Year: 1990

Author: Cantwell, Robert H., Moore, Phillip J.

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The notion of an approach to learning is well documented in the literature (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Biggs, 1987a), and refers to a learner's relative predispositions towards surface, deep and achieving approaches to learning (Biggs, 1987b). There is also a strong supporting literature suggesting that use of these approaches may have differential effects on learning outcomes (Biggs, 1979, Cantwell & Biggs, 1988; Moore & Telfer, 1990). An approach represents an amalgam of related motivational and strategic states. A deep approach, for example, indicates a bias towards learning as an end in itself, and is associated with a desire to approach tasks with a view to maximising the level of understanding. Strategically, this approach implies the use of a variety of processing strategies aimed at clarifying and integrating meanings across many levels of abstraction (Kirby, 1988; Cantwell & Biggs, 1988). Not surprisingly then, a deep approach is conventionally associated with more complex and more abstract learning outcomes (Marton & Saljo, 1976; Biggs, 1979; Moore & Telfer, 1990; Cantwell, 1990). A surface approach, by contrast, indicates a bias toward learning as a means of attaining of some extrinsic goal: the process of learning itself is not intrinsically valued. The depth and breadth of learning undertaken by those utilising a surface approach is defined by a cost-benefit analysis of the expected learning product. Operationally, this is associated with a focus on the avoidance of failure rather than on mastery learning (Ames & Archer, 1988; Biggs, 1987a). Strategically, learning is likely to revolve around the rote learning of discrete units of information. It is again not surprising to find the literature associating a surface approach with less complex learning outcomes. Both the deep and surface approaches represent intentional states for dealing with content-to-be-learned. Use of a deep approach represents a more complex learning style in the sense used by Kirby (1988) than is the case of a surface approach. It implies a greater breadth and depth in both content analysis and in strategic repertoire. Both approaches may also be associated with learning pathologies based on attentional factors. For a deep learner, the desire to extend and clarify meaning may, under certain circumstances, lead to a failure to buttress ideational learning with lower level elaboration (viz. Reder, 1980). Entwistle and Ramsden (1983) describe such learning as "globetrotting". For a surface learner, the desire to reproduce target content may lead to undue focus at the lower levels of meaning, neglecting the need to integrate content at higher levels (viz. Kirby & Cantwell, 1985). Entwistle and Ramsden (1983) characterise this kind of pathology as "improvidence". It may well be the case that these pathologies are associated with an inability or unwillingness to competently manage data beyond a focal level of analysis. It may also be the case that the concurrent use of an achieving approach, with its focus on maximising learning performance through the imposition of organisation and structure on learning, may act to minimise the occurrence of these pathologies. Learners sensitive to the need to structure and organise their learning may well be more likely to impose a hierarchical structure on content being learned. This would reflect a more efficient mode of content management. The notion of an executive strategy control mechanism influencing the kinds of procedural analyses undertaken by learners provides an important analogue to the approaches to learning paradigm. Proficient content learning has been assumed to involve the construction of complex hierarchical representations of the content being learned. For each level of content analysis, it is assumed that unique sets of processing operations come into play. In other words, the greater the complexity of the content being dealt with, the greater the complexity of the strategic repertoire being utilised. The capacity to manage complex strategic requirements in a manner congruent with complex content analysis may then be taken as an index of the efficiency of the executive strategy control mechanism. The concept of executive strategy control has been operationalised through a Strategic Flexibility Questionnaire (SFQ) (Cantwell, 1990) which purports to measure learner predispositions towards what may be termed Adaptive strategic behaviours, Algorithmic strategic behaviours and Ambivalent strategic behaviours. Strategic Adaptiveness refers to a learner's predisposition toward both planning and monitoring strategic behaviours prior to engaging in content analysis and in situ. Such adaptiveness implies a willingness to construct and maintain some kind of strategy-task congruence. Previous research has indicated that strategic adaptiveness is positively related to complex learning, and, logically, to the use of both a deep and a deep-achieving approach to content management (Cantwell, 1990). The use of Strategy Algorithms indicates a predisposition towards some kind of fixed strategic algorithm across all learning tasks, regardless of the nature of the content to be learned. The predisposition indicates a clear disinclination towards flexibility in either the planning or monitoring of strategic behaviours. Given the narrowness and shallowness of the surface perspective on content management, it is not surprising that the algorithmic approach to strategy use has a strong association with a surface approach to learning, and a negative relationship with complex learning (Cantwell, 1990). Strategic Ambivalence indicates a loss of strategic control over processing, or a high degree of uncertainty and confusion in implementing strategic decisions. Learners scoring highly on this scale are unlikely to establish congruence between content management and procedural analysis. Previous research points to a positive relationship between ambivalence and the use of strategy algorithms, a negative relationship between ambivalence and learning outcomes at all levels of complexity, and a positive relationship between ambivalence and a surface approach to learning (Cantwell, 1990). Taken as a whole, the two sets of scales provide for complementary perspectives on executive decision-making in learning. The SPQ scales intimate a perspective over content, indicating the adoption of certain strategic behaviours to ensure congruence between intent and management of content. The SFQ scales are presumed to operationalize such management decisions by focusing on the procedural analyses undertaken by learners in determining when and how changes in strategic behaviour are perceived necessary and undertaken. The data being reported in the current paper represents a sample from a broader study examining the impact of approaches to learning and executive strategy control on the learning outcomes of student nurses in theoretical and applied settings. The two sets of scales will be examined in relation to basic knowledge tests in two areas of nurse theory, and in relation to subject performance on a clinical reasoning task. The latter will be reported by case study only.