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


In this study, we investigated how student cognitive styles affect reactions toward course assignments. A total of 283 business undergraduates enrolled in either a statistics course or a business strategy course were involved in the study. In each course, students were given surveys to measure attitudes toward two very different versions ofthe same assignment - one in which the instructions were very detailed and structured and the other in which they were very short and ambiguous. Student cognitive styles were classified as either adaptive or innovative using Kirtin Adaption-Innovation (KAI) scores. An adaptive cognitive style prefers structure and details, while an innovative style is more comfortable with less structure. Differences between reactions of the two student types, as well as differences between the two assignments for each type of student, were studied. Results indicate that students prefer and express higher levels of self-efficacy and less anxiety on the assignment that corresponds with their cognitive style. Additional discussion focuses on how this information might be used by instructors to improve the learning experiences of students of both types.


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. …

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