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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 Ambiguity tolerance is the ability to perceive ambiguity in information and behavior in a neutral and open way.

Ambiguity tolerance is an important issue in personality development and education.
 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 Noun 1. negative correlation - a correlation in which large values of one variable are associated with small values of the other; the correlation coefficient is between 0 and -1
indirect correlation
 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 lev·in  
n. Archaic
Lightning.



[Middle English levene, levin; see leuk- in Indo-European roots.]
, 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 intolerance /in·tol·er·ance/ (in-tol´er-ans) inability to withstand or consume; inability to absorb or metabolize nutrients.

congenital lysine 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 pre·dis·pose
v.
To make susceptible, as to a disease.
 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 predisposition /pre·dis·po·si·tion/ (-dis-po-zish´un) a latent susceptibility to disease that may be activated under certain conditions.

pre·dis·po·si·tion
n.
1.
 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 cooperative learning Education theory A student-centered teaching strategy in which heterogeneous groups of students work to achieve a common academic goal–eg, completing a case study or a evaluating a QC problem. See Problem-based learning, Socratic method. , 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 di·chot·o·mize  
v. di·chot·o·mized, di·chot·o·miz·ing, di·chot·o·miz·es

v.tr.
To separate into two parts or classifications.

v.intr.
To be or become divided into parts or branches; fork.
, 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 coursework
Noun

work done by a student and assessed as part of an educational course

Noun 1. coursework - work assigned to and done by a student during a course of study; usually it is evaluated as part of the student's
 in the field of psychology is particularly important given the ambivalent am·biv·a·lent  
adj.
Exhibiting or feeling ambivalence.



am·biva·lent·ly adv.

Adj. 1.
 nature of the tasks in this field. Budner (1962) defined ambiguous situations as those that involved novelty, complexity, or insolubility in·sol·u·ble  
adj.
1. That cannot be dissolved: insoluble matter.

2. Difficult or impossible to solve or explain; insolvable: insoluble riddles.
. 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 per·fec·tion·ism
n.
A tendency to set rigid high standards of personal performance.



per·fection·ist adj. & n.
 and low levels of enjoyment of psychotherapy psychotherapy, treatment of mental and emotional disorders using psychological methods. Psychotherapy, thus, does not include physiological interventions, such as drug therapy or electroconvulsive therapy, although it may be used in combination with such methods.  (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.

Method

Sample

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.

Measures

Tolerance for ambiguity was assessed using McLain's (1993) Multiple Stimulus Type Tolerance for Ambiguity Test (MSTAT MSTAT Member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique
MStat Master of Statistics (graduate degree)
MSTAT Marine Safety Training and Assistance Team
). The MSAT MSAT Mobile Satellite
MSAT Microsoft Security Assessment Tool
MSAT Mobile Source Air Toxics
MSAT Medical School Admissions Test
MSAT Multiple Subjects Assessment for Teachers
MSAT Marin School of Arts and Technology
MSAT Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education
 has alpha reliability of .86 and convergent validity Convergent validity is the degree to which an operation is similar to (converges on) other operations that it theoretically should also be similar to. For instance, to show the convergent validity of a test of mathematics skills, the scores on the test can be correlated with scores  has been demonstrated with Budner's (1962) and MacDonald's (1970) scales, with significant correlations of .37 and .58, respectively. Significant correlations with dogmatism dog·ma·tism  
n.
Arrogant, stubborn assertion of opinion or belief.


dogmatism
1. a statement of a point of view as if it were an established fact.
2.
 (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 A headnote; a short note preceding the text of a reported case that briefly summarizes the rulings of the court on the points decided in the case.

The syllabus appears before the text of the opinion.
; (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 Likert scale A subjective scoring system that allows a person being surveyed to quantify likes and preferences on a 5-point scale, with 1 being the least important, relevant, interesting, most ho-hum, or other, and 5 being most excellent, yeehah important, etc  (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).

Procedures

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 se·mes·ter  
n.
One of two divisions of 15 to 18 weeks each of an academic year.



[German, from Latin (cursus) s
 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.

Results

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).

Discussion

Both hypotheses were partially supported, as results indicated an inverse relationship A inverse or negative relationship is a mathematical relationship in which one variable decreases as another increases. For example, there is an inverse relationship between education and unemployment — that is, as education increases, the rate of unemployment  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 rote 1  
n.
1. A memorizing process using routine or repetition, often without full attention or comprehension: learn by rote.

2. Mechanical routine.
 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 re·ex·am·ine also re-ex·am·ine  
tr.v. re·ex·am·ined, re·ex·am·in·ing, re·ex·am·ines
1. To examine again or anew; review.

2. Law To question (a witness) again after cross-examination.
 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 problem solving

Process involved in finding a solution to a problem. Many animals routinely solve problems of locomotion, food finding, and shelter through trial and error.
 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 de·sen·si·tize  
tr.v. de·sen·si·tized, de·sen·si·tiz·ing, de·sen·si·tiz·es
1. To render insensitive or less sensitive.

2. Immunology To make (an individual) nonreactive or insensitive to an antigen.
 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 Instead of; in place of; in substitution of. It does not mean in addition to.  didactic di·dac·tic
adj.
Of or relating to medical teaching by lectures or textbooks as distinguished from clinical demonstration with patients.
 lectures. Learning style, which was not assessed, may account for a portion of variance in affinity to discussions or lectures (Seidel sei·del  
n.
A beer mug.



[German, from Middle High German sdel, from Latin situla, bucket.]

Noun 1.
 & 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 im·pede  
tr.v. im·ped·ed, im·ped·ing, im·pedes
To retard or obstruct the progress of. See Synonyms at hinder1.



[Latin imped
 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 mediator n. a person who conducts mediation. A mediator is usually a lawyer, or retired judge, but can be a non-attorney specialist in the subject matter (like child custody) who tries to bring people and their disputes to early resolution through a conference.  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 Maladaptive
Unsuitable or counterproductive; for example, maladaptive behavior is behavior that is inappropriate to a given situation.

Mentioned in: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
 when there is overgeneralization and inflexibility in·flex·i·ble  
adj.
1. Not easily bent; stiff or rigid.

2. Incapable of being changed; unalterable.

3. Unyielding in purpose, principle, or temper; immovable.
 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 This is a list of thinking styles, methods of thinking (thinking skills), and types of thought. See also the List of thinking-related topic lists, the List of philosophies and the .  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 generalize /gen·er·al·ize/ (-iz)
1. to spread throughout the body, as when local disease becomes systemic.

2. to form a general principle; to reason inductively.
 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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a chronological study in epidemiology which attempts to establish a relationship between an antecedent cause and a subsequent effect. See also cohort study.
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n.
Any of a variety of techniques in psychotherapy that utilize guided self-discovery, imaging, self-instruction, and related forms of elicited cognitions as the principal mode of treatment.
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Fiske, S. T. (1993). Social cognition Social cognition is the study of how people process social information, especially its encoding, storage, retrieval, and application to social situations. Social cognition’s focus on information processing has many affinities with its sister discipline, cognitive psychology.  and social perception. In L. W. Porter & M. R. Rosenzweig (Eds.), Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 155-194.

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factor analytical
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New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: Plenum In a building, the space between the real ceiling and the dropped ceiling, which is often used as an air duct for heating and air conditioning. It is also filled with electrical, telephone and network wires. See plenum cable.  Press

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The tendency of investors to avoid risky investments. Thus, if two investments offer the same expected yield but have different risk characteristics, investors will choose the one with the lowest variability in returns.
. Psychological Reports, 87, 534.

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Act or process of knowing. Cognition includes every mental process that may be described as an experience of knowing (including perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, and reasoning), as distinguished from an experience of feeling or of willing.
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Murphy, P. A. (2000). Relationship between creativity, tolerance for ambiguity, and critical thinking among undergraduate nursing students (Doctoral dissertation dis·ser·ta·tion  
n.
A lengthy, formal treatise, especially one written by a candidate for the doctoral degree at a university; a thesis.


dissertation
Noun

1.
, Adelphi University Adelphi University (ədĕl`fī), at Garden City, N.Y.; coeducational; chartered 1896 as Adelphi College. Originally in Brooklyn, the school moved to its present location in 1929 and in 1963 achieved university status. , 2000). Dissertation Abstracts International, 60(7-B), 3204.

Potthast, M. J. (1999). Outcomes of using small-group cooperative learning experiences in introductory statistics. College Student Journal, 33, 34-42.

Seidel, L. E., & England, E. M. (1999). Gregorc's cognitive styles Cognitive style is a term used in cognitive psychology to describe the way individuals think, perceive and remember information, or their preferred approach to using such information to solve problems. : College students' preferences for teaching methods and testing techniques. Perceptual per·cep·tu·al
adj.
Of, based on, or involving perception.
 and Motor Skills, 88, 859-875.

Siegel, H. (1980). Critical thinking as an educational ideal. The Educational Forum, 45(1), 7-23.

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Wittenberg, K. J., & Norcross, J. C. (2001). Practitioner perfectionism: Relationship to ambiguity tolerance and work satisfaction. Journal of Clinical Psychology The Journal of Clinical Psychology, founded in 1945, is a peer-reviewed forum devoted to psychological research, assessment, and practice. Published eight times a year, the Journal , 57(12), 1543-1550.

Yurtsever, G. (2001). Tolerance of ambiguity, information, and negotiation. Psychological Reports, 89, 57-64.

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
COPYRIGHT 2003 George Uhlig Publisher
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Kessler, Maria Lynn
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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