Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

Student Reactions to Assignment Structure: Examining the Influence of Cognitive Style

Academic journal article Academy of Educational Leadership Journal

Student Reactions to Assignment Structure: Examining the Influence of Cognitive Style

Article excerpt


One of the challenges we face as business educators is to identify relevant theoretical issues, the practical problems associated with them and to design assignments that will ultimately lead to learning. In our experience, the appropriate level of assignment structure continues to be a difficulty. Assignments can be relatively unstructured with few guidelines that leave most decisions to the student, or they can have varying degrees of structure until the student simply follows a set of rules. Highly structured assignments usually contain very detailed guidelines as to how to approach the assignment, what should be included in the answer and specific guidelines as to length of response, formatting, line spacing and font size. We have observed that when assignments are not highly structured, there is a large minority of students demanding additional detail. Conversely, when we use a high degree of assignment structure, we find a different large minority groaning about needing to follow all the instructions and invariably, missing a large portion of those instructions that are included.

That individuals differ in their reactions to tasks is a subject of interest to teachers, professors and business managers. For example, the relationship between task characteristics and employee performance has been the subject of a great deal of research (Griffin, Welsh & Moorhead, 1981). Pierce and Dunham (1976) found that satisfaction with work was related more to task design than affective and behavioral variable. More recently, in the school engagement literature, Fredericks, Blumenfeld and Paris (2004) called for richer characterizations of student feelings and behaviors in order to make it possible to better understand when and how students engage in their learning and when they do not.

Understanding student reactions to differing assignment styles and requirements is important for educators in that these reactions may lead to a number of serious problems in the classroom and underperformance by the student. For example, fear of failing may lead to students dropping a class prematurely. The student may change majors to avoid the assignment or have to repeat the class possibly delaying graduation and adding to the students' and the universities' costs. Poor attitudes toward a project can hurt a team's ability to perform group tasks required to complete an assignment or cause animosity that can distract students from their tasks or limit their enjoyment of the team process. A lack of confidence in their ability to succeed at the assignment can push students into using coping behaviors which if not clearly understood can cause increased levels of stress, again impacting student perceptions of the class.

One potential explanation for the varying reactions to assignments is given by adaption-innovation (AI) theory. AI theory posits that humans have different preferences for structure due to their preferred cognitive style. Thus, our research begins to explore this phenomenon through an empirical investigation using adaption-innovation theory as a potential explanation for the varying reactions to assignment design.

Our empirical study was used a group of 283 undergraduate business majors at a medium-sized public university in the Midwest. The university has an AACSB accredited College of Business and all of the students in the study were enrolled in either the senior level business strategy course or one of two sophomore level statistics courses.

Building upon AI theory, we offer hypotheses predicting how students' cognitive styles will affect their anxiety levels, self-efficacy, enjoyment, and preference with regard to assignments that have varying degrees of structure and rigidity. We measure students' cognitive style using the Kirton Adaption-Innovation (KAI) scale (Kirton, 2000, 2003). Following the presentations of results, we offer discussion and directions for future research. …

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