The Relationship between Tolerance for Ambiguity and Need for Course Structure

By DeRoma, Virginia M.; Martin, Kanetra M. et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Relationship between Tolerance for Ambiguity and Need for Course Structure


DeRoma, Virginia M., Martin, Kanetra M., Kessler, Maria Lynn, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Although tolerance for ambiguity has been highlighted as important in the development of creative, integrative thinking in the college setting, few studies have examined ambiguity tolerance and anxiety in response to uncertainties introduced in the classroom. In the current study 101 students completed the McClain's (1993) Multiple Stimulus Type Tolerance for Ambiguity Test and rated the importance of eight elements of course structure and anxiety when those elements are absent. Results indicated significant, negative correlations between tolerance for ambiguity scores and anxiety and ratings of importance of course structure in a number of areas. Results suggest that tolerance for ambiguity may be an important variable to assess and train so that students are better prepared for unstructured elements of a course that promote critical thinking and parallel the complexities of the applied world.

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The ability to tolerate uncertainty or ambiguity was first identified as a stable tendency or personality variable by Budner (1962), who defined it as an individual's propensity to view ambiguous situations as either threatening or desirable. Since this hallmark study, tolerance for ambiguity has been associated with numerous markers of success, including objective and subjective supervisory ratings in selection of employees for hiring (Bauer & Truxillo, 2000) and positive attitudes toward risk (Johanson, 2000; Lauriola & Levin, 2001). Tolerance has also been found to have an association with relationship skills and performance skills of individuals in training for medical professions (Morton et al., 2000). Likewise, intolerance for ambiguity has been associated with a number of anxiety-related problems, including worry, obsessions/compulsions, and panic sensations (Dugas, Gosselin, & Ladouceur, 2001).

Siegel (1980) recommended that attributes that predispose an individual to engage in creative or critical thinking be identified and fostered. A significant and positive relationship has been found between creativity and tolerance for ambiguity (Tegano, 1990). Furnham (1995) noted that open-mindedness, which has been equated with tolerance for ambiguity, may be a predisposition to critical thinking (Facione, Facione, & Sanchez, 1994). Although many other researchers have theorized that tolerance for ambiguity is associated with critical thinking, empirical evidence to support the relationship between tolerance for ambiguity and critical thinking is lacking (Murphy, 1999). Johnson, Court, Roersma & Kinnaman (1995) have suggested that instructors of undergraduate programs actively examine tolerance for ambiguity as an important element in development of flexible, integrative, and independent thinking.

Recent recommendations for effective instruction (e.g., cooperative learning, process-oriented learning, challenges to think creatively) have decreased structure in many classroom environments, spurring the need to examine influences of student affinity to different elements of course structure (Johnson et al., 1995; Dougherty et al., 1995; Potthast, 1999). Furnham (1994) noted that preference for certainty or unambiguous situations may increase the likelihood of affinity to structured elements in learning contexts, such as arriving at one solution (versus consideration of many), rigid dichotomization, and desire for premature closure. Assessment of the relationship between comfort with ambiguity and affinity to structured elements of classroom teaching and evaluation seem important to address given the changing nature of the classroom environment.

Development of tolerance for ambiguity skills in populations taking coursework in the field of psychology is particularly important given the ambivalent nature of the tasks in this field. Budner (1962) defined ambiguous situations as those that involved novelty, complexity, or insolubility. In the role of therapist, one would expect to confront each of these elements in addressing client change.

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