Learning styles and approach versus avoidant coping during academic exam preparation

Learning styles and approach versus avoidant coping during academic exam preparation – Statistical Data Included

Bradley M. Appelhans

This study investigated the association between several styles of learning as measured by the Inventory of Learning Processes – Revised (ILP-R), and approach coping assessed with a revised, 9-item version of the Ways of Coping Questionnaire. From a university student sample, 74 participants’ (30 male, 44 female) self-reported approach coping in the context of preparing for an academic exam was associated with thoughtful learning, motivation, agentic style, and self-efficacy scores on the ILP-R, but not with literal memorization. Results support the theory that thoughtful learners are more likely to employ approach coping strategies during test preparation, and that shallow processors’ tendency to remain cognitively detached from course material extends to their preparation for exams.


The present study examined relationships between students’ self-reported learning styles and self-reported avoidant versus approach styles of coping with stress. This was done in the context of preparing for academic examinations. Of course, the relationships (correlation coefficients) revealed in this manner indicate nothing regarding causality, but the authors hope to subsequently test the specific hypothesis that habitual avoidance of unpleasant emotion associated with impending academic examinations places limitations upon the range of learning strategies available to a student.

Approach coping strategies tend to focus directly on the stressful problem, for example preparing to pass an academic examination. In contrast, avoidant coping styles tend to involve management of attention and perception in an effort to reduce negative emotion. One model of avoidance is Holzman and Gardner’s (1959) “leveling” (vs. sharpening), which involves overlooking perceptual distinctions among stimuli in order to reduce stress. Miller’s (1987) “blunting” (vs. monitoring) similarly involves focusing attention on stimuli other than the actual stressor. Likewise, Byrne’s (1964) “repression” (vs. sensitization) involves avoiding the perception of both the actual threatening stimulus and its memory. All of these avoidant strategies would seem to interfere with preparation for an academic examination. The question asked in the present study was what learning strategies are available to students who are habitually using approach or avoidant strategies of dealing with stress.


A sample of introductory psychology students at a large midwestern university completed assessments of coping and learning styles. The mean age of the 30 male and 44 female participants was 19.7 years.

Nine items from the Ways of Coping Questionnaire (Folkman & Lazarus, 1988) were scored so as to yield a single coping score with high scores indicating approach and low scores indicating avoidance. Twenty-nine items had been initially selected based on their content validity for the present study, and ultimately reduced to nine approach-avoidance items via a factor analysis. In order to contextualize the questions, participants first filled out a detailed description of a recent academic examination and then responded to the Ways of Coping Questionnaire (in the copyrighted format) while referring to the academic examination they had just described.

Learning style was assessed via the Inventory of Learning Processes (Schmeck & Geisler-Brenstein, 1995) which provides scores on 17 different dimensions of learning style including efficacy, motivation, and cognitive process dimensions (see Geisler-Brenstein & Schmeck, 1996).

Results and Discussion

Table 1 summarizes the relationships between approach-avoidance coping and the various dimensions of learning style. The mean score for the Approach-Avoidance Coping (ApAv) was 24.23 (SD = 4.56), which is equivalent to participants reporting that they use approach strategies between “Used somewhat” and “Quite a bit”. Those dimensions which yield statistically significant coefficients of correlation are described in greater detail.

The student prone to coping with academic stress with approach strategies (by facing the actual challenge) appears to favor the following cognitive learning strategies: Agentic-Analytic and Agentic-Serial (p < .07), Deep-Thinking, and Elaborative-Episodic (p < .07). Likewise, he or she indicates the prevalence of the following motives and efficacy components of learning strategy: Academic Interest, Effort, Personal Responsibility, and feelings of efficacy in both Organizational and Critical Thinking skills, and a willingness to be assertive (p < .08). It should be noted that it is the students prone to avoidance that practice literal memorization when preparing for exams. Let us examine these findings in greater detail.

Agentic strategies are task or problem oriented. Thus the student who copes with stress by treating it as a problem to be solved will analyze the task of preparing for an academic exam into component tasks (Agentic-Analytic) and then sequence or schedule these sub-tasks to fit the time available (Agentic-Serial). Furthermore, the correlation with scores on the Deep-Thinking and Elaborative-Episodic scales of the ILP-R suggest that those using an approach coping strategy will reflect upon class material and try to think of personal examples and applications rather than simply repeating it over and over. Regarding the use of simple repetition, the reader should note that the only negative correlation in Table 1 (indicating specifically a correlation with avoidance coping) is the one involving the Literal Memorization scale of the ILP-R, indicating that students disposed to avoidant methods of coping with stress do in fact literally memorize class material from lecture notes or a textbook.

Concerning motive and efficacy, the correlation coefficients in Table 1 suggest that students who practice approach methods of coping with stress are sincerely interested in academic work in its own right, take personal responsibility for their academic behavior and the resulting consequences, and expend plenty of effort in their work. Furthermore, the students who cope with stress in a problem-focused fashion seem to have feelings of self efficacy (or confidence) in their abilities to remain organized and their ability to think critically.

This study has the same limitations as all correlational analysis. Additionally, the university student sample used in this study limits the generalizability of the results to other groups of learners. Further work in this area should aim at understanding differences in coping with other academic stressors (such as take-home assignments). Also, the relationship between coping and learning may change across specific academic subjects (i.e. math and creative writing) due to the varying cognitive and behavioral processes demanded by each field of study. Further work in coping and learning should pinpoint other individual differences in academic performance among university students.

Table 1

Means, Standard Deviations, and Partial Correlations With

Approach-Avoidance (ApAv) Controlling for Lie (N = 74)

ILP-R Scales

AgenAnal AgenSer ConvAtt

pr (ApAv) .32 *** .18 ([dagger]) .40 ***

M 5.16 3.58 -1.77

SD 3.79 5.18 5.13

ElabSA LitMem MethSt

pr (ApAv) -.03 -.20 * .12

M 6.54 1.76 -0.27

SD 3.53 5.11 5.82

SECrit SEFact SEOrg

pr (ApAv) .20 * .05 .22 *

M 4.36 2.18 2.64

SD 5.33 6.12 6.74

ILP-R Scales

DeepSem DeepTh ElabEpis

pr (ApAv) .15 .34 *** .18 ([dagger])

M 5.38 3.20 7.08

SD 3.90 5.01 3.33

MoAcad MoEff MoPers

pr (ApAv) .37 *** .41 *** .29 ***

M 1.81 10.42 7.41

SD 5.50 4.10 4.05

SelfAsser SelfEst

pr (ApAv) .17 ([dagger]) .15

M 5.09 1.35

SD 5.92 6.54

KEY: One-tailed probabilities: * p < .05. ** p < .03. *** p < .01.

([dagger]) p < .10.

ApAv (Approach-Avoidance Coping); AgenAnal (Agentic: Analytic

Learning);AgenSer (Agentic: Serial Learning); ConvAtt (Conventional

Attitudes TowardLearning); DeepSem (Deep:Semantic Learning): DeepTh

(Deep:ThinkingLearning); ElabEpis (Elaborative: Episodic Learning);

ElabSA (Elaborative: Self-Actualization Learning); LitMem (Literal

Memorization Learning); MethSt (Methodical Study Learning); MoAcad

(Learning Motivation: Academic Interest); MoEff (Learning Motivation:

Effort); MoPers (Learning Motivation: Personal Responsibility); SECrit

(Learning Self Efficacy: Critical Thinking); SEFact (Learning Self

Efficacy:Retention of Facts); SEOrg (Learning Self Efficacy:

Organizational Skills); SelfAsser (Self Assertion in Learning);

SelfEstr (Self Esteem).


Byrne, D. (1964). Repression-sensitization as a dimension of personality. In Maher, B. A. (Ed.), Progress in experimental personality research (Vol. 1, pp. 169-220). New York: Academic Press.

Folkman, Susan, & Lazarus, Richard S. (1988). Ways of Coping Ouestionnaire: (Research ed.). Redwood City, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc.

Geisler-Brenstein, Elke, & Schmeck, Ronald R. (1996). The revised Inventory of Learning Processes: A multifaceted perspective on individual differences in learning. In Birenbaum, Menucha, & Dochy, Filip J. R. C. (Eds.), Alternatives in assessment of achievements, learning processes and prior knowledge (pp. 283- 315). Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Holzman, P. S., & Gardner, R. W. (1959). Leveling and repression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 59, 151-155.

Miller, S. M. (1987). Monitoring and blunting: Validation of a questionnaire to assess styles of information seeking under threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 345-353.

Schmeck, Ronald R., & Geisler-Brenstein, Elke (1995). Inventory of Learning Processes – Revised [Unpublished questionnaire].



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