Ainley, Mary D. (1993). Styles of engagement with learning: multidimensional assessment of their relationship with strategy use and school achievement. Journal of educational psychology, 85(3), 395-405.
Ainley’s study works to identify and measure “styles of engagement” (p. 395). Students bring personal purposes and beliefs about themselves to the learning process and these processes influence their learning (p. 395). These beliefs, goals and their subsequent effects have been studied often, though independent from one another (p. 395). The question of the effects of the various sets of combinations of these goals and beliefs on learning strategies and academic achievement still remains (p. 395). It is there that the author appropriately attempts to combine learner’s beliefs and goals into clusters and identifies each cluster as a “style of engagement”, which is the central concept of the study.
Need and Importance
The author’s goal of identifying these styles of engagement and their effects on learning strategies and academic achievement is an appropriate and necessary task to take on. Previous research has shown the importance of performance goals on the learning process (p. 395). Additional research showing the “impact on learning of variables such as student beliefs about the goals” has been conducted as well (p. 395). However, as aforementioned, these goals and beliefs have typically been studied independently, thus leaving a gap in research that addresses the effects of various groupings of these goals and beliefs. An assessment of these groupings would also “complement knowledge of the independent effects of specific goals” (p. 396) which would also add to existing research and theory.
Relevant Theory and Research
The author’s arrival to this gap in research and need to fill said gap is highly grounded in theory and pre-existing research. Ainley effectively lays out the foundation of research previously mentioned to make up her conceptual framework as well as to explicitly state the need for her study. Further, she provides adequate citations addressing definitions of “goals” (p. 396), “learning strategies” (p. 397), and the “interdependence and organization between goals and self-regulatory processes” (p. 396), which, in other words is a correlation between a learners goals and their motivational orientation or “style of engagement”. This rounds out a clear articulation of the necessary concepts for investigating her research questions.
Appropriateness of Questions/Hypotheses
As a result of a clear conceptual framework addressing an explicit definition of styles of engagement, a clear need to further research on the clusters of goals and beliefs that make up these engagement styles, and the author’s effective use of previous research to ground each, she appropriately arrived at the following research hypotheses; that “students’ general style of engagement with learning would influence strategy use”, “styles of engagement with learning were not expected to be independent of general ability” and students with similar ability would sometimes differ on style of engagement (p. 397) given the effects of various beliefs and goal orientations. Further, the studies results have great implications for furthering the testing of theory concerning styles of engagement and their effects on learning and achievment.
Ainley’s use of a correlational design is appropriate here given her attempt to measure a relationship between variables, in this case, between style of engagement, learning strategies and goal orientations. By then conducting multivariate cluster analyses (p. 399) and obtaining her initial measurements for each individual variable by using credible and well cited instruments (p. 398) she was able to address all aspects of her hypotheses in a well designed manner.
Ainley used a relative small and specific sample size in the form of 137 Australian female students at the 11th grade level (p. 397). They are also from a middle to upper class community and a higher than average ability grouping. While a sample this specific might be problematic for issues of generalizability, Ainley adequately addresses this issue citing that “because of the special character of this student cohort, the generalizability of these findings needs further investigation” (p. 403). The sample did present an adequate age group for addressing the proposed research questions given their mature nature and thus greater ability to self-regulate and identify learning strategies.
Procedures and Materials
To collect her data Ainley uses a 4 stage process; beginning with collection of measurements for each individual variable based upon a credible instrument used for measuring that specific variable in previous studies (p. 397). General ability is tested by providing the Advanced Test B40 (p. 397) to the interviewed students, approaches to learning by the LPQ and Exam Preparation Strategies by two forms of a 7-item questionnaire (p. 398). In doing so, Ainley secured the legitimacy of her initial measures, which provide her with an adequate foundation for her remaining procedures and analysis.
The measures consisted of qualitative assessments of the constructs that were then coded for use in cluster analyses (p. 399). Each measure behaved in a way that would be statistically expected given Ainley’s hypotheses demonstrating construct validity. The measures also interacted with the additional variables in the way the author predicts which reflects a great deal of nomological validity. Further the validity of the measures can be viewed as discriminant given that they only seem to correlate with other measures that they logically relate to.
After obtaining the initial measurements for each individual variable, these measurements were then put into a cluster analysis (p. 400). This process revealed 6 different cluster groups or “styles of engagement” made up of ability, goals and beliefs (p. 401). Once Ainley completed this step, she further analyzed the groupings by performing an ANOVA analysis of variance between the style of engagement and the learning strategy used (p. 401). She does the same for style of engagement and school achievement. Given the number of variables involved and the complexity of first examining the variables on their own before clustering them, Ainley’s 3-stage analytical process appears to be adequate. Additionally, the author does well to acknowledge statistical assumptions such as various confidence intervals for each test but does an inadequate job of addressing standard deviation in her single variable tables.
Despite the effective structure of the study, Ainley’s research does have considerable conceptual limitations though she makes these explicit. First, is that the study “did not distinguish among differential strategy demands of the various learning domains” (p. 403) i.e. the strategies only covered Math and English and specific contexts. Second is that the research requires “more intensive assessment of achievement tasks” (p. 403) to determine differences in quality of student’s achievement. Third, the aforementioned limited generalizability of the sample (p. 403).
Despite these limitations, Ainley’s reported results in relation to her conclusions were sound with one contradiction. Ainley takes the 6 resulting clusters or “styles of engagement” and infers that these styles have an effect on student achievement, showing that groups of students had similar general ability but different learning approach variables (p. 403). Her path from results to inferences is further progressed by showing how the data reflected, “just as students have multiple goals in learning, they use multiple strategies to achieve those goals” (p. 403) as evidenced by the 6 clusters created from the results. These assertions were well founded and supportive of her initial assumptions. However, Ainley also states that there is a relationship between styles of engagement and student achievement, something not reflected in figure 1 (p. 401) and also contradicted by stating “there were no significant differences between the achievement levels of either group contingent on differences in their style of engagement” (p. 403).
Results and Initial Theory
Ainley’s theoretical base is founded upon research that shows the effect of learning goals, learning strategies and beliefs on both styles of engagement and student achievement (p. 396) and that the combinations of these variables have not been tested enough to identify sets of engagement styles. The resulting 6 clusters from her analysis described 6 different combinations of variables that made up “engagement styles”, reflecting this portion of her hypothesis (p. 397). Showing the “consistency between these findings and those of Pintrich (1989)” (p. 403) also solidified the author’s connection to her theoretical base.
Ainley states that the implications for future research “emphasize the need for models of student learning to take into account the influence of students’ general orientations toward learning” because her findings have shown association between goals, strategies and school achievement (p. 404). These findings also suggest an investigation of “the course of development of styles of engagement” and “the influence of school context” (p. 404). While this study lays a foundation for future research on engagement from its identification of the 6 different styles of engagement as on construct, I do not believe that it shows a strong association with achievement. This is furthered by Ainley’s contradiction of herself, regarding achievement and engagement styles previously mentioned. However, she is correct, if only by error in stating that more intensive study on styles of engagement and student achievement are necessary (p. 403). As this investigation process unfolds it may also yield evidence for her suggestion of further research into the construction of engagement styles as well, depending on the significance of that research question.