grade point average was the best predictor of achievement in senior ievel nursing courses.

The prediction of academic achievement of nursing students has received researchers'attention over the years in an attempt to identify data that might aid in the establishment of selection criteria, in program and curriculum planning, and in the establishment of remediation or supportive programs for enrolled students who have been identified as high risk. In most studies, affective factors alone, such as personality characteristics and vocational interests, have not been found to be predictors of academic achievement. Most researchers have found that previous achievement or aptitude measures are the best predictors of nursing course achievement (Schwirian, 1976; Grant, 1986).

While previous achievement and aptitude measures may be used in the selection process, they are not helpful in giving direction for planning teaching-learning experiences. Cognitive style might serve this purpose if it was found to be predictive of academic achievement. Messick (1976) defines cognitive style as "consistent individual differences in ... ways of organizing and processing information and experience" (p. 5). If the cognitive style of individual students is found to be related to overall academic achievement or to academic achievement in courses of differing specialty content, educators could seek ways of structuring the educational environment to maximize achievement for students of differential abilities.

Among the several cognitive styles identified, one of the most extensively researched is that of field-dependenceindependence (FDI), most commonly measured by some variant of the Embedded Figure Test or the Rod-and-Frame Test. The tendency to rely primarily on internal referente to structure situations in a self-consistent way is designated a field-independent cognitive style while the tendency to give greater credit to external referente in structuring situations is designated a field-dependent cognitive style (Witkin, 1978). Witkin and his associates studied this style extensively, and by 1978 had compiled bibliographies of over 3000 reported studies (Cox & Witkin, 1978; Witkin, Cox, Freidman, 1976; Witkin, Cox, Freidman, Hrishekeson, & Siegal, 1974; Witkin, Oltman, Cox, Erlichman, Ham, & Ringler, 1973; Goldstein & Blackman, 1978; Goodenough, 1976; Witkin, 1976; Witkin, Moore, Goodenough, & Cox, 1977) relating field-dependence-independence, a perceptual dimension, to personality factors, educational-vocational interests, course selection, and performance in a variety of areas. FDI continues to be a focus of researchers as evidenced by the large number of reported studies that continue to be listed in indexes such as Psychological Abstracts.

While Witkin, et al. (1977) found that field-dependent and field-independent students do not differ significantly on the overall achievement measure of college grade point average, it was hypothesized that they are likely to differ on the courses they select which contribute to the same grade point average. In their longitudinal study (Witkin, Moore, Oltman, et al., 1977) they found college students whose original choice of college major was incongruent with their cognitive style tended to shift to more compatible areas, while students with congruent choices tended to remain with their choices. In addition, the researchers examined the relationships between the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) scores and grades in selected introductory courses of an entire class of 1548 undergraduate students.

Method

Sample

The sample consisted of 181 volunteers out of a class of 199 senior level baccalaureate nursing students enrolled in a private, Catholic, midwestern, urban university. One hundred seventy-eight participants were female and three were male. Participant ages ranged from 20-51 years with the median age being 23.

Variables

The variables were a) aptitude, b) pre-nursing course academic achievement, c) achievement in senior level medical-surgical and psychiatric nursing educational experiences, and d) cognitive style. Aptitude referred to the students potential or ability to succeed in the baccalaureate nursing program. Operationally, the variable was defined by the student's College Aptitude Rating (CAR), an arithmetic average of the students percentile rank on the Scholastic Aptitude Test- Verbal or American College TestComposite and the percentile rank in the high school graduating class. The CAR score was a predictive rating of academic achievement used in the selection of freshman applicants by the university in which the study subjects were enrolled.

Pre-nursing course academic achievement referred to learning the student achieved in the completed pre-nursing courses. Operationally, the variable was defined by the a) grade point average for courses completed prior to the junior level nursing courses and accepted for credit by the University (pre-nursing GPA), b) grade point average for pre-nursing science and math courses, c) grade point average for pre-nursing behavioral science courses (psychology, sociology, anthropology).

Achievement in medical/surgical and psychiatric nursing educational experiences referred to individual theory and clinical grades expressed in percentages for the 8-week senior level medical/surgical and psychiatric nursing educational experiences. The medical/surgical nursing rotation represents the scientific content in which the fieldindependent individual should excel, according to field approach theory, and the psychiatric nursing rotation represents the behavioral content in which the fielddependent individual should excel.

The medical/surgical theory grade was based on three multiple choice tests and one instructor-graded paper. The grade for psychiatric nursing theory was based on three multiple choice tests and one instructor-graded paper. The grade for achievement in the clinical area was determined by the clinical instructor who supervised the student during the 8-week experience, using a faculty-developed evaluation instrument.

Cognitive style referred to the field-dependence-independence style described by Witkin and his associates. Fielddependence-independence was operationally defined by scores on the Group Embedded Figures Test (1971) with higher scores indicating field independence and lower scores indicating field dependence.

The Group Embedded Figures lest (GEFT), developed by Oltman, Raskin, and Witkin, is a perceptual test that purportedly measures the individual's tendency to experience in an articulated manner. Articulated manner is defined as the ability to "perceive items as discrete from their backgrounds; or reorganize a field when the field is organized; or impose structure on a field, and so perceive it as organized when the field has relatively little inherent structure" (Witkin, Oltman, Raskin & Karp, 1971, p.7).

The GEFT consists of 18 items divided into two equivalent forms with items in each form arranged in ascending order of difficulty. Subjects complete two consecutively timed test sessions during which they attempt to locate and outline simple figures embedded by the use of shading within complex figures. The score is the total number of simple figures correctly outlined during the allotted time. High scores indicate field independence, a differentiating analytic approach to the perceptual field, while low scores indicate field dependence, an undifferentiated, global approach.

Witkin, et al. (1971) reported a split-half reliability estimate corrected by the Spearman-Brown prophecy formula of .82 for both males and females. Split-half reliability corrected for length by the Spearman-Brown formula was .90 for the 181 subjects of this study.

Table

TABLE 1MEAN AND STANDARD DEVIATION OF VARIABLES'

TABLE 1

MEAN AND STANDARD DEVIATION OF VARIABLES'

Procedure

Data collection took place during the students' senior year. A brief explanation of the purpose of the study was given to groups of students ranging from 8 to 60 in number. After reading and signing an Institutional Review Board approved consent form that guaranteed subject anonymity and gave the investigator access to academic records, participants completed a personal data questionnaire and the Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT). Directions for administration provided by Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc. were carefully followed. Those who could not participate in the group sessions completed the GEFT individually at their convenience. Achievement data were collected from student files and faculty grade sheets.

Results

CAR scores were available for 166 of the 181 study participants. The mean CAR score for participating students was 64. Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations on variables.

The range of Group Embedded Figures Test (GEFT) scores was 0-18, the full range of possible scores. The mean score for all female participants was 11.3, a mean not significantly different at the .05 alpha level from Witkin's reported norms (Witkin, et al., 1971). Similar comparisons of the scores of the three male participants were not considered meaningful.

Using Spearman rank order correlations, no significant correlation at the .05 set-wise alpha level which results in a .007 comparison-wise alpha was found between cognitive style and a) overall achievement in pre-nursing courses, b) achievement in pre-nursing science/math courses, c) achievement in pre-nursing behavioral science courses, d) achievement in senior level medical/surgical nursing (theory and clinical), e) achievement in senior level psychiatric nursing (theory and clinical) (Table 2).

Table

TABLE 2SPEARMAN RHO CORRELATIONS OF GEFT SCORES WITH PRE-NURSING AND SENIOR LEVEL NURSING ACHIEVEMENT SCORES*

TABLE 2

SPEARMAN RHO CORRELATIONS OF GEFT SCORES WITH PRE-NURSING AND SENIOR LEVEL NURSING ACHIEVEMENT SCORES*

Table

TABLE 3STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF VARIABLES ADDED TO FOUR STEP-WISE MULTIPLE REGRESSION ANALYSES

TABLE 3

STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF VARIABLES ADDED TO FOUR STEP-WISE MULTIPLE REGRESSION ANALYSES

Cognitive style did not add significantly to the prediction of any of the criterion variables - achievement in senior level medical/surgical nursing (theory and clinical) and psychiatric nursing (theory and clinical) - after the stepwise inclusion of the CAR score and the pre-nursing GPA in the multiple regression equation. In order to retain the 15 subjects for whom the CAR score was unavailable, missing scores were replaced with the sample mean, usually considered to be the best possible estimate of an individual's score when no other data are available.

It is evident from Table 3, which shows the significance of the R square change, that both the CAR score and the overall pre-nursing GPA contribute significantly in predicting achievement in nursing theory. Pre-nursing GPA remains a significant predictor of clinical nursing achievement, but the CAR score does not. Cognitive style does not add significantly to the prediction of achievement in any of the criterion variables after the inclusion of the CAR score and the pre-nursing GPA. The beta weights (Table 4) indicate that the pre-nursing GPA is the major predictor of achievement in the four criterion variables. The analysis was rerun excluding the subjects for whom the CAR score was unavailable with no significant difference in results.

Violation of the assumptions underlying multiple regression that the variables are normally distributed, linearly related and homoscedastic was checked by examining a scatterplot of standardized residuals plotted against standardized Y' values (SPSS, Subprogram-Regression, Statistic 6) for each regression analysis. In spite of the obvious skewness of variables, no graph display gave evidence of any meaningful violation of the underlying assumptions of multiple regression.

As an additional check to assure that the lack of a relationship between the cognitive style measure (GEFT) and the four criterion variables was not due to a curvilinear relationship, the linear trend test, a one-way analysis of variance procedure, of the SPSS subprogram Breakdown was done. The between sum of squares is partitioned into that portion accounted for by a linear trend and that which results from nonlinear trends. The test proved neither a significant linear nor a curvilinear relationship at the .01 alpha level. There was, however, a significant linear relationship between GEFT scores and psychiatric nursingtheory achievement measures at the .05 alpha level. Based on these analyses, the hypothesis that cognitive style did not add significantly to the prediction of any of the criterion variables was retained.

Discussion

The lack of a statistically significant correlation in the direction of theory expectation for the relationship between GEFT scores and academic achievement in pre-nursing courses and nursing rotations of differing specialty content was inconsistent with previous research findings by Witkin and his associates (Witkin, Moore, Oilman, Goodenough, Friedman, Owen, & Raskin, 1977) although consistent with Cecils (1975) findings.

Table

TABLE 4BETA WEIGHTS IN FOUR STEP-WISE MULTIPLE REGRESSION ANALYSES

TABLE 4

BETA WEIGHTS IN FOUR STEP-WISE MULTIPLE REGRESSION ANALYSES

Failure to find the expected relationships in this study may have been the result of factors such as the use of broadly defined criterion variables. The measures of the criterion variables may have inhibited the detection of differences between levels on the cognitive style continuum. The emphasis, as in previous studies reported in the literature review, was on the differing subject content and not on the characteristics of the tests or evaluation procedures that resulted in the final criterion scores. Mental processes required to answer the test questions may have influenced criterion variable scores. The correct test item responses may not have required the use of the analytical processes which are supposed to be characteristic of field-independent individuals.

For example, Hart, Payne, and Lewis (1981) who studied the relationship of GEFT scores to achievement on biochemistry and physiology multiple-choice test items representing the categories of memory, translation, interpretation, and application, found relatively low correlations. They concluded that cognitive style seems to have little practical significance when such educational techniques as expository instruction and multiple-choice tests are used because they impose structure for the field-dependent person.

Shouksmith (1970) who in his studies identified "response bias," defined as "those occasions where responses to a particular situation are in part determined, or biased, by certain elements in the situation" (p. 149) also concluded that style becomes an important determinant of performance in cognitive tests which have an "open" answer format, such as essay tests and open-ended items with unrestricted response format.

In this study the primary achievement measures in the nursing theory rotations were multiple choice tests in which "response bias" may have had an effect. On the other hand, the primary achievement measures in the clinical nursing rotations were instructor-assigned grades based on an evaluation of the student's ability to meet established behavioral objectives, a grade which would not be affected by "response bias." It should be noted that while it may be useful to consider "response bias" and necessary mental processes when choosing outcome measures, Witkin has not emphasized this but has focused on general achievement measures such as those used in this study.

While inconsistent with findings of previous research related to field-dependence-independence and academic achievement, the results of further analysis in this study were consistent with other reported findings in prediction ofacademic performance. Multiple regression analysis was used to test the hypothesis that when entered simultaneously, none of the following variables is a significant predictor of achievement in the senior level medical/ surgical and psychiatric nursing rotations: aptitude measures (CAR), pre-nursing overall GPA , cognitive style (GEFT), pre-nursing science/math GPA, pre-nursing behavioral science GPA, junior level nursing GPA, program enrollment, rotation sequence in time, team assignment, and number of hours worked per week. The junior level nursing grade point average was the only consistent predictor p - .01) of all criterion variables.

As indicated in the literature review, previous academic attainment has been the consistent best predictor of academic achievement in schools of nursing. This has been true since Joula (1966) reported that when using intellective factors to predict collegiate academic performance, a) previous academic attainment on a given continuum correlates higher with later academic attainment than does any freshman level ability test, and b) later achievement on a given continuum is predicted best by earlier achievement on that same continuum. Past attainment continues to be the best predictor of future achievement.

The simple relationship between field-dependence-independence and academic achievement postulated by Witkin may not exist. Future researchers interested in the relationship of cognitive style to academic achievement might consider concentrating on further research of multitrait or aptitude-treatment-interaction (ATI), as well as the further study of the validity of cognitive style and various measures of achievement.

Further research using new approaches as well as other non-cognitive variables may find other relationships that will be useful for both educators and learners seeking to individualize the teaching-learning process. This kind of research might be beneficial in nursing education, particularly in the area of achievement in clinical nursing where predictive measures have been more difficult to identify.

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TABLE 1

MEAN AND STANDARD DEVIATION OF VARIABLES'

TABLE 2

SPEARMAN RHO CORRELATIONS OF GEFT SCORES WITH PRE-NURSING AND SENIOR LEVEL NURSING ACHIEVEMENT SCORES*

TABLE 3

STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF VARIABLES ADDED TO FOUR STEP-WISE MULTIPLE REGRESSION ANALYSES

TABLE 4

BETA WEIGHTS IN FOUR STEP-WISE MULTIPLE REGRESSION ANALYSES

10.3928/0148-4834-19890601-07

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