Resistance by Educators to Using a Self-directed Learning Perception Scale

(Jane Pilling-Cormick)

Chapter Eight in

Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra and Ralph G. Brockett (Editors)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 64, Winter 1994

Jossey-Bass Publishers

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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Reasons for resistance to using an instrument to gather students' perceptions of self-directed learning are investigated, and suggestions for overcoming this resistance are presented.

Resistance by Educators to Using a Self-directed Learning Perception Scale

Jane Pilling-Cormick

Few instruments appear to assess students' perceptions of what they are experiencing and feeling during the self-directed learning process. Research includes attempts to determine who is self-directed and which characteristics self-directedness is related to, but little time is spent examining the process of becoming self-directed (Cranton, 1992). In response to this need, the author created the Self-Directed Learning Test (Pilling, 1991), subsequently named the Self-Directed Learning Perception Scale (SDLPS). The instrument was developed with undergraduate students to compile students' perceptions of the process. Questions require students to respond using a combination of Likert scale and open-ended responses.

Surprisingly, resistance was experienced when approaching some adult educators about using the instrument. Various reasons were cited. For example, one educator stated that the college was undergoing a change in the procedure for evaluating research studies. Consequently, no decision was made. When the educator was approached a second time, there were several reasons given for this evaluation committee not yet being formed. On the third attempt, the response was "the instrument does not apply to my class." Another institution was approached and one instructor enthusiastically agreed to administer the instrument. However, others in his department dismissed the instrument by stating "the instrument does not apply to my class." These types of responses encouraged the researcher to search for reasons why some instructors were eager to administer the instrument while others were not. The question became: Given a tool to measure students' perception of self-directed learning, why is there resistance to using the instrument and how can educators be encouraged to consider it?

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Reasons for Resistance

Resistance to self-directed learning is not new. Many experienced teachers are not using what has been learned in two decades of research (Hiemstra, 1992). Two reasons for this resistance are particularly relevant for the SDLPS: misconceptions about the term self-directed learning and discrepancies between educators' beliefs and practices.

Misconceptions About the Term Self-Directed Learning. The term self-directed learning has various meanings for different people and has been identified as a possible source of confusion (Candy; 1990; Bonham, 1989; Long, 1992). Some think of it in terms of personality characteristics while others believe it to be an instructional method (Hiemstra, 1992). As outlined by Ralph Brockett in Chapter One and Brockett and Hiemstra (1991), there are various myths related to the self-directed learning process. It is no wonder that some instructors will dismiss the SDLPS by immediately giving the response that the instrument is irrelevant for their use. They; like many others, are not sure what self-directed learning really is.

Discrepancy Between Beliefs and Practices. Instructors may find, as Argyris and Schon (1974) suggest, a gap between "theories-in-use" and "espoused theories." The theories that govern instructors' actions are different from the ones they say they believe. Instructors are often unaware of any discrepancies. For example, an instructor may believe that assessing students' perceptions is important because this belief is generally accepted in the field of adult education. In reality, the instructor may not be asking for students' perceptions and is thus not applying this theory in actual teaching practice. Educators can agree with a concept in theory, but freeze when asked to implement it. If this is the case, an educator asked to use such an instrument may think the idea sounds good, but actually using the instrument as part of the "theory-in-use" is another matter.

Myths About the SDLPS. To enable instructors to see the instrument for what it really is, myths about the SDLPS need to be addressed.

Myth 1: SDLPS implies change. Self-directed learning is new for many instructors, as is assessing students' perceptions of the process. Some believe that using the SDLPS will indicate change is necessary. Most instructors are more comfortable doing things they know how to do well (Brookfield, 1990) and they only want to assess students' perceptions about something they know they can do well. Resistance is then a reaction to the possibility of change rather than specifically to the idea of using the SDLPS or self-directed learning.

Myth 2: SDLPS threatens the traditional teacher role. Some instructors incorrectly believe the use of the SDLPS will remove them from the driver's seat. In most institutions we see instructors controlling all parts of the teaching and learning process (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990). They decide what, how, and when material is to be taught. The students are there to be filled with knowledge and teachers decide what type of evaluation is necessary. It becomes a way of life for teachers. Student teachers in faculties of education are often

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taught that this is what their teaching job will be! They are comfortable doing this and do not want to use an instrument that threatens this role.

Myth 3: SDLPS is a test of teacher performance. Some incorrectly assume that the SDLPS is a course evaluation and, in turn, a test of teacher performance. Course evaluations can be threatening experiences and some educators do not like this type of evaluation. Consequently, they consider any attempt to use such an instrument to be a waste of time. The typical scenario of "course evaluation" involves requesting students to fill out forms during the last class that are not returned directly to the instructor. After inserting the completed forms into a sealed envelope, a student volunteer returns the completed forms to the department. This secretive nature can be threatening to instructors who spend hours preparing lessons, setting tests, and marking papers. They may worry that students do not like what they are doing. If instructors believe the SDLPS to be a course evaluation, the negative response is not surprising. Instructors need to realize that the SDLPS does not judge the quality of teaching, but provides feedback on the self-directed learning process from the students' point of view.

Myth 4: Self-directed learning cannot be measured with a questionnaire format. The SDLPS is a questionnaire and the overuse of structured questionnaires may lead instructors to resist using it. They may simply be "questionnaired out." Some may debate the usefulness of the form of results obtained from this type of assessment (Candy, 1991). Statistical techniques are used to compile results from questionnaires and many feel this is too mathematical. There is also a danger of attaching too much meaning to the numbers generated. These difficulties may cause instructors to shy away from using the SDLPS. Yet questionnaires can be useful tools for receiving valuable feedback, as long as educators interpret the results with caution.

Myth 5: Student feedback is not valid. Resistance exists among those who believe the myth that student feedback is invalid. There is a large amount of literature cited by Cranton (1989) supporting the validity of this form of feedback. Questionnaires are shown to be stable over time (Murray, 1980), internally consistent (Hoffman, 1978), and have high inter-rater reliability (Marsh, 1982). Despite this support, there still may be resistance, which needs to be overcome. Students are a valuable source of information. There are things to be cautious about when interpreting student feedback, but this does not mean that this source of information should be disregarded.

Myth 6: Trying to measure self-directed learning is a waste of time. The process of self-directed learning itself does take time and this concern is mentioned by a number of people, including Brookfield (1988) and Brockett and Hiemstra (1991). Some instructors using the SDLPS fear that the administration of the instrument will take away even more precious time. In reality, the SDLPS will actually save time by making it easier for the instructor to implement self-directed learning activities. Obtaining feedback from students can save instructors hours of time searching around in an attempt to figure out what students feel is and is not working. Having a tool can encourage those who do not use

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self-directed learning to consider it because there are ways to help with the implementation of the process.

Techniques for Overcoming Resistance to Using the SDLPS

Brookfield (1990) recommends several techniques for overcoming learner resistance that can be modified and expanded to address teacher apprehension toward assessment of the self-directed learning process:

Determine if resistance to assessment is justified. Instructors may have valid reasons for resisting the use of the SDLPS. As Brookfield states, resistance is a complex phenomenon and determining what combination of factors is causing resistance becomes necessary. Discovering or clarifying discrepancies between beliefs and practices is vital. We often think one thing and do another. Using critical thinking techniques to investigate instructors' assumptions and beliefs will help reveal any discrepancies. Encouraging instructors to become aware of possible gaps can help them determine if the resistance toward the SDLPS is justified.

Admit the normality of resistance. It should be no surprise that some educators feel initial resistance toward using the SDLPS; this resistance should be recognized as normal. It is common to feel resistance toward something strange and new. Educators should be encouraged to work through their resistance and the researcher should not feel offended or threatened because they do question the use of the instrument. Being understanding and providing opportunities to overcome this resistance will make the use of the SDLPS more effective.

Research teachers' background and cultures. Teachers come from various teaching backgrounds and cultures with a vast array of experiences. Their values, expectations, and cultural allegiances have an effect on the way they view the use of the SDLPS. Those with previous unpleasant experiences using questionnaires may be reluctant to use them again. Someone who has taught in a traditional school may be reluctant to consider using the self-directed learning process, let alone administer an instrument that is even remotely related to it. Being aware of these influences can help shape the approach used when introducing the SDLPS.

Acknowledge the instructor's right to resist. Not all instructors prefer self-directed learning; it is fine to acknowledge that fact. As Brookfield (1986) states, every adult education program is a unique psychosocial drama. The cast of characters will never be exactly the same from one program to another. The selection of appropriate techniques depends on characteristics of the instructional situation, aspects of instruction being evaluated, and the sources of information being used (Cranton, 1989). As educators, we know each class is different and we do not use exactly the same techniques with all students. Students learn through various processes. Educators should be encouraged to determine the characteristics of their particular program that are conducive to

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self-directed learning. In doing so, they must be given the right to refuse to use the SDLPS and be respected for that decision.

Realize time is needed. Implementing a self-directed learning process cannot happen overnight. As Brookfield (1987) acknowledges, it took ten years of research and practice before he could admit to theory-practice contradictions he experienced when facilitating self-directed learning. Hiemstra and Sisco (1990) suggest that one should try using a process or technique at least three times before evaluating its effectiveness. The first time, the process will be new to both the educator and the learners. The second time, it will be new to only the learners. By the third time, it will be starting to be routine for the instructor, who can then assess the process and its impact. Instructors should be encouraged to adopt a similar outlook when considering self-directed learning and implementing the SDLPS. This will give them a chance to genuinely judge the instrument's usefulness.

Encourage educators to play an active role. Use of the SDLPS should be promoted, not as evaluation, but as a project in which educators are invited to play an active role. Many instructors and students progress well through the self-directed learning process. The SDLPS gives the opportunity for them to share perceptions of this successful interaction. Used in this way, the instrument is not threatening; it is a means of sharing and working together toward a common end: the facilitation of the self-directed learning process.

Explain intentions clearly and provide ongoing support. If the intentions of the SDLPS are not clearly stated, many instructors will continue to resist using it. What the instrument is, how it can be used, why it is used, and what it can do for the instructor all need to be presented in an easy-to-follow format. Hammond and Collins (1991) quote many sources to say that without careful orientation, learners may become defensive, threatened, or resistant to an idea. A similar argument can be made for educators. Aspects of the assessment may be ambiguous and the way the instrument is being used may be promoting resistance. Instructions for administration should be straightforward and instructors should be encouraged to question any aspect of the process.

Encourage sharing of success stories. Peer support for instructors and sharing personal stories of resistance toward assessment can be helpful. Former resisters are often very good advocates for the instrument. Someone who has felt the apprehension and has overcome it can identify with the fears of others who are resistant. If instructors can see that others are successfully using the SDLPS and are happy to be doing so, they will be more likely to overcome their resistance and try.

Some educators are successfully using other assessment techniques besides the SDLPS in their classes. Brockett and Hiemstra (1991) present one example of formative assessment to keep their teaching fresh and provide indications of how well the self-directed learning process is working for the students. This example confirms that process assessment can be used in some self-directed programs. We need to hear more about these stories. How do educators find them helpful? Why do they use instruments to assess their students?

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Did they initially have fears about using such instruments? If they did, how did they overcome these fears?

Outline the practical implications of the SDLPS. It is argued that adult learners prefer practical information (Hiemstra and Sisco, 1990) and instructors are similar. Learners want something that they can put to use. Instructors also like things they can use immediately. If the introduction stresses practical ways the instrument can be used, instructors will be encouraged to use it.


Educators need to see the rationale for asking about students' perceptions of the self-directed learning process. There is a continuing need for the development of alternative instruments to assess self-directed learning (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991). The SDLPS is one of those instruments. Being aware of how students incorporate learning in the classroom with their individual learning is invaluable. There are no right and wrong answers. However, there is the opportunity for constructive feedback. Despite the need, there is resistance toward using this type of assessment that must be overcome. If resistance to using the SDLPS can be overcome, the apprehension toward using self-directed learning may also decrease.

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Marsh, H. W. "Factors Affecting Students' Evaluations of the Same Course Taught by the Same Instructor on Different Occasions." American Educational Research Journal, 1982, 19, 485-497.

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Jane Pilling-Cormick is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education Group at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, Canada.

June, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Overcoming Resistance to Self-Direction in Adult Learning Contents page

-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, Chapter Eleven or The Index.