Explicit and implicit expectations of individuals toward the organizations within which they function (i.e., the workplace, college, and families) (Batt & Valcour, 2003; Dubrin, 2004) may fuel motivation, achievement, and commitment. If their expectations contradict with reality, loss of motivation, attrition, and underachievement may result. College educators often address these issues by presenting students with course plans, program reviews, personal assessments, and detailed syllabi. However, do nurse educators really know the students’ expectations?
These studies examined and compared nursing students’ expectations of the college experience with those of non-nursing students, trying to understand their nature and what makes them unique.
Students’ expectations of college life may play a pivotal role in understanding academic performance, the pursuit of academic work and research, and the formation of professional identity (Dubrin, 2004). This issue may become critical when nursing seeks a unique path as a developing profession and simultaneously struggles to attract and recruit professional and academic talent. After students’ expectations are known and understood, educators can aim at enhancing them or harnessing them to further promote students’ performance and development.
Expectations are defined as beliefs about a future state of affairs in a given field or aspect of life (Bell, Wiechmann, & Ryan, 2006). Ajzen (1991) was among the pioneering researchers and theoreticians to link expectations to human behavior through the concept of attitude: the theory of planned behavior suggests that attitudes may create expectations, which, when combined with other factors (i.e., perceived control), facilitate behavioral intentions that are often linked to actual behavior (Fitch & Ravlin, 2005; Warshaw & Davis, 1985). Expectations are a major factor in our understanding of human behavior and performance (Myers, 2002). Empirical evidence has linked expectations with emotional aspects of behavior, such as motivation and coping, and cognitive aspects, such as appraisal of life situations, decision making, and long-term job performance (Dubrin, 2004).
During the past 2 decades, this theory has often been applied to the field of occupational psychology and vocational behavior. Lent, Brown, and Hackett (1994) suggested a social-cognitive theory of career and academic behavior that links outcome expectations to vocational choices at various career decision making points. Brougham and Walsh (2005) showed evidence supporting the link between personal expectations and vocational behavior intentions, such as the intention to join a specific school or to retire at a specific point in one’s career. Therefore, expectations can be important to explore in the field of nursing education and in nursing practice.
Nursing research offers some evidence to account for the power and nature of expectations in nursing education, especially during students’ studies and in the passage from nursing school to independent practice. Students’ expectations of future practice has been linked to performance in college (Leyshon, 2002; Ofori & Charlton, 2002), job performance after graduation (Brown & Edelmann, 2000), nurses’ ability to cope with change and challenges (Daniel, Chamberlain, & Gordon, 2001; Hardyman & Hickey, 2001), and decision and policy making in academics and various fields of practice (Deans, Congdon, & Sellers, 2003; Sellers & Deans, 1999).
Expectations can be regarded as a powerful component of self-identity (Berger, 2004; Cook, Gilmer, & Bess, 2003). Preliminary findings suggest that the personal perceptions and expectations of nursing students and newly employed nurses are related to the professional image they develop (Cook et al., 2003). The professional and academic image, in turn, is a source of influence on the nurses’ functioning, motivation, career path, and achievements (Donaldson & Crowley, 1978). We can delineate a theoretical line beginning with the vocational choice of nursing to nursing students’ expectations of their studies, future profession, and personal identity to professional identity and image and ending in performance and career achievements. Therefore, expectations can also be indirectly related to the process of developing nursing as an academic profession (Potter & Perry, 2005). If nursing students expect their college experience and education to prepare them as practitioners or researchers, it may influence their professional orientation, involvement in research, evidence-based practices, and motivation to pursue advanced degrees.
Because of this link, it is important to examine nursing students’ expectations of their own college experience. As a formative period for nurses, college may be a critical period for the future nurses. A better understanding of such expectations may provide insight into the processes underlying performance in educational settings and future performance as practicing professionals and academicians. Although recent studies have examined the professional expectations of nursing students or newly employed nurses (Brown & Edelmann, 2000; Hardyman & Hickey, 2001; Ofori & Charlton, 2002), none have explored nursing students’ expectations of the college experience.
The two studies described in this article examined nursing students’ expectations of college at the early stages of their education. Because no existing instruments were found that met the needs of this study, an instrument to assess students’ expectations was designed and tested for reliability and construct validity in the first study. In the second study, the expectations of nursing and non-nursing students were compared to establish a possible pattern for nursing students. Because there is little existing research in this area, a semi-exploratory approach was taken. Existing vocational psychological theory suggests that each and every profession has its own typical pattern of requirements, demands, and gratification factors (Hener & Meir, 1981). Therefore, our hypothesis was that nursing students’ expectations of college would differ from those of non-nursing college students.
Method: Study 1
Ninety-five of 100 freshman college students from a private university in the Pacific Northwest agreed to participate in a study about students’ expectations of college life. The students were from various programs, including philosophy, mathematics, physics, psychology, nursing, and theology. The sample consisted of 73 women and 22 men, with a mean age of 24 (range = 18 to 59, SD = 5.55).
A questionnaire was designed to assess students’ expectations of college. Fifteen sophomore students from the department of psychology and school of nursing at the same university, who attended a research seminar, participated in the preliminary development of the scale. A focus group technique was applied to extract themes related to the students’ retrospective expectations of the college experience. The investigators created a 23-item list of the expectations the students presented. After excluding items for overlap or similarities, 13 expectations were identified. The focus group then sorted the items into categories according to domain or content. The group identified 3 distinct categories. They discussed the categories and named them personal goals (i.e., “I expect to become a better person.”), professional achievement (i.e., “I expect to become an expert in my field.”) and social-interpersonal (i.e., “I expect to make new friends.”). Respondents graded each statement on a visual analog scale representing proportions ranging from 0% (total disagreement) to 100% (total agreement). The full list of items is shown in Table 1. Study 1 describes additional psychometric findings regarding the scale’s reliability and content validity.
Table 1: Exploratory Factor Analysis Results for the Expectations Questionnaire Items
The authors obtained the approval of the college’s institutional review board to conduct the study on campus. Students who agreed to participate filled out the questionnaire on their own time, outside of the classroom. They were asked to fill out the questionnaires in private and to be as sincere as possible. Students placed the completed questionnaires in a ballot box on campus to ensure anonymity. The ballot box was collected 5 days later. The data collected were then analyzed using SPSS version 11.0 software.
Results: Study 1
To test the construct validity and the internal consistency of the measure, an unrestricted, exploratory factor analysis (EFA) was conducted, using eigenvalues of 1.0 and principal component analysis and a varimax rotation. The EFA was followed by a Cronbach’s alpha test for each factorial score. Factorial scores were created by calculating the simple mean of the item scores that were assigned to each of the 3 factors. The results of the analysis are shown in Table 1.
The results supported the 3-factor model suggested by the investigators. The first factor was highly loaded (loadings of 0.60 or higher, for all factors) on items regarding professional expectations (4 items, Cronbach’s alpha = 0.84), and the second factor was highly loaded on items regarding self-betterment (5 items, Cronbach’s alpha = 0.78). The third factor was highly loaded on items regarding social and interpersonal expectations (3 items, Cronbach’s alpha = 0.68). One item did not load well on any of the factors and therefore was not included in further analysis. The 3 factors showed moderate intercorrelations (r = 0.42 to 0.52; p < 0.01), which suggests a coherent factor structure, yet with enough separation to justify individual factors. The factorial model accounted for more than 65% of the total variance. Additional details on factorial eigenvalues and variance explained are shown in Table 2.
Table 2: Factorial Eigenvalues and Variance Explained in the Rotated Solution Model
The results suggested that the instrument developed for these studies had reasonable reliability and construct validity. A slightly revised version of the instrument was used in study 2.
Method: Study 2
The sample comprised 160 college students attending the same private university located in the Pacific Northwest who agreed to participate in a study about their expectations of college. Included were 52 nursing students, all enrolled in the 4-year BSN program, and 108 non-nursing students from the mathematics, physics, psychology, and theology programs. The sample consisted of 38 men and 122 women, with a mean age of 21 (range = 18 to 48, SD = 2.76). The study sample comprised 54% European/White students, 18% Asian students, 15% students with a multiethnic background, 3.8% Latin American students, 3.8% Pacific Islander students, and 1.3% African American students. The remaining 4.1% included Native American students (2.5%) and participants who did not provide information about their ethnic heritage (1.6%). The majority were traditional students, with approximately 5% older or nontraditional students. A majority of participants were freshmen, with approximately 15% sophomores. Nursing and non-nursing students did not differ significantly on any of the demographics, except for gender distribution—the nursing group included only 2 men.
The expectations questionnaire developed in study 1 was used; however, only 12 of the original 13 items were included because the expectation to get closer to one’s religious beliefs did not meet the factor loading criteria. The Cronbach’s alpha reliability coefficients for the three scales in this study ranged from 0.57 to 0.68.
Additional information about program of study (nursing/non-nursing), year in college, gender, age, and student status (full time or part time) was collected.
After institutional review board approval was obtained, the authors recruited student participants. Participants filled out the questionnaire on their own time, outside of the classroom. They were asked to fill out the questionnaires in private and to be as sincere as possible. Students placed the completed questionnaires in a ballot box on campus to ensure anonymity. The ballot box was collected 2 days later.
Results: Study 2
Factorial grades were calculated to represent the 3 factors found in study 1 to examine expectation differences beyond the single item level. Factorial subscales were calculated as the weighted mean scores of items belonging to each factor, depending on the loadings. This is the recommended approach to creating factorial grades to represent a conceptual variable (i.e., representing kinds of expectations) (Pett, Lackey, & Sullivan, 2003). The comparison of the factorial grades revealed patterns of students’ expectations of college. Professional expectations were ranked highest, with self-betterment expectations second, and social expectations last, as shown in the Figure.
Figure. Factorial grade comparison for self-betterment, professional, and social expectations. All differences were significant at the p < 0.01 level or better.
Although factorial subscales did not significantly differ between the nursing and non-nursing samples, Table 2 shows the distribution of specific expectations and the differences between nursing and non-nursing students. A few interesting trends emerge from the data, even after controlling for demographic variables.
On the expectations profile of the participants, the highest expectations expressed were regarding obtaining a diploma, earning a profession, earning more money, and making new friends in college. The lowest expectations expressed were regarding leading a wild lifestyle during college, meeting a future spouse, and becoming involved in the community.
A comparison of nursing and non-nursing students shows that generally, nursing students do not differ dramatically from other students on most expectations. However, four exceptions were noted (Table 3). Nursing students showed higher levels of expectation than non-nursing students on two items: “To become a better person,” and “To get a profession.” The nursing students demonstrated a lower level of expectation on one item: “To be acknowledged for my academic performance.” Nursing students also ranked the expectation “To get a degree/diploma” marginally higher than non-nursing students did. These differences remained unchanged even when controlling for gender, which could be an intervening factor as gender distribution was uneven.
Table 3: Distribution of Expectation Levels Among Nursing (n = 52) and Other (n = 108) Students
The results partially support our hypotheses. In study 1, a measure of students’ expectations of college was designed and shown to possess satisfactory psychometric attributes. In study 2, a slightly revised version of the same measure was used both to portray a pattern of students’ expectations of college and to compare nursing and non-nursing students.
Expectations appear to be dominated by professional expectations, followed by self-betterment and social expectations. This pattern was evident regardless of major, which reveals motivations geared mainly toward practical, instrumental goals. This trend is not new and is supported by a few previous studies examining the expectations of students in general. Recent and current surveys of college students’ expectations and goals consistently stress materialistic goals and expectations, such as preparing for a job and increasing chances of high income (Berger, 2004). This trend seems to be strengthening during recent years to the point of showing job, career, and income-related expectations and goals in the lead among college students (North Carolina State University, 2003; Public Policy Forum, n.d.), with intellectual and spiritual goals next, and social and community-related goals last. Although these expectations are usually aimed at the time following graduation, the literature points to a link between college-related expectations and future expectations, goals, and motivations. Education scholars have left this issue largely unexplored, and our findings suggest there is merit in further examining this trend.
The comparison of the expectations of nursing and non-nursing students reveals that many aspects of students’ expectations of college are similar, regardless of their program of study. However, in our samples, nursing students do show a higher expectation of becoming better individuals through their college experience, and of obtaining a profession, with lower expectations of acknowledgement of academic excellence. This pattern seems to fit within the general perception of the field of nursing. Nursing emphasizes the element of care and helping that may be related to the expectation to improve oneself. Nursing is also often perceived as a practice-oriented, hands-on profession with immediate implications for employment (Sellers & Deans, 1999). This may explain the expectation to gain a profession by means of self-selection. Students who choose nursing in college could be characterized by a more practical, action-oriented set of goals and expectations. The same professional, practical emphasis may underlie the reason why the expectation for academic achievement was ranked lower for nursing students. It might be that the professional, hands-on perception of students reduces the perceived academic opportunities in this field or their interest in pursuing such opportunities. Another reason may be that nursing has only recently joined the academic world as an independent field of research and knowledge (Burns & Grove, 2001).
The gender bias in the nursing samples may raise the question of gender differences in expectation structure. Preliminary evidence from existing research shows that the gender bias may exist in some aspects, such as men being more practically oriented than women in choice and pursuit of nursing education, but overall the gender differences are less overwhelming than one might suspect (Zysberg & Berry, 2005).
The studies described in this article are preliminary forays into a field that has not received much attention in nursing research. As such, these studies show some limitations that should be considered. The samples were limited in size and were all taken from a single site carrying its own cultural, socioeconomical characteristics. Additional studies should be conducted in more diverse samples to allow for generalization of our findings. Also, the scale developed for this study is a new instrument and should be used carefully until further evidence regarding its psychometric properties has been accumulated. One possible weakness of the scale development in the first study is the relatively small number of participants used in the EFA. The literature indicates a recommended minimal sample size of 10 per item in a factor analysis. The literature also suggests that when loadings in the model are relatively high (i.e., 66% of our loadings were more than 0.70) and the number of factors is limited (the model identified 3 factors), a smaller sample size can be satisfactory (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2001). The marginal internal level of reliability for one of the scales in the second study (the social factorial scale presented a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.57) may have been the result of the low number of items. It may benefit from more scrutiny in future studies, and perhaps require items to be added to the scale. In addition, the perceived underrepresentation of men in the nursing student sample may seem to bias the results, but it represents the existing gender bias in the nursing world.
The results of the studies discussed in this article may suggest some directions for educational and recruitment-oriented applications. Some of the findings are very encouraging, identifying themes such as self-betterment and the promotion of work-related professional skills as dominant factors in nursing students’ expectations of college. These seem to constitute the core of student expectations and are therefore important to the students’ motivation. However, the relatively lower expectation to excel and promote academic achievement in nursing education settings is of special interest. The lower expectation exists despite the fact that the institution in which the studies were conducted offers an array of funds, prizes, and opportunities for nurses to participate in academic activities. This finding suggests a worrying trend that may go beyond the schools participating in this study (Anonymous, personal communication, June 14, 2004).
Our results could facilitate the understanding of the psychological contracts students can form unknowingly with the institution they attend (Batt & Valcour, 2003; Dubrin, 2004). Students’ practical “get a profession and earn a living” expectation toward college may lead to an aversive attitude toward research and method-oriented coursework, whereas more scientifically inclined students may feel uncomfortable with the more practical aspects of their studies. Such understanding may also be useful in identifying students who have the potential to become nursing scholars.
The measure of students’ expectations of college needs further research to examine its reliability and validity in more diverse settings and samples. If future studies support these findings, nurse educators may consider the inclusion of their students’ expectations in several ways:
- By using expectation measures as outcome measures (i.e., examining how coursework influences expectations).
- By designing curricula to demonstrate the complimentary qualities of practice, research, and academic-oriented coursework.
- By referring to expectations as a characteristic of the individual and therefore offering separate tracks within baccalaureate-level nursing programs (i.e., a practice-oriented track and a research-oriented track).
- By using expectation measures as a selection tool to accept those students who have expectations that fit well with the institution’s academic or professional agenda.
The studies discussed in this article examined a question that went unnoticed for a surprisingly long time. However, additional work is required to establish results allowing more valid generalization. Additional samples from different kinds of nursing programs (i.e., other RN and Bachelor of Arts programs, RN-only programs, licensed practical nurse programs), including more diverse samples regarding gender, ethnicity, and age should be used. Also, an increasing number of programs allowing professionals from various fields to retrain as nurses are in existence today. Do these students exhibit different expectations? All of these questions need to be examined.
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Exploratory Factor Analysis Results for the Expectations Questionnaire Items
|Expectation||Factor 1||Factor 2||Factor 3|
|I expect to become a better person.||0.29||0.80||0.00|
|I expect to learn new things about myself.||0.41||0.77||−0.12|
|I expect to excel in my studies.||0.47||0.67||0.00|
|I expect to win prizes for my academic performance.||0.00||0.60||0.35|
|I expect to get a profession.||0.92||0.13||0.13|
|I expect to become an expert in my field.||0.76||0.24||0.00|
|I expect to get a degree/diploma.||0.70||0.15||0.10|
|I expect to make more money once I graduate.||0.82||0.14||0.14|
|I expect to make new friends.||0.50||0.47||0.60|
|I expect to meet my future spouse.||0.23||0.24||0.74|
|I expect to lead a wild and fun lifestyle.||0.00||0.00||0.85|
|I expect to get closer to my religious beliefs.a||0.00||0.53||0.46|
|I expect to become involved in my community.||0.10||0.69||0.18|
Factorial Eigenvalues and Variance Explained in the Rotated Solution Model
|Factor||Eigenvalue||% of Variance Explained||Cumulative %|
Distribution of Expectation Levels Among Nursing (n = 52) and Other (n = 108) Students
|Expectation||Nursing Students, Mean (SD)||Other Students, Mean (SD)||t||df||p|
|I expect to become a better person.a||86.34 (19.10)||78.98 (26.50)||2.00||137.73||0.04|
|I expect to learn new things about myself.||88.84 (17.67)||84.35 (18.85)||1.44||158.00||0.15|
|I expect to excel in my studies.||87.69 (11.81)||83.98 (18.49)||1.53||147.70||0.13|
|I expect to win prizes for my academic performance.a||35.76 (25.30)||48.70 (28.61)||2.77||158.00||0.00|
|I expect to get a profession.a||97.50 (9.26)||91.02 (16.70)||3.13||154.24||0.00|
|I expect to become an expert in my field.||83.84 (18.38)||83.88 (18.12)||0.01||158.00||0.98|
|I expect to get a degree/diploma.||99.03 (3.57)||96.85 (10.90)||1.88||144.94||0.06|
|I expect to make more money once I graduate.||95.68 (12.68)||94.81 (11.39)||0.34||157.00||0.66|
|I expect to make new friends.||90.00 (17.37)||88.78 (18.61)||0.39||157.00||0.69|
|I expect to meet my future spouse.||48.65 (27.37)||46.94 (29.59)||0.35||158.00||0.72|
|I expect to lead a wild and fun lifestyle.||44.42 (25.31)||51.01 (30.56)||1.34||158.00||0.17|
|I expect to become involved in my community.||62.94 (27.44)||62.38 (26.44)||0.12||154.00||0.90|