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Measuring personal growth attributed to a semester of college life using the posttraumatic growth inventory.

In this descriptive exploratory study, the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996) was used to measure levels of personal growth attributed by college students (N = 117) to a semester of university life in retrospective self-reports. Results reflect attributions of substantial total growth in the range reported in the posttraumatic studies and attributions of substantial growth to a variety of specific experiences. The results suggest that personal growth as defined by the PTGI is not necessarily adversarial and that personal growth can be intentionally facilitated by educational activities.

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Previous empirical studies (e.g., 39 in review of Linley & Joseph, 2004) of retrospective self-reports of personal growth (selected positive psychological changes enumerated by instrument items) have focused exclusively on adversarial growth (growth attributed to adverse life circumstances as defined by Linley & Joseph, 2004). Researchers have used five different instruments based on similar definitions of personal growth (Joseph, Linley, & Harris, 2005). Results document attributions of substantial levels of adversarial growth to a variety of adverse experiences. The most widely used instrument in adversarial studies has been Tedeschi and Calhoun's (1996) Posttraumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI).

Although most existing studies of personal growth as defined by the PTGI have focused exclusively on measuring levels of adversarial growth, there is little reason to assume that all personal growth is adversarial. For example, developmental theorists have described positive changes such as those embodied in the PTGI as outcomes of developmental processes involving complex combinations of life experiences (e.g., Erikson, 1968; Fowler, 1981; Levinson, 1978; Loevinger, 1976; Rogers, 1961) and developed theory-based measures of corresponding constructs and variables. In particular, Chickering (1969) described a theory of student identity development with tasks reminiscent of the PTGI items. Chickering (1969), Perry (1970), and Chickering and Reisser (1993) identified the college undergraduate period as a time of substantial personal growth in response to a wide variety of extracurricular, environmental, and academic experiences. Thus, the idea that personal growth as defined by the PTGI takes place during normal development is intuitively appealing. However, there is little empirical evidence to support the idea because few researchers have used instruments such as the PTGI to measure personal growth that is not strictly adversarial in origin.

Anderson and Lopez-Baez (2008) described one of the few such studies to date. They used the PTGI to measure college students' attributions of levels of total personal growth, whether adversarial or otherwise, to a single semester of college life in retrospective self-reports. The current article documents a descriptive follow-up study of a similar sample with the goal of exploring student attributions of personal growth in more detail. The design of the current study required measuring attributions of total growth using the method described in Anderson and Lopez-Baez's study and also measuring attributions of the relative contributions to total growth (i.e., percentage contributions) of specific experiences of interest, including an academic course designed to facilitate growth. It is hoped that the results will contribute to a better understanding of personal growth in general and provide support for using the PTGI in related future studies.

Measuring Total Personal Growth

We selected the PTGI as our measure of total personal growth because the instrument has acceptable psychometric properties (Joseph et al., 2005); produces results that can be compared with those of a large body of published posttraumatic studies; and is a general outcome measure of personal growth, whether adversarial or otherwise. The developers of the PTGI described their instrument in terms that are consistent with its use in the current study even though it was developed to measure growth in the wake of trauma (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004):

The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory ... was developed to allow quantification of the experience of growth [p. 5].... It should be apparent that personal growth probably has a common core, although it occurs for different reasons. The five domains are probably a good representation of the breadth of growth that people can experience [p. 14]. (as cited in Anderson & Lopez-Baez, 2008, p. 215)

Because the PTGI was used as the measure of personal growth in the current study, the 21 PTGI items served as the definition of personal growth. The corresponding operational definition or measure was the sum (or alternatively the average) of the individual item scores. The 21 items of the PTGI are grouped into five subscales thought to reflect corresponding growth domains (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996, p. 460). Example items (and corresponding subscales) include "A sense of closeness with others" (Relating to Others), "I developed new interests" (New Possibilities), "A feeling of self-reliance" (Personal Strength), "A better understanding of spiritual matters" (Spiritual Change), and "My priorities about what is important in life" (Appreciation of Life). Items describe psychological changes without referring to experiences that might be responsible for the changes.

We obtained measures of posttraumatic growth by instructing participants to endorse a Likert-type scale value for each item according to "the degree to which this change occurred in your life as a result of your crisis [emphasis added]" and summing the 21 item scores. Scale values and corresponding meanings were 0 (none), 1 (very small), 2 (small), 3 (moderate), 4 (great), and 5 (very great change).

A few researchers have modified the phrase "as a result of your crisis" to refer to periods of time that did not involve experiences of crisis or trauma. Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996; Study 3) used this strategy to measure levels of total growth reported by a nontrauma comparison group of undergraduates in their introductory article: men (n = 32), M = 66.13; and women (n = 31), M = 73.49 (no standard deviations reported). Cordova, Cunningham, Carlson, and Andrykowski (2001) used the same strategy to measure the growth of a noncancer control group of women (n = 70), M = 56.3 (SD = 26.3), with the PTGI. In a previous study, we (Anderson & Lopez-Baez, 2008) reworded the same phrase to measure the total personal growth attributed by a large sample of college seniors (N = 347) to the preceding semester: men (n = 122), M = 56.13 (SD = 16.94); and women (n = 225), M = 60.67 (SD = 14.89). We obtained mean scores and factor structures in the range of those reported in posttraumatic studies and suggested the strategy of the current study.

Research Questions

Our study was designed to accomplish three purposes: (a) to measure levels of total personal growth attributed to the sum of experiences during a semester of university life, (b) to identify the kinds of specific experiences identified by sample members as having contributed most to total personal growth during the preceding semester and to measure the relative contributions of each experience, and (c) to measure the growth attributed to an academic course designed to facilitate growth and measure the relative contributions of student personal projects versus instructor-led course activities. Each purpose is addressed with a corresponding research question:

Research Question 1: What levels of total personal growth (total PTGI scores) did participants attribute to their combined life experiences during the semester in which they were enrolled in the course of interest?

Research Question 2: What relative (percentage) contributions of total personal growth did participants attribute to each of the experiences they identified as contributing most during the period and to the college course of interest?

Research Question 3: What relative (percentage) contributions of growth attributed to the college course did participants attribute to their personal projects and instructor-based activities (lectures, discussions, required reading)?

Method

Participants

The study was conducted during the fall semester of 2007. We recruited participants from a course titled "Problems of Personal Adjustment" (PPA) taught at a midsized mid-Atlantic university. PPA was a one-semester, 3-hour elective course offered through a college of education and taught by the first author. Enrollment was 152 students, mostly 4th-year undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences or School of Commerce. Students earned extra credit for anonymous participation. Course goals were to acquaint students with relevant literature and foster personal adjustment. Course requirements included the completion of a self-improvement project. Popular projects included attending personal counseling, addressing body image and fitness concerns, and participating in career development activities. A total of 120 students elected to participate in the study by returning completed research packets (response rate 79%).

Sample size was 117 (61 men, 56 women) after three questionnaires with missing data were eliminated. Average age of participants was 21.65 years (SD = 0.55 years). Approximately 115 participants were Caucasian. Researchers did not collect ethnicity information because participants were given anonymity.

Measures

The research packet consisted of three pages. Page 1 contained a brief exercise to stimulate recall of personal growth. (Participants read one-sentence descriptions of each of the five domains of growth reflected in the PTGI. Participants then endorsed Likert-type scale items to describe the level and the personal salience of growth attributed to each domain during the period of interest. The results of the exercise are not reported here.)

Page 2 of the research packet contained the PTGI. Response options for each item are choices on a 6-point Likert scale describing the degrees to which participants experienced each of the 21 changes from 0 (none) to 5 (very great). The total score (0-105) reflects the magnitude (i.e., amount, extent, level, or degree) of total growth. Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996) reported levels of internal consistency (Cronbach [alpha] = .90) and 2-month test-retest stability (r = .71). The original factor structure from which the five subscales were derived has received limited support in subsequent exploratory factor analyses.

The instructions for the PTGI used in the current study asked participants to endorse each item to describe "the degree to which each change ... has occurred in your life during the semester you are about to complete, whether or not the change was directly related to your participation in Problems of Personal Adjustment class."

Page 3 of the research packet contained an eight-line, two-column table to be completed by participants (see the Appendix). Each participant completed lines 1-5 of column 1 by listing up to five experiences (one per line) that contributed most to his or her personal growth during the semester of interest. We prelabeled lines 6, 7, and 8. Participants completed column 2 with their assessments of the numerical percentages of total growth attributed to the corresponding experiences listed in column 1. Each participant's completed table consisted of a list of specific experiences and a corresponding list of percentage contributions to total growth in column 2.

Finally, participants answered an open-ended question below the table on page 3 (not shown in the Appendix) that reads as follows:
   Consider the most important specific ways that your participation
   in Problems of Personal Adjustment contributed to your personal
   growth. List up to five of the most important ways on the following
   lines or write NONE if no aspect of the course contributed to your
   growth.


Pages 2 and 3 also contained a few additional items collected for purposes unrelated to the current study.

Results

Cronbach alpha coefficients of internal consistency for the total PTGI and subscale scores for the combined samples (N = 117) were as follows: total PTGI, [alpha] = .93; Relating to Others, [alpha] = .87; New Possibilities, [alpha] = .74; Personal Strength, [alpha] = .77; Spiritual Change, [alpha] = .85; and Appreciation of Life, [alpha] = .67. Table 1 contains sample descriptive statistics. Scores are presented on both a total and per-item basis. No significant gender differences were found for corresponding subscale scores at the [alpha] = .05 level.

Research Question 1

The results summarized in Table 1 include a mean total sample score of 60.42 (SD = 16.61). This total score falls well within the range of total scores reported by Linley and Joseph (2004; see their Table 1) among 10 samples of posttraumatic scores, from husbands of wives with breast cancer (N = 41), M = 46.00 (SD = 22.82), to bereaved mothers (N = 49), M = 83.47 (SD = 20.21). Subscale intercorrelations were relatively low for correlations involving spiritual change. Table 1 contains the same means and standard deviations expressed on a per-item basis (subscale score/number of subscale items). The per-item format allows the reader to make idiographic interpretations of the PTGI scores on the basis of the corresponding Likert scale responses and visual comparisons of subscale mean scores. For example, the mean total PTGI score of 2.88 (SD = 0.79) corresponds to a Likert scale descriptor of moderate growth (range = 0-5). The only numerical differences that were greater than one scale division were those between the relatively low Spiritual Change subscale score (M = 1.39, SD = 1.27) and each of the other subscale scores. The relatively low magnitude of the Spiritual Change subscale mean score and the higher but relatively similar values of the other subscale mean scores are reflected in the results of the post hoc statistical comparisons (Tukey's honestly significant differences) included in Table 1 for descriptive purposes. (For purposes of this study, formal hypothesis testing of subscale scores was not required.)

Research Question 2

Table 2 lists the percentage contributions to total growth of the three experiences that participants identified as contributing most (first, second, and third) and the percentage contribution of the academic course. The contributions of each are substantial. Taken together, the four activities account for more than 90% of total growth.

The contributions of instructor-based activities and personal projects were approximately equal. Taken together, they accounted for 70% of the growth attributed to problems of personal adjustment (contributions not shown in tables).

Discussion

Personal Growth

Extracurricular experiences. Participants attributed substantial personal growth to a wide variety of extracurricular experiences during the semester of interest. Typical examples included "preparing to leave my friends," "searching for a job," and "learning how to be a better outdoorsman." A few extracurricular experiences were probably traumatic, such as "loss of mother" and "Virginia Tech [mass shooting]." However, most were far less negative, and many were positive.

Extracurricular experiences such as these and the associated empirical results (growth attributed to the first, second, and third experiences in Table 2) suggest that substantial personal growth occurs in association with typical life experiences as well as the kinds of traumatic experiences identified in previous studies. Results suggest that substantial personal growth can occur over time periods as brief as a college semester in response to a small number of personally significant experiences that occur during the semester (see Table 2). The same results demonstrate that personal growth is not solely adversarial and not solely a many years-long response to infrequently occurring traumatic experiences.

Educational activities. The relatively high levels of growth attributed to a college course (see Table 2) strongly suggest that substantial levels of personal growth can be intentionally facilitated. Participants listed a variety of specific ways they believed that they had grown from their educational activities, including "learning new skills," "stepping outside of my comfort zone," and "thinking about issues that I may not want to talk about." Thus, the results of our study strongly support theory-based claims that college life is a time of substantial growth from the kinds of experiences described by Chickering (1969), Perry (1970), and Chickering and Reisser (1993).

Measurement Considerations

Anderson and Lopez-Baez (2008) demonstrated that the PTGI could be used as a more generally applicable measure of personal growth than the measurement of strictly posttraumatic growth. In the current study, we further extended the applicability of the PTGI by using it as the basis for participant estimates of the individual contributions to growth of experiences that were close together in time (during the same semester). The results of our study are interpreted as supporting similar uses of the PTGI in future studies.

Limitations

This study is subject to the limitations of any study based on self-reports, including limitations imposed by many of the potential threats to validity associated with retrospective self-reports. The study did not require data with external validity but did require data that reflected veridical (truthful) descriptions of participants' internal frames of reference. This requirement minimized the relevance of threats posed by historical inaccuracies associated with retrospective self-reports so long as the inaccuracies were not intentional.

Self-reports can reflect defensive or self-serving biases on the part of participants. We offered anonymity and confidentiality in the current study to minimize these threats. Unconscious exaggerations of growth were not considered threats because they reflect participants' internal frames of reference.

The first author taught the academic course of interest. Researchers are rightly cautioned about collecting their own data and about collecting data in which they might have a vested interest. These cautions highlight two threats in particular with respect to the current study. First, student opinions of the instructor influenced their responses as is true in general for traditional course evaluations. Second, an instructor who has a particular interest in personal growth might stimulate more growth in his or her students than an instructor with different interests. With respect to the first threat, data were collected anonymously in hopes of minimizing a variety of potential response biases. The second threat limits the generalizability of any conclusions beyond similar classes of similar students but no more so than is typical for exploratory studies based on samples of convenience.

Page 3 of the research packet was designed to elicit participants' handwritten descriptions of experiences with corresponding percentage contributions to total growth (see the Appendix). This format was not typical of psychological instruments with which students were familiar. We had concluded from previous pilot administrations that data would be lost if participants were left to follow written directions without the opportunity to ask procedural questions before completing the packet. Accordingly, the first author was present for the first 5 minutes of the time allotted for data collection to explain the contents of the research packet to participants. He then left the room during administration to minimize potential bias resulting from participant attempts to please the instructor.

Finally, the brief exercise on page 1 of the research packet was included to help participants understand the definition of growth, to recall experiences to which they might have attributed growth, and to serve other purposes not described in this article. It may be possible that the exercise could have exaggerated attributions of growth in the minds of some participants. The fact that the total growth level of the PPA sample was less than that of the small nontrauma comparison group of college students described by Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996; Study 3) suggests that any such effect was minimal.

Future Research

Future studies of particular interest to us include evaluations of programs designed to elicit personal growth. For example, a method similar to that of the current study could be used to obtain outcome data for evaluating and improving the designs of outdoor experiential programs, a variety of credit and noncredit classes, and institutional curricula.

There is a lack of consensus among researchers about the number of dimensions (factors) underlying personal growth. Future studies could contribute to a better understanding of the dimensional structure of personal growth and make it possible to better understand the contribution of each dimension to total growth.
APPENDIX
Experiences That Contributed to Personal Growth

Directions: Consider the experiences (both academic and personal)
during this semester that contributed to your personal growth, whether
or not each experience was directly related to this class. In
particular, identify the experiences that contributed most. List up to
five of these on lines 1-5 of column 1, below. Selected aspects of this
class are already listed as Items 6 and 7.

               Column 1                     Column 2

         Specific Experiences            % Contribution

1.                                                   %
2.                                                   %
3.                                                   %
4.                                                   %
5.                                                   %
6. Class project                                     %
7. All other experiences in this class               %
8. Miscellaneous other experiences
                                         Total = 100 %

Directions (continued): Estimate the percentage contribution of each
entry in column 1 to your personal growth this semester. Record each
estimate on the corresponding line of column 2. Include estimates
for lines 6, 7, and 8, even if your estimates are zero.


References

Anderson, W. P., Jr., & Lopez-Baez, S. I. (2008). Measuring growth with the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 40, 215-227.

Chickering, A. W. (1969). Education and identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cordova, M. J., Cunningham, L. L. C., Carlson, C. R., & Andrykowski, M. A. (2001). Posttraumatic growth following breast cancer: A controlled comparison study. Health Psychology, 20, 176-185.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY: Norton.

Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.

Joseph, S., Linley, P. A., & Harris, G. J. (2005). Understanding positive change following trauma and adversity: Structural clarification. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 10, 83-96.

Levinson, D. J. (1978). The seasons of a man's life. New York, NY: Knopf.

Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Positive change following trauma and adversity: A review. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17, 11-21.

Loevinger, J. (1976). Ego development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin. Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9, 455-471.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1-18.

Walter P. Anderson Jr. and Sandra I. Lopez-Baez, Counselor Education Program, University of Virginia. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Walter P. Anderson Jr., Counselor Education Program, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia, 417 Emmet Street, South, PO Box 400269, Charlottesville, VA 22901 (e-mail: wpa6n@virginia.edu).
TABLE 1
Total and Per-Item Personal Growth Scores and Intercorrelations for
the Study Sample

       Total          Per Item           Sample Intercorrelations

S    M      SD        M          SD     1    2     3     4     5     6

1  20.92   6.68  [2.99.sub.a]   0.95   --   .65   .67   .44   .69   .90
2  14.56   4.46  [2.91.sub.a]   0.89         --   .73   .49   .54   .85
3  12.26   3.66  [3.06.sub.a]   0.91               --   .53   .59   .86
4   2.78   2.54  [1.39.sub.b]   1.27                     --   .35   .63
5   9.90   2.68  [3.30.sub.b]   0.89                           --   .77
6  60.42  16.61  [2.88.sub.a]   0.79                                 --

Note. N= 117. There were no sample gender differences for corresponding
subscales, p > .05. (two-tailed) for all is. For Problems of Personal
Adjustment intercorrelations, p < .000 (two-tailed) for all rs. Means
in same column that do not share subscripts differ at p < .01 in Tukey
honestly significant difference comparison. S = Subscale: 1 = Relating
to Others; 2 = New Possibilities; 3 = Personal Strength; 4 = Spiritual
Change; 5 = Appreciation of Life; 6 = total.

TABLE 2
Contributions to Total Growth of Participant-Identified Experiences

             % Contribution

Experience     M       SD

First        34.99   13.32
Second       18.90    7.79
Third        11.05    7.38
Course       25.28   14.28
Sum          90.22

Note. N = 117. First, second, and third are the three largest
percentage contributions to total growth (in descending order)
listed on lines 1-5 of column 2 in the Appendix.
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Author:Anderson, Walter P., Jr.; Lopez-Baez, Sandra I.
Publication:Counseling and Values
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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