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The relationship between tolerance for ambiguity and need for course structure.

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.


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. In fact, uncertainty is a necessary element of effective clinical work in that re-conceptualization involves dialoguing about client doubts about core beliefs and the development of new repertoires of behavior involves uncertainty about outcome (Karon, 1998; Mooney & Padesky, 2000). Low tolerance for ambiguity in mental health practitioners has also been associated with perfectionism and low levels of enjoyment of psychotherapy (Wittenberg & Norcross, 2001). Yurtsever (2001) noted that individuals with low tolerance were more likely to distort information. Distortion of information would certainly compromise therapeutic objectivity and effective use of client frame of reference. Further, findings indicating a relationship between intolerance for ambiguity and low endorsement for diversity interventions in business students (Chen & Hooijberg, 2000) have implications for the field of psychology, where diversity practices are valued as necessary for ethical and competent practice. Collectively, these findings suggest that tolerance for ambiguity is a dimension particularly worthy of examination in individuals in training or practice for the mental health field.

This study was designed to assess tolerance for ambiguity in a general undergraduate population and graduate students in the field of psychology. Two hypotheses were proposed: 1) there is a positive, significant correlation between tolerance for ambiguity scores and importance ratings for the eight specific elements of course structure assessed in both undergraduate and graduate samples, and 2) there is a significant, positive relationship between tolerance for ambiguity scores and anxiety related to the absence of the eight specific elements of course structure assessed for both undergraduate and graduate samples.



A total of 101 participants were recruited from undergraduate (52; 45 male, 7 female) and graduate (49; 17 male, 32 female) psychology classes at a small, southeastern military college. The undergraduate sample was comprised of psychology majors (25%), business majors (14%), and criminal justice majors (9%). The remaining 52% reported 17 other majors with percentages ranging from 1%-7% for each. The undergraduates had completed an average of 50 (range 0-145) hours of their major; mean number of hours currently enrolled was 14 (range 3-23). The majority of the undergraduates identified themselves as Caucasian (64%), with 12% identified as Hispanic, 8% as Asian, 8% as African-American and 8% as other.

The graduate sample was recruited from master's level psychology courses. Graduate students had completed an average of 20 hours (range = 0-52); the mean number of hours enrolled was 7 (range 3-12). The majority of the graduate students identified themselves as Caucasian (87%), with 10% as African-American, 2% identified as Hispanic, and 2% as Asian.


Tolerance for ambiguity was assessed using McLain's (1993) Multiple Stimulus Type Tolerance for Ambiguity Test (MSTAT). The MSAT has alpha reliability of .86 and convergent validity has been demonstrated with Budner's (1962) and MacDonald's (1970) scales, with significant correlations of .37 and .58, respectively. Significant correlations with dogmatism (r = -.35), receptivity to change (r = .58), and sensation seeking (r = .38) have also been reported (McLain, 1993).

A course structure questionnaire assessed students' ratings of eight critical areas of course structure. The eight critical areas included: (1) presence of course syllabus; (2) presence of clear schedule of assigned readings; (3) dates for testing scheduled in advance; (4) clear outline for lecture topics; (5) adherence to lecture topic for a particular lecture; (6) specific grading criteria outlined in advance; (7) exams emphasizing mastery of knowledge; and (8) exams/exercises involving objective versus subjective reporting. Each of the areas was presented as an item for which subjects rated the degree to which they valued this type of structure and the degree to which they would feel anxious if it was not present in courses. Degree to which the student valued each area of structure was assessed using a 10-point likert scale (1 = not at all important; 10 = extremely important). Degree of anxiety experienced when the specific structure was not present was also solicited using a 10-point likert scale (1= not at all anxious; 10= extremely anxious).


Undergraduate and graduate participants were able to earn class activity points through participation. Undergraduate and graduate students were solicited from psychology courses during class hours in spring and summer semester courses. Participants completed a brief demographic questionnaire assessing gender, age, ethnicity, hours of study in the current semester, hours completed in studies, and degrees received. Following an explanation of procedures and introduction of consent form, students willing to participate completed the questionnaire on course structure and the MSTAT. All measures were completed in approximately ten minutes.


One-tailed correlation analyses were conducted to determine if higher levels of ambiguity tolerance were associated with lower levels of importance ratings for structure and anxiety ratings in the absence of high structure in areas noted. An alpha level of .05 significance was set for all analyses. For the undergraduate sample, significant correlations were noted between tolerance for ambiguity scores and importance ratings for having a clear schedule of assigned readings (r = -3.27, p < .05) and anxiety related to either having no test dates or test dates provided rescheduled (r = -2.43, p < .05).

For the graduate sample, a significant correlation was noted for the tolerance for ambiguity score and importance ratings for exams having a single, correct answer (r = -.511, p < .01). Significant correlations were also noted between the tolerance for ambiguity scores and several anxiety scores, including: not having a test date initially given or a test data being rescheduled (r = -.259, p < .05), grading criteria not specifically outlined (r = -.250, p < .05), exams that require applied knowledge, and testing situations in which there is no single, correct answer (r = -.623, p < .01).


Both hypotheses were partially supported, as results indicated an inverse relationship between tolerance for ambiguity and the importance of course structures in specific areas only. Although levels of ambiguity tolerance were expected to influence orientation to and preference for certainty introduced through class structure, significant associations with specific elements of course structure for each sample are of interest.

For the undergraduates only, low ambiguity tolerance appears to be most strongly related to valuing those elements of course structure that involve scheduling or time management (i.e. they value having a clear schedule of assigned readings and experience anxiety in response to modifications of test schedules). Given that the demands on college students to manage their time are greater than the y may have experienced in the high school setting, it is understandable that they may be less comfortable with changes that stretch their time management skills.

At the graduate level low tolerance was associated, not only with valuing structure around test dates, but also with discomfort around grading criteria not being specifically outlined, testing that involved applied knowledge, and testing demands that involved multiple possibilities versus a single answer. For graduate students, the general element most likely to produce anxiety appears to be when evaluation extends beyond mastery of rote material. Interestingly, these are likely to be the very same demands faced in a graduate career field in psychology. That is, a career in psychology necessarily involves consideration of events that do not involve a single correct answer (e.g., multiple etiologies, multiple controlling variables).

In both the undergraduate and graduate populations, low tolerance for ambiguity was associated with valuing course structure and with anxiety when the valued elements of structure were missing. These findings may be useful for instructors as they plan their courses. Instructors who are more flexible or unstructured in their approach to assigned readings or testing might want to construct profiles of class tolerance. In classes with high numbers of students with low ambiguity tolerance, instructors might reexamine the utility of employing a more structured approach. Future research is needed to identify the settings (e.g., specific career program fields) likely to have high rates of individuals with low tolerance for ambiguity.

These results are important given that attitudes toward course organization have been noted to eventually impact a student's motivation to learn or perform well in the course (Gorham & Christophel, 1992). Given that career fields in psychology necessarily require some level of ambiguity tolerance instructors may also need to consider shaping higher tolerance levels. Students with a low tolerance might be supported in developing a more flexible coping style to help them adapt to a more unstructured classroom environment. To this end, instructors at both the undergraduate and graduate levels may need to provide a rationale highlighting the benefits of raising tolerance, levels with respect to issues that closely parallel those faced in one's career, such as adapting to necessary adjustments for organizational or client driven deadlines.

Johnson et al. (1995) have highlighted the importance of addressing and modeling ambiguity-tolerance in the classroom to teach students how to better interface with unavoidable ambiguities in everyday life. They recommended that instructors strive to foster problem solving by modeling an affinity toward ambiguity and outlining how the accomplishments of those in the field are associated with exploration of uncertainties and risk taking. Despite student anxiety, educators should construct evaluations that emphasize explorative, rather than restrictive, exam responses and creativity over mastery of learned content. Training should allow students to practice these skills and become desensitized to anxiety associated with explorative thinking.

The most surprising finding in this study was that there was no significant relationship between tolerance for ambiguity and degree of importance/comfort with class discussions in lieu of didactic lectures. Learning style, which was not assessed, may account for a portion of variance in affinity to discussions or lectures (Seidel & England, 1999). Nonetheless, it is encouraging that preference for discussions is not impacted by ambiguity tolerance. Class discussions have been noted as superior in promoting long term memory for information when compared to lecture and are a primary medium for fostering the creative, critical thinking recognized recently as a priority in the development of academic curriculums (Murphy, 2000; Gadzella & Masten, 1998, Garside, 1996). Future research should continue to examine attributes that impede a student's appreciation for explorative activities in academic settings. Future research might also be directed toward assessment of tolerance for ambiguity as a mediator of particular learning styles.

Diminishing uncertainty in one's environment (i.e., low tolerance for ambiguity) has understandable adaptive functions in certain situations, including avoidance of danger and increasing probability of rewarding outcomes (Fiske, 1993). However adaptive avoidance of ambiguity might have been in one's past, however, this intolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty becomes maladaptive when there is overgeneralization and inflexibility in its use (Elovainio & Kivimaki, 1999). An inability to tolerate uncertainty across situations has negative implications in that ambiguity might be avoided even when there is a high probability of gain associated with tolerance (Keren & Gerritsen, 1999). The gains associated with tolerance in a psychology learning context involve development of open-minded, creative, and flexible thought processes that might enhance future functioning as a counselor.

This study represents a preliminary investigation of attributes associated with valuing of course structure. Generalizability of findings in the current study may be limited given the limited size of the sample and the unique population of undergraduate students that The Citadel attracts. Future studies should increase the sample size and address the extent to which the relationships found in this study generalize to students from larger, non-military training universities. Collaboration and communication between instructor and student on the important attribute of ambiguity tolerance may, at a minimum, promote student insight into predisposition toward stress and discomfort in particular classroom teaching or evaluation situations. If students can be introduced to and accept the notion that a flexible approach to structure is optimal, they may be more motivated to perform in a setting characterized by varying levels of classroom structure.


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Virginia M. DeRoma, Kanetra M. Martin, and Maria Lynn Kessler, Department of Psychology, The Citadel.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Virginia M. DeRoma, The Citadel, Department of Psychology, 171 Moutrie, Charleston, SC 29414
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Author:Kessler, Maria Lynn
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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