Journal of Nursing Education

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Differences in Classroom Teaching Preferences Between Traditional and Adult BSN Students

Cesarina Thompson, PhD, RN; Barry G Sheckley, PhD

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The primary purposes of this study were to identify the best teaching practices for adult baccalaureate (BSN) nursing students and to examine if adult students' teaching preferences differed from those of traditional BSN students. The sample consisted of 206 adult and traditional students in four BSN programs. The adult nursing student sample was further subdivided into two groups: adults with no prior nursing education (adult non-nurses) and adults with prior nursing education (RN's). Using a two-part, selfadministered questionnaire, respondents were asked to rate the frequency with which 41 teaching strategies were used in their best and in their worst classroom learning experiences in nursing. In most cases, adult non-nurses' teaching preferences did not vary significantly from the preferences of traditional students. However, adults with no prior nursing education did show a preference for knowledgeable and organized instructors. In contrast RNs' preferred classroom situations were where time on task was emphasized, cooperative learning was encouraged, and expectations for learning were high. Results indicate that classroom teaching preferences vary as a function of prior experience with the subject matter and are not attributable to age itself. Findings suggest that prior experience with course content is a more important consideration in planning programs than generalized adult experience.

Abstract

ABSTRACT

The primary purposes of this study were to identify the best teaching practices for adult baccalaureate (BSN) nursing students and to examine if adult students' teaching preferences differed from those of traditional BSN students. The sample consisted of 206 adult and traditional students in four BSN programs. The adult nursing student sample was further subdivided into two groups: adults with no prior nursing education (adult non-nurses) and adults with prior nursing education (RN's). Using a two-part, selfadministered questionnaire, respondents were asked to rate the frequency with which 41 teaching strategies were used in their best and in their worst classroom learning experiences in nursing. In most cases, adult non-nurses' teaching preferences did not vary significantly from the preferences of traditional students. However, adults with no prior nursing education did show a preference for knowledgeable and organized instructors. In contrast RNs' preferred classroom situations were where time on task was emphasized, cooperative learning was encouraged, and expectations for learning were high. Results indicate that classroom teaching preferences vary as a function of prior experience with the subject matter and are not attributable to age itself. Findings suggest that prior experience with course content is a more important consideration in planning programs than generalized adult experience.

Adults currently comprise approximately 50% of the total enrollment on college and university campuses (Lyn ton & Elman, 1987). Similarly, the population of adult students has risen in baccalaureate (BSN) nursing programs. The non-traditional student population in BSN programs includes adults who may be entering colleges and universities for the first time, adults who return for a second degree in order to change careers, and RNs who wish to complete the BSN to advance their nursing career. Faced with this older and more diverse population, nurse educators grapple with two major questions: What is the best way to teach adult learners in BSN programs? Are different teaching strategies required for traditional students, adults with no nursing experience, and adults with nursing experience?

LITERATURE REVIEW

Principles of adult learning, as described by Brookfield (1986), Knowles (1980), and Mezirow and Associates (1990) suggest that the learning needs of adults are quite different from those of traditional college students. According to this research, nurse educators seeking to establish effective adult learning programs should create a supportive learning environment, use learners' experience as a resource for learning, promote self-directed learning, and encourage collaboration in the learning process (Brookfield, 1986). Following this line of reasoning, the use of andragogical techniques (Knowles, 1980) has been especially advocated for teaching RNs in continuing education programs or RNs in BSN programs (Baj, 1985; Beeman, 1988; Dyck, 1986; Smith, 1978; Wolanin, 1973). Related research, however, indicates that the use of these principles does not necessarily yield higher student achievement or satisfaction scores among adult learners (Beder & Carrea, 1988; Rosenblum & Darken wald, 1983). Some researchers have argued that the principles of adult learning are narrow in scope and only serve the needs of adults with particular learning styles (Even, 1982; Pratt, 1988). Other studies have shown that the effectiveness of andragogical adult learning techniques depend on the learners' experiences and the learning situation (Conti & Welborn, 1986; Loesch & Foley, 1988; Slotnick, Pelton, Fuller, & Tabor, 1993; Tracy & Schuttenberg, 1986; Werring, 1985).

These findings are also confirmed in the field of nursing education where a limited number of empirical investigations have shown that adult learners in nursing do not necessarily prefer teaching strategies that promote self-direction or allow for participation in planning learning activities (Linares 1989; Merritt, 1983; Seidl & Sauter, 1990). In addition, Russell (1990) found that achievement was not affected by the type of instructional method used (teacher-centered vs. student-centered).

Although the adult learning literature does not clearly delineate what the most effective teaching practices are for adults in baccalaureate nursing programs, the research literature on teaching students in K- 12 and traditional undergraduate settings provides a broader and comprehensive perspective on teaching. For example, Chickering and Gamson (1987) identify seven principles of effective teaching that "rest on 50 years of research on the way teachers teach and students learn, how students work and play with one another, and how students and faculty talk to each other" (p. 4). The principles are: 1) Encourage student-faculty contact, 2) Encourage cooperation among students, 3) Encourage active learning, 4) Give prompt feedback, 5) Emphasize time on task, 6) Communicate high expectations, and 7) Respect diverse talents and ways of learning.

Chickering and Gamson (1987) maintain that while each principle can be used individually, when all seven principles are present in the learning environment their effects multiply. An overwhelming amount of research provides support for these seven teaching principles (Cross, 1987; EbIe, 1988; Kulik & Kulik, 1979; Pascarella, 1980; Ross, 1989; Sherman, Armistead, Fowler, Barksdale, & Reif, 1987; Sheckley, 1988; Werring, 1985). In addition to Chickering and Gamson's principles, research on traditional and non-traditional students in higher education (Feldman, 1976; Ross, 1989; Sherman, Armistead, Fowler, Barksdale, & Reif, 1987) identifies two additional principles: 8) Demonstrate command of the subject matter, and 9) Present content in an organized and clear manner.

The effectiveness of several principles has been supported by nursing studies of "best" and "worst" clinical teaching behaviors (Bergman & Gaitskill, 1990; Mogan & Knox, 1987; O'Shea & Parsons, 1979) and by studies related to classroom teaching (Boman, 1986; Dawson, 1986). However, the age and experiences of students were not considered as variables in these studies.

The nine principles of effective teaching were used to frame the research question that guided this study: In what ways and to what extent do the best and worst classroom learning experiences differ for traditional age students (Group 1), adult non-nurses (Group 2), and RNs (Group 3) enrolled in BSN programs?

METHODS AND PROCEDURES

Sample

The sample consisted of 206 students enrolled in four baccalaureate nursing programs. The sample was divided into 106 traditional students, 36 adults with no prior nursing education, and 64 RNs. As expected, the majority of nursing students in the sample were female (97.6%). The ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 60 years of age with a mean age of 27.1 years (SD=8.8). In this study, 49 participants (24.9%) held associate degrees in nursing or other fields, 31 (15.7%) held bachelor's degrees, and 9 (4.6%) held graduate degrees. Participants in this study were at various stages of their BSN program. Of the respondents, 26% were sophomores, 34% were juniors, and 40% were seniors.

Data Collection

Permission to survey students was obtained by contacting Deans/Directors of four NLN-accredited BSN nursing programs. Data collection at the four institutions was coordinated through the Dean/Director or through a designated faculty member. The "coordinator" at each institution notified faculty members teaching adult and undergraduate students of the study and asked if they would be willing to have their classes surveyed. Through this procedure, a population of 295 potential subjects was identified. During the Spring 1992 semester, questionnaires were distributed in class to these students by their faculty member or by the investigator. A total of 206 questionnaires were returned for a 70% response rate.

Instrument

A 45-item questionnaire was adapted from two separate surveys that assessed effective teaching practices developed respectively by Chickering, Gamson, and Barsi (1989), and Sheckley (1988). The questionnaire was divided into two main sections. In the first section, respondents were asked to recall the "best" classroom situation they had experienced in a formal classroom setting focused on nursing and to rate 41 of the items. In the second section, respondents were asked to recall the "worst" classroom situation they had experienced in a formal classroom setting focused on nursing and to rate the same 41 items. Within each main section (Best and Worst), the 41 items were arranged into nine groupings representing the nine principles of effective teaching. Each grouping consisted of 3-8 items. Respondents rated the items using a 5-point Likert scale (l=strategy was never used, 5=strategy was used very often). To control for response bias, half of the instruments asked for perceptions of the best experiences first and worst experiences second. The remaining questionnaires asked perceptions of worst experiences first and of best experiences second.

Several procedures were used to ensure the reliability and validity of the survey instrument. First, items contained in the Chickering, Gamson, and Barsi (1989) instrument were combined with the statistically significant items identified by Sheckley (1988). Second, the instrument was reviewed for content validity by a panel of researchers with expertise in the area of undergraduate and adult teaching practices. Finally, the instrument was piloted with 36 traditional and adult students in a BSN program. The pilot test results indicated that the survey had a high level of internal reliability (Best r=.96; Worst r=.94), so it was used without further refinement for the final study.

Since the nine principles of effective teaching used to develop the survey instrument have not been tested empirically, factor analysis was conducted to identify which of the theoretically derived principles of effective teaching would be validated through empirical analysis. Promax rotations were performed for the principles describing the best and the worst classroom experiences. The outcome of the factor analysis is reported in the results section. SAS General Linear Models (GLM) procedures were used to determine if differences existed among the three groups in their perceptions of the "best" and "worst" classroom experiences.

A 4-item subsection, "quality of educational experience," was added at the end of the "best" and at the end of the "worst" section of the instrument as a cross-check to ensure that the experience described as the best or worst was indeed the "best" or "worst." Participants rated their learning experiences in terms of amount of information learned, the relevance of the material presented, their degree of interest in the content area, and their degree of satisfaction with the class/course. The "quality" items had a relatively high internal reliability for both the best and worst learning experiences (Best r=.79, Worst r=.75).

RESULTS

Prior to conducting the factor analysis, two procedures were followed. First, mean scores for the entire sample were compared for the items rating the "best" and "worst" classroom experiences. The "best" classroom experiences were characterized by significantly more extensive use of all principles (p<.001) with mean scale scores ranging from 3.6 to 4.7 (with 5.0="strategy was used very often") in comparison to the "worst" classroom experiences with mean scale scores ranging from 2.2 to 2.7 (with 1.0="strategy was never used"). A common criticism of student ratings of teaching effectiveness has been that ratings may be influenced by the grades students receive (Marsh, Overall, & Kesler, 1979). A Chi-square analysis of the data showed that no significant difference existed between the best and worst experiences in terms of grades expected and grades earned (p<.05). The findings indicate that the responses were not related to differences in grades expected and grades received.

According to research on adult learners (e.g., Cross, 1981), factors external to the classroom like lack of time or energy, can influence learning and turn a potentially positive situation into a negative one. For this reason, participants were also asked to report the level of personal resources (e.g., time, energy) available to invest in the best and worst classroom learning experiences. In both the best and worst learning experiences, the majority of responses (78.5% in the best, and 67.8% in the worst) indicated that participants had a moderately high to high level of resources. These findings indicate that in both situations students had sufficient resources to invest in their learning activities.

Secondly, items were again analyzed for internal consistency (Best r=.95, Worst r=.94) and overall correlation with the total scale. Items which were found to correlate poorly with the total scale and/or its subscale were deleted. Through intercorrelation analysis of the nine subscales, several additional items were deleted because they were found to be highly correlated with items in different subscales and thus, were judged to be repetitive. Following these procedures, 9 items were deleted from the section describing the "worst" classroom experiences and 9 items were deleted from the section describing the "best" classroom experiences. Thus, 32 "best" items and 32 "worst" items were entered into the factor analysis.

For the "best" classroom experiences, factor analysis using Promax rotation yielded four factors that were structurally similar to those contained in the theoretical model (Table 1). Factor 1, labeled "Teacher was knowledgeable and organized" contained 8 items, like "had thorough knowledge of class/course" and "presented content in a logical manner." Factor 2, labeled "Teacher clarified time on task and communicated high expectations," contained 10 items like "teacher communicated time required for adequate class preparation," and "encouraged students to set challenging goals." Factor 3, labeled "Teacher encouraged active learning" contained 3 items relating to topics like "encouraged students to participate in planning learning activities." Factor 4, "Teacher encouraged cooperative learning" included 4 items relating to topics like "encouraged students to explain difficult ideas to each other."

For the "worst" classroom experiences, factor analysis yielded five factors. Two of these factors, "Teacher was knowledgeable and organized," and "Teacher clarified time on task" were almost identical to the like-named factors in the "best" experiences (Table 2). While in the "best" experiences items relating to "time on task" and "high expectations" were combined into one factor, for the "worst" experiences only items relating to "time on task" emerged as a factor. Factor 1 was renamed "Encourage interaction and involvement" to better describe the combination of items loading on this factor. Factor 3, "Active Learning" contained several items that originally described other principles. However, these items generally reflected teaching behaviors that promote participation in learning, like "encouraged students to speak up when they did not understand," and seem to fit more appropriately within this factor. Similarly, Factor 5 "Respect diverse talents and ways of learning," contained four items that reflected the teacher's consideration for various learning styles and preferences, such as "used experiential teaching methods."

Table

TABLE 1Factor Analysis Using Promax Rotation for the Best Classroom Learning Experiences

TABLE 1

Factor Analysis Using Promax Rotation for the Best Classroom Learning Experiences

SAS-GLM procedures were used to determine if differences existed among traditional, adult non-nurses, and RN students in their perceptions of "best" and "worst" classroom experiences. As presented in Table 3 for Factors describing the "Best" experiences, significant differences were found in the ratings of "Time on Task/High Expectations" (p<.05), Teacher was Knowledgeable and Organized" (p<.05) and "Cooperative Learning" (p<.01) (Table 3). Post hoc analyses showed that RN students rated "Time on Task/High Expectations" significantly higher than traditional students (RN M=4.2, Trad. M=3.9). RN students also rated "Cooperative Learning" significantly higher than traditional students and adult non-nurses (RN M=4.2, Trad. M=3.4, Adult M=3.8). In addition, adult nonnurses rated "Knowledge and Organization" significantly higher than traditional students (Adult M=4.7, Trad. M=4.4). No significant differences were found among the three groups in the ratings of factors describing the "worst" classroom experiences.

Table

TABLE 2Factor Analysis Using Promax Rotation for the Worst Classroom Learning Experiences

TABLE 2

Factor Analysis Using Promax Rotation for the Worst Classroom Learning Experiences

Table

TABLE 3GLM Comparisons of "Best" Factors 1, 2, and 4 Ratings Given by Traditional, Adult Non-nurses and RN Students*

TABLE 3

GLM Comparisons of "Best" Factors 1, 2, and 4 Ratings Given by Traditional, Adult Non-nurses and RN Students*

Analysis of ratings for "quality of educational experiences" for the best and worst classroom learning experiences of the entire sample as a whole showed that students' perceptions of "quality" were, for the most part, significantly related to their ratings of factors in the best and worst learning experiences. Although statistically significant, these correlations were relatively weak. In the best experiences, the correlations explained between 2% and 8% of the variance. In the worst experiences, these correlations were slightly higher and explained between 4% and 14% of the variance.

DISCUSSION

The results indicate that four factors are stable across the students' best and worst classroom learning experiences. The more a nursing classroom situation includes a teacher who is organized and knowledgeable, clarifies time on task, encourages cooperative learning, and promotes active learning the more likely students are to rate their experiences positively. The results also indicate a classroom experience will be rated positively if, in addition to the four factors, the teacher communicates high expectations. Conversely, a classroom experience will be rated as "poor" if the first four principles are not upheld and if student/teacher interaction is not encouraged and diversity in ways of learning is not considered.

The results also indicate that the principles relating to positive and negative classroom experiences vary as a function of prior work experience with the subject matter. Of all three groups the adult students with prior work experience in the field (RNs) valued "cooperative learning" and "active learning" more than adult non-nurses or traditional age students.

RNs also rated "active learning" more highly than traditional students and adult non-nurses (Trad. M=3.7, Adult M=3.8, RNs M=4.1). The difference among the means was very close to approaching significance (p=.052). Replication with a larger sample of RNs may reveal a significant difference in relation to this factor.

These findings contradict a widely held principle of adult learning that advocates across the board student participation and self-direction in learning for all adult learners. The results of this study indicate that a specific relationship between work experience and course content is a more important consideration in designing courses for adults than generalized adult experience by itself. Results also showed that adults with no prior nursing experience (adult non-nurses) particularly valued knowledgeable and organized instructors (Adult non-nurses M=4.7, RNs M=4.5, Trad. M=4.4). Findings of this study are consistent with Slotnick and colleagues' (1993) conclusion that teaching preferences are not attributable to age itself, but more to the particular experiences of the student.

The results indicate that general agreement exists among the three groups as to what constitutes a poor classroom experience. While no statistically significant differences were found among the three groups in the ratings of the "worst" factors, results indicate that adults are generally more resourceful than traditional students in finding time to study. The older students valued the opportunity to spend time on task more highly in the "best" situations than their younger counterparts. In the "worst" situations where "time on task" was not provided, the older students seemed to be more resilient and resourceful in finding the time to accomplish their studies because their ratings on this dimension were less critical than ratings given by traditional students (Trad. M=2.5, Adult M=2.7, RNs M =2.8).

IMPLICATIONS FOR NURSING EDUCATION

The results of this study indicate that faculty of BSN programs who desire to improve the satisfaction of all students should design learning experiences in which cooperative learning is encouraged, students are challenged and actively involved in learning, time on task is clarified, and content is presented by knowledgeable and organized faculty. Where the population of students includes more experienced RNs, the use of cooperative learning strategies should be particularly emphasized. When considering the needs of returning adults with no prior nursing experience (adult non-nurses), it may also be beneficial to assign these students to faculty who are experts in their subject matter and can deh ver the content in a clear and organized manner.

The experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) provides an excellent road map for nurse educators to use as they strive to increase the active learning and cooperative learning approaches used in BSN programs. Following the experiential learning model educators would begin classroom sessions with a specific concrete learning experience about which students would reflect to identify general principles governing or operating during the concrete experience. The instructor would then link the reflections in a short lecture to specific abstract concepts or ideas. The session would end with students working in groups using the concepts to solve a specific nursing problem. For example, in a classroom session on ethical dilemmas in nursing practice, the instructor could introduce the students to the common dilemma of "quality of life versus quantity of life" by providing them with a patient situation in which the patient's wish not to be resuscitated is contested by the patient's family (concrete experience). Students would then be given time to reflect upon this experience and identify the ethical theories or principles operating in this situation (reflective observation). Next, the instructor would present a brief lecture relating students' observation to ethical concepts specific to this situations, e.g., a patient's right to decide, nurse as patient advocate, patient's right to refuse treatment, etc. (abstract conceptualization). During this stage of the experiential learning cycle the instructor would also present relevant observations not mentioned by the students or clarify any misconceptions related to the topic. Students would then again meet in groups to integrate their observations with the new concepts and ideas presented by the instructor and discuss possible solutions to similar ethical dilemmas they will encounter in practice (active experimentation).

We would like to end our discussion by placing the results of this study within a larger perspective. Since the combination of factors explained about 31% of the total variance in the best situation and 28% of the total variance in the worst situation, educators of BSN students should not take these recommendations as a panacea that will immediately transform all classrooms into perfect learning environments. The classroom is a complex social system involving multiple levels of interactions between and among students and faculty. The recommendations included in this article should assist nurse educators to maximize their impact in the classroom setting by improving the effectiveness of instruction.

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TABLE 1

Factor Analysis Using Promax Rotation for the Best Classroom Learning Experiences

TABLE 2

Factor Analysis Using Promax Rotation for the Worst Classroom Learning Experiences

TABLE 3

GLM Comparisons of "Best" Factors 1, 2, and 4 Ratings Given by Traditional, Adult Non-nurses and RN Students*

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