Journal of Nursing Education

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Description of a Stressful Encounter: Appraisal, Threat, and Challenge

Kenneth R Burns, PHD, RN; Ellen C Egan, PhD, RN

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this study was to examine a potentially stressful event for students, the midterm examination, using the Lazarus transactional stress model. At two time periods during an academic term, 50 students responded to questionnaires focused on the midterm examination and its outcome. Responses were used to identify changes in appraisals, personal stakes, perceptions of threat and challenge; to determine these variables' relations to each other and to the examination grade; and to determine the best predictors of threat, challenge, and grade. Results indicated that threat and challenge perceptions were the only variables that changed as the situation evolved; they were negatively correlated. The best predictor of threat and challenge was control, while the only variable that correlated with grade was harm.

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this study was to examine a potentially stressful event for students, the midterm examination, using the Lazarus transactional stress model. At two time periods during an academic term, 50 students responded to questionnaires focused on the midterm examination and its outcome. Responses were used to identify changes in appraisals, personal stakes, perceptions of threat and challenge; to determine these variables' relations to each other and to the examination grade; and to determine the best predictors of threat, challenge, and grade. Results indicated that threat and challenge perceptions were the only variables that changed as the situation evolved; they were negatively correlated. The best predictor of threat and challenge was control, while the only variable that correlated with grade was harm.

Introduction

Over time there has been continuing exploration regarding the stressfulness of test taking. This stressful experience has typically been investigated from the perspective of the influence of anxiety on academic achievement (Spielberger, 1966). The effect of test anxiety on academic achievement has been a long-standing concern for educators. Using the theoretical basis of motivational theory, researchers (Heinrich & Spielberger, 1982; Spielberger, 1966) have reported a consensus regarding the relationships among performance, anxiety, and academic aptitude. Schwarzer (1982) has identified characteristics of test anxiety that include physiological and emotional distress. This arousal of the autonomic system is an indication of the stress associated with testing taking. Nurse educators continue to be concerned with perceived levels and sources of stress (Beck & Srivastava, 1991), test anxiety (Barnes, 1987; Howell & Swanson, 1989), reducing nursing students' anxiety (Phillips, 1988), and stress management in nursing education (Russler, 1991), as evidenced by recent research studies.

Recent nursing studies have used the Lazarus transactional stress model (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), which advances the perspective that stress experienced in a given situation is largely a function of the individual's perception of the circumstances. For example, Beck and Srivastava (1991) studied nursing students' perceived levels and sources of stress and found that examinations and grades were the second highest-ranked stress items and were experienced by 85% of the students.

Using the same perspective based on the cognitive appraisal of stress, Pagana (1988, 1990) examined aspects of clinical experiences to determine whether they were challenging or threatening. This perspective expanded the components of the stress phenomena by incorporating the cognitive appraisal process and the potential for identifying challenge as well as threat perceptions within a stressful educational encounter.

The major purpose of this study was to test the cognitive appraisal component of the Lazarus transactional stress model by (a) examining changes in appraisals, personal stakes, and threat and challenge perceptions as an educational situation evolved; (b) determining associations among these variables; and (c) determining the best predictors of threat, challenge, and the examination grade.

Theoretical Framework

The Lazarus Transactional Stress Model was used as the framework for this study. However, the focus of this study was limited to cognitive appraisals concerning a specified situation and its outcome, and to the stress appraisal of challenge and threat.

Lazarus and associates defined stress as a relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and as endangering well-being (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). The cognitive appraisal process refers to the manner by which person/environment transactions are evaluated (Lazarus & Launier, 1978). Primary appraisal is an assessment of a transaction's relevance to well-being - an appraisal of the situation. Secondary appraisal is an examination of the availability of coping resources and options that could be used in the transaction - an appraisal of what the person can do in the situation. Primary and secondary appraisal are separated for conceptual purposes but should be viewed as interdependent and occurring virtually at the same time. Secondary appraisals of coping options and primary appraisal of what is at stake interact with each other in shaping the degree of stress and the associated emotional reaction (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Following the primary and secondary appraisal processes, the resulting appraisal can consist of any of three categories: irrelevant, benign-positive, or stressful. The subtypes of stressful appraisals include harm-loss, threat, and challenge. Harm-loss and threat differ only in their time perspective - present and future, respectively.

Although Lazarus and associates acknowledge that most people would react to a potential hazard with both challenge and threat, they believed one response would dominate (Lazarus, Kanner, & Folkman, 1980). Whether stress is perceived primarily as a threat or challenge probably depends upon the configuration of the environmental event and a belief in the potential for mastery in the event (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980; Lazarus & Launier, 1978). So, if the person/environmental transaction was appraised as overwhelming, threat would be perceived. If the transaction was appraised as manageable with potential for mastery, challenge would be perceived. Reappraisal is a feedback process wherein changes in primary and secondary appraisals can be brought about by changes occurring in the environment or in the person (Lazarus et al., 1980).

Based on the cognitive appraisal component of the model, it would be expected that: (a) as a situation evolves and appraisal continues, perceptions of the person/ environment transaction change; (b) transactions will be judged as stressful only if persons judge that something is personally at stake for them; (c) threat and challenge perceptions can be predicted from the appraisal of the situation and the appraisal of the person's management of the situation; and (d) threat and challenge perceptions are predictive of the outcome of the situation.

Most of the theoretical work and research concerning the transactional stress model advanced by Lazarus has focused on the coping component of the model (such as Folkman & Lazarus, 1980), the relationship between coping and emotion (Folkman & Lazarus, 1988) and has been conducted by Lazarus and associates. Studies that have examined the cognitive appraisal component of the model include the following.

Folkman and Lazarus (1985) investigated emotions (used as measures of threat and challenge) and coping at three points in time related to a midterm examination: two days before the exam, five days after the exam, and five days after the grades were known. Appraisal variables included: (a) what was at stake personally for the person in the examination situation (such as appearing incompetent or losing respect); (b) the difficulty of the exam; and (c) control one has in the exam situation. Results indicated that the intensity of threat and challenge were stable until after the grade was known and that subjects reported feeling both threat and challenge emotions during all phases of the exam. The amount of control in the test situation was positively correlated with challenge emotions, but not negatively correlated with threat emotions as expected. The difficulty of the examination was positively correlated with threat emotions, but had no correlation with challenge emotions. Grade point average was not found to be an important explanatory variable. Regression analyses of threat and challenge emotions indicated that personal stakes was the only variable that was a common predictor of both variables.

Folkman, Lazarus, Dunkel-Schetter, DeLongis, and Gruen (1986) examined the relationships among personality factors, primary appraisal, secondary appraisal, coping, and encounter outcomes in community-residing adults. The primary appraisal instrument was developed for this study and measured what was at stake in the stressful encounter. The secondary appraisal instrument was also developed for this study and measured coping options. In regard to cognitive appraisal, the relationships among appraisal and coping and encounter outcomes were investigated. Findings included a relationship between specific stakes and coping strategies; however, particular coping strategies tended to be used more in high-stake conditions. There was a relationship between secondary appraisal and the selected coping strategy. Only one stake was related to satisfactory or unsatisfactory outcomes, while two secondary appraisal items were related to outcomes.

In a related study that used the same sample, Folkman, Lazarus, Gruen and DeLongis (1986) examined the relationships among personality factors, primary appraisal (the stakes a person has in a stressful encounter), secondary appraisal (options for coping), coping, and health status in community-residing adults. In regard to cognitive appraisal, the stability of primary and secondary appraisal across diverse stressful encounters was investigated and was found to be more variable than stable.

Pagana (1988) explored what aspects of a clinical experience were challenging or threatening. The instrument Pagana used to measure threat and challenge emotions was a modification of the Folkman and Lazarus (1985) threat and challenge emotion scales. Findings indicated that the mean level of stress experienced by students was "quite a bit." Although students experienced both threat and challenge, they were significantly more challenged than threatened. However, their open-ended responses largely reflected the threatening aspects of the experience. This indicates an incongruity between the threat and challenge emotion instruments and the open-ended responses.

In summary, for the most part, each of these studies investigated different aspects of cognitive appraisal. In fact, the only similarities found between the studies of Folkman and Lazarus (1985) and Pagana (1988) was that subjects experienced both threat and challenge emotions at the same time. A concern regarding the validity of the threat and challenge scales developed by Folkman and Lazarus and modified by Pagana is that the scales measure only emotions experienced in relation to an encounter. Therefore, they do not sample the domains of threat and challenge as defined within the transactional stress model. Further supporting this concern are the findings of Pagana's study in which the subjects indicated a higher level of challenge, while their open-ended responses reflected the threatening aspects of the experience. Therefore, this study was designed to incorporate different instruments to measure threat and challenge.

Methodology

The study was designed to explore students' transactions in a college examination situation by examining changes in variables that were measured at two time periods. Variables included: (a) anticipated difficulty, harm, and benefit of the exam - primary appraisal of the situation; (b) anticipated control in the exam situation - secondary appraisal; (c) personal stakes - what is at stake for the person in the situation (part of primary appraisal); (d) challenge and threat perceptions - the nature of the stress appraisal; and (e) examination grade - the outcome of the situation.

Because of the difficulty in determining when primary, secondary, and stress appraisals would naturally occur, two time periods were selected for the coliection of all appraisal data. It was thought that reappraisal may occur between the first and second data collection time. Therefore, data were collected at the beginning of the term and immediately before the examination was administered. The grade was obtained following the examination.

The course examination that was selected for the study had a reputation of being difficult and it was known that a significant number of students failed. Therefore, this examination situation had a high potential of being stressful to students.

Sample

Sixty-two nursing students volunteered to participate; however, only 50 subjects provided complete data sets. Therefore, the sample consisted of 50 students whose ages ranged from 21 to 50, with a mean age of 25.6 years, and who were registered for a junior-level required course. Males comprised 8% percent of the sample. The study was approved by a university human subjects committee and the guidelines for informed consent, voluntary participation, and confidentiality were followed.

Instruments

The instruments used in this study were the Examination Appraisal Factors (EAF), Personal Stakes Scale (PSS), Self Inventory of Situational Response (SISR), and State Anxiety (STAI).

EAF consisted of four Likert-scaled items: amount of anticipated difficulty, harm, and benefit of the exam, as well as the amount of control the student anticipated in the exam situation. EAF items were measured on a five-point scale (0=none, 4 = very much). The items of difficulty, harm, and benefit were considered to represent primary appraisal of the examination in that they are assessments of the situation configuration. Control was considered to represent secondary appraisal in that it is an assessment of the student's ability to manage the situation. The control and difficulty items of the EAF were taken from the work of Folkman and Lazarus (1985). Folkman and Lazarus did not report reliability or validity of these items. The harm and benefit items were constructed by these authors in a parallel form to the control and difficulty items. The items were assumed to have face validity. Estimating reliability using a test-retest methodology was judged to be inappropriate, because the item responses were expected to change during the study.

The Personal Stakes Scale (PSS) consisted of four items derived from the work of Folkman and Lazarus (1985). Items of the PSS were: "not achieving the grade I want," "appearing incompetent to others," "jeopardizing my view of myself as a capable student" and "losing the approval or respect of someone important to me." Each item was considered to represent a dimension of primary appraisal, but specifically, what was personally at stake for the student related to the examination. PSS items were measured on a five-point scale (0 = does not apply, 4 = applies very much). A summated score was obtained for the PSS. Folkman and Lazarus (1985) reported a Cronbach's alpha of .78. Reliability estimates at the two time periods of this study using Cronbach's alpha were .79 and .76. The instrument was assumed to have face validity.

The SISR, developed by these authors, consists of 24 four-point Likert scaled items designed to measure challenge perception related to a specific situation. Respondents are asked to indicate to what extent the statements fit their feelings, thoughts, and actions when confronted with a particular situation. Responses are on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much so). The possible range of scores is 24 to 96, with high scores representing high levels of challenge. Items include both positive and negative statements to reduce the likelihood of a response set. Items were generated from interview data obtained from subjects who had been confronted with a simulated potentially stressful encounter and were evaluated by judges for congruency with concept definition. In previous work, construct validity was supported by negative correlations (r = - .74, n = 64; r = - .77, n = 51) with Spielberger^ Trait Anxiety Inventory (Egan, 1982). In previous administrations of the SISR, in different specific situations, reliability estimates were .87 (n = 76) and .88 (n=129) (Burns, 1987). In this study, the instructions focused the subject's attention on the future examination. Reliability estimates at the two time periods during this study, using Cronbach's alpha, were .86 and .91.

Table

TABLE 1Variable Mean Scores, Standard Deviations, Ranges, and Student's Related Data t Tests for 2 Time Periods8

TABLE 1

Variable Mean Scores, Standard Deviations, Ranges, and Student's Related Data t Tests for 2 Time Periods8

Anxiety is considered the emotional concomitant of threat and is commonly used as a substitute measure for threat. Because there were no threat instruments available that measured the multiple aspects of the concept, threat perception was measured using the State Anxiety Inventory. Spielberger (1983) reports alphas ranging from .83 to .94 and significantly higher scores in stressful conditions than in nonstressful conditions for undergraduate college students. Instructions directed the respondents to focus on the midterm examination. During this study, Cronbach's alpha was used to assess internal consistency of the State Anxiety Inventory at the two time periods. Estimated reliabilities (.89 and .93) were consistent with previously reported reliability levels.

The midterm examination consisted of 35 complex multiple-choice items. Subjects' raw scores were converted to percentages. The mean percentage score for the midterm examination grade was 78.48, with a standard deviation of 11.13. Scores ranged from 54% to 97%. Item difficulty ranged from .25 to .94 with a mean of .63. Cronbach's alpha was .58. Faculty who taught the course had refined the examination over several years and judged it to be a valid measure of the course content.

Procedure

At the beginning of the academic term, students in the course were invited to participate in a study exploring responses occurring during the evolution of a potentially stressful event, the impending midterm examination. The SISR, STAI, EAF, and PSS were administered to subjects at two periods: Time 1 (T1), the second week of the term, and Time 2 (T2), at the beginning of the examination period immediately before the administration of the examination.

Results

Descriptive statistics, Student's t tests, correlations, and stepwise regression analyses were performed. In the five cases where there was no response for one item on the STAI or SISR, the item mean score was substituted for the missing datum. Mean scores, standard deviations, and ranges for all variables except the examination grade are reported in Table 1. Examination statistics were reported above.

Student's t tests for related data were performed to determine whether significant changes occurred in the variable mean scores from T1 to T2 (Table 1). Only the threat and challenge mean scores changed significantly from T1 to T2. The threat scores increased and the challenge scores decreased. Correlation coefficients were computed to determine associations between all variables during each time period (Tables 2 and 3). The following correlation coefficients were significant at the .05 level or less. At T1 threat was negatively correlated with challenge and positively correlated with stakes, while at T2 threat was negatively correlated with challenge and control and positively correlated with difficulty and harm. Challenge at T1 and T2 was negatively correlated with stakes and positively correlated with control and benefit. Additionally, challenge was negatively correlated with harm at T2. Stakes was positively correlated with harm at T1 and T2 and positively correlated with difficulty at T2. Within the Examination Appraisal items, difficulty was positively correlated with benefit at T1 and harm at T2. Harm was positively correlated with benefit at T1. Grade correlated negatively with harm at T2. Control was not correlated with any of the other Examination Appraisal items.

Table

TABLE 2Correlation Coefficients (and p Values) for Study Variables at Time 1a

TABLE 2

Correlation Coefficients (and p Values) for Study Variables at Time 1a

Multiple regression analyses were done to determine which variables were the best predictors of threat, challenge, and grade. It was determined that with a sample size of 50, an alpha of .05, and four independent variables, there would be 80% power to detect an explanation of 22% of the variance in the dependent variable as significant.

The variables of control, difficulty, harm, and stakes, which had significant correlation coefficients with threat at T2, were entered into a stepwise regression equation. At step one, control entered producing a significant multiple R of .34 (F[1, 48] = 6.35, p = .015), which accounted for 12% of the variance. At the second and last step, difficulty entered increasing the multiple R to .45 (F= 5.81, p = .006), accounting for 20% of the variance.

The variables of control, harm, benefit, and stakes, which had significant correlation coefficients with challenge at T2, were entered into a stepwise regression equation. At step one, control entered producing a significant multiple R of .53 (FIl, 48] = 18.82, p = .000), which accounted for 28% of the variance. At the second and last step, stakes entered increasing the multiple 12 to .63 (F= 15.38, p = .000), accounting for 40% of the variance.

Because harm was the only variable at T2 that was significantly correlated with grade, a multiple regression was not computed.

Discussion

In this study, the changes from T1 to T2 in threat and challenge perceptions are congruent with the theoretical premise that as a situation evolves and appraisal continues, perceptions of the person/environment transaction change. It was expected that preparing for the examination would influence students' cognitive appraisal and subsequent threat and challenge perceptions.

Interestingly, Folkman and Lazarus (1985) reported patterns of change that were different from the present study. In their study, both threat and challenge scores were stable until the grade was known, at which time they changed significantly. However, in this study, threat and challenge scores changed significantly during the preexamination period. An explanation for the different study findings may be related to the ways in which the concepts of threat and challenge were operationalized. In the Folkman and Lazarus study, threat and challenge were conceptualized only as emotions. Subjects indicated the extent to which they felt emotions to measure threat (worried, fearful, and anxious) and challenge (confident, hopeful, and eager). This explanation may also serve as rationale for another discrepancy between study findings. Namely, threat and challenge were negatively correlated in the present study and were independent in the Folkman and Lazarus study.

Table

TABLE 3Correlation Coefficients (and p Values) for Study Variables at Time 2*

TABLE 3

Correlation Coefficients (and p Values) for Study Variables at Time 2*

With the use of instruments similar to those used in this study, negative correlations between threat and challenge have been found consistently (Burns, 1987; Egan, 1982). The high negative correlations between threat and challenge could indicate that both threat and challenge were present. This would be consistent with the theoretical premise proposed by Lazarus et al. (1980), in that both threat and challenge may be present but a dominant response will occur.

Although threat and challenge were negatively correlated and their patterns changed as expected, the measures of primary appraisal (stakes, difficulty, harm, and benefit) and secondary appraisal (control) did not change as had been expected. The absence of change in the appraisal measures was inconsistent with the theoretical premise that as the situation evolves, perceptions of the person/environment transaction change. A possible reason for the inconsistency between the findings and the theoretical premise could be that students accurately assessed the examination, its meaning and consequences, and their ability to manage the examination at the beginning of the quarter. Continued assessment did not produce new information that would have changed the appraisal. In addition, junior-level college students have had a great deal of experience in preparing and taking examinations. However, these explanations are not consistent with the changes that occurred in threat and challenge.

Another explanation might be that there are examination appraisal variables other than those identified in the literature (Folkman & Lazarus, 1985) and incorporated in this study, which may have influenced threat and challenge. The results of the multiple regression analyses support the idea that factors other than those included in the study could account for the changes in threat and challenge. In fact, the independent variables accounted for only 20% of the variance of threat and 40% of the variance of challenge.

The consistent positive correlations between control and challenge and the negative correlations between control and threat support the premise that the appraisal of person/environment transaction as manageable is related to challenge and the appraisal of the transaction as overwhelming is related to threat. Theoretical expectations were also supported by the positive correlations of control and benefit with challenge and of difficulty and harm with threat. The negatively stated stakes scale scores were positively correlated with threat and negatively correlated with challenge. These correlations support the premise that threat represents perceptions of a stressful situation associated with harmful consequences, whereas challenge represents the perspective of potential for growth or gain despite a stressful situation. Furthermore, the theoretical premise that threat and challenge perceptions are based upon person/environment transactions, represented by primary and secondary appraisal, is supported by the results of the multiple regressions. Control, representing secondary appraisal, was the best single predictor for both threat and challenge. Difficulty, as a predictor for threat, and stakes, as a predictor for challenge, represented primary appraisal.

In this study, it was assumed that the perception of threat or challenge immediately prior to the examination would influence a student's performance on the examination, which would be reflected in the grade. Therefore, the grade was selected as the outcome of the examination experience and threat and challenge were assumed to be predictors of grade. However, contrary to the above theoretical premise, "the amount of potential harm the exam holds* was the only study variable that correlated with grade. This finding may be related to the accurate appraisal of anticipated poor performance on the examination and that, indeed, the examination was harmful. Even though harm and grade were correlated, these variables shared only 9% of their variance. Given harm as the only variable related to grade, it is assumed that variables other than those included in this study would be predictive of grade.

It is well known that the best predictor of success in college is past academic achievement. Unfortunately, past achievement was not incorporated as a study variable. The decision not to use college grade point average was based on the findings of Folkman and Lazarus (1985), in which grade point average was notably absent as an explanatory variable for threat and challenge.

The characteristics of the subjects may have been a factor that influenced the difference in findings between the Folkman and Lazarus study (1985) and this study. In this study, 92% of the subjects were female and 8% were male upper division nursing students registered for a required course that was known by the student body for its highly difficult examinations. In the Folkman and Lazarus study, 60% of the subjects were female and 40% were male. These students were registered for an elective lower division psychology class and consisted of upper and lower division students from diverse fields. The level of course examination difficulty was unknown.

Conclusions

This study describes the experiences of students in a testing situation and provides nursing educators with insights into student appraisals of stressful examination situations. Indeed, students did experience threat and challenge and it can be assumed from their relationships that one or the other of the perceptions dominated. The students' perceptions of threat and challenge were related to primary and secondary appraisal variables as well as to what was at stake for them in the examination.

Control, the only secondary appraisal study variable, was the predominant predictive variable for both threat and challenge. This finding supports the notion that the student's ability to manage the testing situation influences the kind of stress that is experienced. While the literature supports the idea that primary and secondary appraisals may change as a situation unfolds, our findings did not support this. It could be speculated that the changes in students' perceptions of stress (threat and challenge) were linked to variables other than those investigated in this study. This suggests that nursing educators should be observant for additional elements of primary and secondary appraisal phenomena that may influence the type of stress students experience.

This study found that the amount of control students perceived they had over the examination predicted both threat and challenge levels. It would seem then that faculty-guided experiences designed to improve students' control over the examination would lessen the amount of threat and increase the amount of challenge experienced. Learning experiences, such as being presented with questions similar to those contained in the exam and demonstrating the use of critical thinking processes to apply knowledge and derive logical answers, may enhance the student's ability to manage complex situational questions. This activity might be enhanced by having students think aloud as they process information about complex situations and formulate judgments. Such activities would also provide opportunities for faculty members to diagnose inappropriate thinking processes or inaccurate application of information and provide immediate constructive feedback. This teaching strategy has the potential not only to increase control in the testing situation but also to influence the use of critical thinking in clinical situations.

The results of this study revealed that "the amount of potential harm the exam holds" was the only variable associated with grade and was also correlated with threat. This supports the idea that the appraisal of threat is associated with a harmful consequence, which is also associated with the examination grade. Are such appraisals prior to the examination detrimental to the students' test- taking performance? If these appraisals are detrimental to test-taking performance, then interventions directed toward influencing the appraisal processes could be implemented. However, as noted, there were unidentified variables presumed to be linked to the perception of stress and to the examination grade. This suggests that further exploratory research should be undertaken to identify these variables and their influence on appraisals associated with examinations. Then perhaps appropriate interventions can be designed and implemented to enhance test-taking performance.

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TABLE 1

Variable Mean Scores, Standard Deviations, Ranges, and Student's Related Data t Tests for 2 Time Periods8

TABLE 2

Correlation Coefficients (and p Values) for Study Variables at Time 1a

TABLE 3

Correlation Coefficients (and p Values) for Study Variables at Time 2*

10.3928/0148-4834-19940101-06

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