Understanding the learning tactics of college students and their relationship to leadership

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  • Understanding the learningtactics of college students andtheir relationship to leadership

    Barry Z. PosnerLeavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara,

    California, USA


    Purpose This research aims to extend the generalizability of previous studies, using managerialsamples, by investigating the tactics college students employ to learn and how this relates to their ownbehavior as leaders.

    Design/methodology/approach College students were surveyed regarding their typical tacticsfor learning, using Daltons Learning Tactics Inventory, along with the extent to which they engagedin various leadership practices, using Kouzes and Posners Student Leadership Practices Inventory.

    Findings Students who are more actively engaged in any of the various learning tactics (feelings,thinking, accessing others, and action), or all of them (versatility), subsequently report greaterengagement across the range of leadership practices as well as transformational leadership.

    Research limitations/implications The sample is drawn from college students, on a singlecampus, from a single discipline and in their first year of study and, while successfully holding thesevariables constant, may be unrepresentative of other student populations. The use of a studentpopulation may limit generalizability to managerial and/or professional populations. However, thehypotheses and methodology follow previous studies with managerial samples and serve to extend thevalidity of the learning and leadership relationships investigated. Future studies should addassessments of the effectiveness of leaders.

    Originality/value Leadership skills can be developed through a number of learning tactics andstrategies, rather than from a single perspective; but the greater the range of learning strategiesutilized, the more comfortable students feel engaging in various leadership behaviors. Leadershipdevelopment is a learning process in itself.

    Keywords Leadership, Learning, Students, Inventory

    Paper type Research paper

    People learn in a variety of ways. Similarly, people learn critical management andleadership skills from a variety of sources, often overlapping ones. While in school,college and university especially, learning about leadership and being a leader takesplace in formal classes and seminars, through reading books and articles, participationin co-curricular activities (ranging from intercollegiate and intramural sports,residential halls, fraternal organizations, student government, clubs, communityservice projects, etc.), interactions with external speakers, role models, and coaches,through small-group project assignments, challenging tasks, competitions, and evenhardships (Doh, 2003). Learning is the process of making meaning out of onesexperiences so that one can act appropriately. Mezirow (1994, pp. 222-223) defineslearning as the social process of construing and appropriating a new or revisedinterpretation of meaning of ones experience as a guide to action. Conceptualized

    The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at




    Received June 2008Revised January 2009Accepted January 2009

    Leadership & OrganizationDevelopment JournalVol. 30 No. 4, 2009pp. 386-395q Emerald Group Publishing Limited0143-7739DOI 10.1108/01437730910961694

  • broadly, therefore, people learn from their experience, however formal or informal,structured or naturally occurring. This study examined the tactics students use forlearning, and explored how these various learning tactics might relate to how studentsactually behaved as leaders.

    Precisely how students (or anyone, for that matter) learn has been the subject ofvoluminous research efforts (the review of which is clearly beyond the scope of thispaper). Generally, the process of learning has been considered from either a trait-basedapproach or as an information-processing strategy. That is, researchers typicallyexamine whether learning begins from an inside-out or outside-in perspective.Learning may be intentional, incidental or the by-product of another activity orsomewhat mindless assimilation (Rosenfield, 1988). Learning has also beenconceptualized as a progression of cognitive processing building blocks. Forinstance, Kitchener (1983, p. 230) explains that at the first level, individuals compute,memorize, read and comprehend. At the second level [metacognition], they monitortheir own progress and products as they are engaged in first-order cognitive tasks . . .The third level . . . epistemic cognition . . . explains how humans monitor their problemsolving when engaged in ill-structured problems, i.e. those which do not have anabsolutely correct solution. Transformative learning pertains to epistemic cognition;or what Mezirow (2000, p. 4) sees as another crucial mode of making meaning:becoming critically aware of ones own tacit assumptions and expectations and thoseof others and assessing their relevance for making an interpretation. Mindful learningor mindfulness, as described by Langer (1989, 1998), is quite similar to transformativelearning as it involves the ongoing creation of new categories, remaining open to newinformation, and being implicitly aware of multiple perspectives.

    Kegan (2000) describes transformational learning as an expansion of consciousnessand observes that this kind of learning is more than merely adding to what individualsalready know. Transformational learning shapes people, asserts Clark (1993, p. 47):they are different afterwards, in ways both they and others can recognize. Experienceis envisioned as the starting point in this approach and becomes the content forreflection. Engaging life experiences in a critically reflective manner is a necessarycondition for transformation. Indeed, the entire process of learning is a journey ofchange that is growth enhancing and developmental (Mezirow, 2000). Essentially thetransformational approach to learning is about change dramatic and fundamentalchange in the way people see themselves and the world in which they live.

    Researchers connected with the Center for Creative Leadership conducted studies oftransformational learning. In the context of leadership development they wereinterested in understanding what sort of approaches to learning most facilitated thecapability to learn from experience and under what conditions. Lombard et al. (1990)observed that most individual learning fell into one of four major categories:

    (1) Feelings represent those behaviors that individuals employ to acknowledge andmanage the emotions of anxiety or discomfort that arise from facing anunknown challenge.

    (2) Action represents those behaviors that occur from engaging in the task at handand experiencing the consequences.

    (3) Thinking describes those behaviors that are solitary and includes reflection,cognitive rehearsal and symbolic (or metaphorical) inductive strategies.

    Learning tacticsof collegestudents


  • (4) Accessing others represents observational and vicarious behaviors likemodeling, seeking advice, coaching, and formal training by others.

    Their framework argued that individuals who can learn from more than one categoryand thus have a greater repertoire of learning tactics at their disposal are better able tolearn about leading and becoming leaders. This happens because they are morecapable of approaching and learning from a greater variety of situations than thosemore narrowly focused or limited in their methodology for learning.

    Their studies showed that individuals differ in their ability and willingness to learnfrom experience. Individuals most successful in achieving their developmental goalswere those who used the greatest variety of learning tactics. Individuals who were lesssuccessful in attaining their goals were more cautious and reactive in their approach tolearning and employed fewer learning tactics. Those never able to reach their goalsavoided the task or used only a few tactics, often trying the same thing over and overagain, whether it was working or not (symptomatic of not learning). Individuals whowere able to improve their ability to learn from experience were able to expand thenumber and variety of learning tactics that they used.

    Brown and Posner (2001) extended this research by investigating how the use ofvarious learning tactics might be related to the ways, which actual leaders behave.This is relevant, as well, to the perspective of many leadership developmentframeworks which have argued that leaders are great learners (e.g. McCall et al.,1988; Vaill, 1999; Senge, 1990; Collins, 2001; Kouzes and Posner, 2007; Bennis, 2009).Across a varied group of managers Brown and Posner (2001) found a strongrelationship between the concepts of learning and leadership. The greater their facilityin learning and in learning across the entire range of learning tactics, the morefrequently these managers engaged in leadership behaviors. These authors note theneed to generalize their findings to different sample populations. This current studyresponds by investigating these same relationships using a sample of undergraduatecollege students. Such a sample consists of respondents with considerably less life(school and work) experience than Brown and Posners (2001) sample they would beat the start versus somewhere in the middle of their personal development as leaders.Replicating these earlier findings would extend the importance of strengtheningpeoples learning abilities as a possible antecedent to effectively learning to learn andsubsequently being effective as leaders. Replication would also enhance understandingabout the impact of transformative learning in enabling individuals to deal with thenatural complexities of leadership.

    Sample and methodologyThe sample consisted of all first year students majoring in business at a privatecomprehensive masters level university located on the west coast of the United States.Students (N 830) completed the questionnaires at the start of a required course intheir second quarter of enrollment. Data was collected over two years in order tominimize any potential impact of academic year. There were no significant differencesin the demographic characteristics between the students in year one or year two of thestudy. The students in the sample were relatively homogenous in terms of their ages(18-19 years). Nearly all had little to no work experience (beyond summer employment),and although somewhat active in extra-curricular activities while in high school they



  • had not spent enough time at the university to become very engaged in anysubstantive activities or to hold any formal organizational positions. While thepercentage of male respondents was higher than female respondents (56 versus 44percent) post hoc analyses revealed no significant differences by gender. In all of thesedimensions this sample provided a good counterpoint to the sample characteristicsreported previously (Brown and Posner, 2001).

    Students completed the Learning Tactics Inventory (LTI) and the StudentLeadership Practices Inventory (S-LPI). The LTI (Dalton, 1999) is a 32-item set ofstatements intended to assess how people report learning when faced with thechallenge of an unfamiliar task or experience. Each statement is measured on afive-point Likert scale with 1 anchoring I have almost never used this approach to 5indicating I have almost always used this approach. The LTI yields four scales, eachof which represents a different tactic for learning:

    (1) action (e.g. I am proactive in my approach, preferring to learn by trial and error);

    (2) thinking (e.g. I read articles or books or go online to gain knowledge andbackground);

    (3) feeling (e.g. I confront myself on what I am worrying about); and

    (4) accessing others (e.g. I bounce my hopes and fears off someone I trust).

    Each of the learning tactics (scales) is measured by eight statements and Cronbachsalpha coefficients of internal reliability for each has been reported at 0.70 or greater(Dalton, 1999). In this study, Cronbachs alpha scores were roughly equivalent rangingfrom 0.67 to 0.72. A Versatility Index is computed by adding up how many tactics therespondent reports using, where the respondents score was above the median for thesample. Scores can range from zero to four, thus a score of four means the respondentscored above the median on all four learning tactics and is a highly versatile learner.Internal reliability (Cronbachs alpha) in this study for the Versatility Index was 0.70.

    The Student Leadership Practices (S-LPI) was designed to identify specificbehaviors and actions that students report using when they are at their personal bestas leaders (Posner and Brodsky, 1992; Kouzes and Posner, 2008). These behaviors arecategorized into five leadership practices. Representative statements of leadershipbehaviors for each leadership practice are:

    (1) model the way (e.g. I set a personal example of what I expect from others);

    (2) inspire a shared vision (e.g. I describe a compelling image of what our futurecould be like);

    (3) challenge the process (e.g. I seek out challenging opportunities that test my skillsand abilities);

    (4) enable others to act (e.g. I develop cooperative relationships with the people Iwork with); and

    (5) encourage the heart (e.g. I praise people for a job well done).

    Respondents are asked to consider how frequently they engage in each of the behaviorsusing five-point Likert-scales, with (1) indicating rarely or seldom and (5) indicatingvery frequently or almost always. Identified as practices common to successful leadersin corporate, government, and not-for-profit organizations, these leadership practices

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  • and behaviors have been shown to correspond well to the developmental issues ofimportance for college students (Brodsky, 1988).

    Cronbachs alpha coefficients of internal reliability for each have been reported inthe literature at 0.70 or greater (Posner, 2004) and in this study internal reliability forthese five leadership practices ranged from 0.65 to 0.77. A composite score wascalculated following the same procedure used in the construction of the VersatilityIndex on the LTI. This score, representing a Transformational Leadership Index, wascomputed by adding up how many leadership practices the respondent reported using,where the respondents score was above the median for the sample. TransformationalLeadership scores could range from 0 to 5; thus a score of five means the respondentscored above the median on all five leadership practices and is a high transformationalleader. Internal reliability (Cronbachs alpha) for the Transformational LeadershipIndex was 0.75.

    Previous studies have found the Student Leadership Practices Inventory to havesound psychometric properties (Kouzes and Posner, 2009); with validity for these fiveleadership practices and effectiveness reported across a range of student samplepopulations. Numerous researchers have successfully used a summative or compositemeasure of the five leadership practices to represent transformational leadership (e.g.Carless et al., 1994; Francisco, 2000; Bell-Roundtree and Westbrook, 2001; Wong, 2007;Ferrara, 2008).

    ResultsTable I presents the average score and standard deviation for each of the learningtactics. Students reported engaging most frequently in the thinking learning tactic,followed by action learning, then learning through accessing Others, and finallylearning through feelings. Correlations between each of these learning modalities(Table I) were all above 0.40 (p , 0:001). Paired t-test analyses revealed that the meansof all four learning tactics were significantly different (p , 0:01) from one another.

    Correlations between the students learning tactics and their leadership practicesare presented in Table II. Internal reliability (Cronbachs alpha) coefficients scores foreach scale are also reported. As this data illustrates each of the four learning tacticswas significantly correlated with each of the five leadership practices (p , 0:001,two-tailed). Versatility and Transformational Leadership were also significantlycorrelated.

    Table III affords a more detailed view of the previous findings by looking at therelationship between respondents high or low use of each of the four learning tacticsand how this manifested itself in their use of each of the five leadership practices. High

    Learning Correlationstactics Mean Std dev Action Thinking Feeling Accessing

    Action 28.3 4.2 0.61 * * 0.51 * * 0.40 *

    Thinking 30.2 4.1 0.59 * * 0.46 * *

    Feeling 26.5 4.5 0.48 * *

    Accessing 27.8 4.7

    Notes: * p , 0.01; * * p , 0.001

    Table I.Means, standarddeviations, andcorrelations for learningtactics (LTI) of students



  • and low frequency was operationalized as scores either above or below the median oneach learning tactic. Respondents with learning scores above the median weresignificantly more engaged in leadership behaviors than those who were less capableof learning. Better learners, those with higher average scores, regardless of learningtactic modality, consistently engaged in leadership practices more frequently than didthose in the low learning tactic category. Accordingly, learners with high levels ofversatility were significantly more engaged in transformational leadership behaviorsthan those with lower levels of versatility.

    Hierarchical regression analysis revealed that the four Learning Tactics explainedover one-third of the variance in Transformational Leadership scores (R 0:586,R 2 0:343, F 107:62, p , 0:001). Stepwise regression analysis found the feelinglearning tactic entered into the equation first and accounted for the largest amount of

    Leadership practicesLearning tactics Model Inspire Challenge Enable Encourage Transformational

    ActionLow (440) 20.6 19.6 19.4 22.8 21.8 1.92High (390) 23.0 23.1 22.8 24.4 24.3 3.40

    ThinkingLow (435) 20.6 19.7 19.5 22.9 21.9 1.95High (395) 22.9 23.0 22.6 24.3 24.1 3.35

    FeelingLow (411) 20.5 19.7 19.4 22.6 21.8 1.83High (419) 22.9 22.8 22.5 24.5 24.2 3.38

    AccessingLow (440) 20.5 20.0 19.8 22.8 21.7 1.98High (390) 23.1 22.7 22.3 24.5 24.4 3.33

    VersatilityLow (423) 20.4 19.5 19.4 22.7 21.7 1.81High (407) 23.6 23.3 22.7 24.6 24.5 3.50

    Notes: Numbers in parentheses refer to sample sizes, which may vary due to median splits; all t-testdifferences are statistically significant (p , 0:001; two-tailed)

    Table III.Mean scores of low andhigh groups on learning

    tactics and leadershippractices (t-tests)

    Learning Leadership practicestactics Model Inspire Challenge Enable Encourage Transformational

    (0.66) (0.77) (0.73) (0.65) (0.77) (0.91)Action (0.71) 0.46 0.53 0.54 0.28 0.37 0.48Thinking (0.67) 0.45 0.53 0.54 0.29 0.35 0.47Feeling (0.73) 0.46 0.47 0.49 0.37 0.38 0.50Accessing (0.71) 0.42 0.39 0.36 0.34 0.41 0.41Versatility (0.70) 0.48 0.54 0.54 0.38 0.41 0.56

    Notes: Numbers in parentheses refer to Cronbachs alpha coefficients of internal reliability; allcorrelations are statistically significant (p , 0:001; two-tailed); n 830

    Table II.Correlations between

    learning tactics andleadership practices

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  • variance (R 0:495, R 2 0:245, F 268:77, p , 0:001). The action learning tacticentered the equation next and made a significantly additive contribution to explainedvariance (R 2 0:068, FD 82:25, p , 0:001), followed by the accessing learningtactic (R 2 0:021, FD 25:77, p , 0:001). The thinking learning tactic entered theequation last and made a very small but still statistically significant contribution(R 2 0:009, FD 10:99, p , 0:001).

    DiscussionThe tactics students engage in for learning take many forms, and have been modeledhere in terms of four principal modalities: action, thinking, accessing others, andfeeling. Their most frequently used learning tactic is thinking, followed by action,accessing, and feeling. These learning tactics are not empirically independent from oneanother. However, the more frequent use of any one of the learning tactics resulted ingreater engagement in each of the five leadership practices. Versatile learning alsoshowed a significant impact on the practices of transformational leadership. Thesefindings are consistent with those of Brown and Posner (2001) and lend credence to theimportance of learning generally, and versatility especially, in the development oftransformational leaders.

    While each of the learning tactics accounted for a significant amount of variancearound transformational leadership they did so in an order of importance opposite to theirmost frequent scores. While the frequency rank order for the learning tactics wasthinking, action, accessing and feeling, the order of these learning tactics into the stepwiseregression equation (and hence contribution to explained variance) was in reverse order(starting with feeling, followed by accessing, action and thinking). While this particularsample population might use the thinking learning style most frequently (which on theface of it seems quite consistent with their status or position as students, or even theirrelative lack of life and work experiences) this modality does not have much impact ontheir overall behavior as leaders. On the one hand, while few would want to follow aleader who does not think, it is possible that an overuse of this learning (orproblem-solving) style restrains the leader from making decisions and taking action. Onthe other hand, with relationships being considered an essential part of leadership, peoplewith a more feeling tendency to their learning or problem-solving style may demonstrategreater empathy with other people as well as foster greater levels of involvement(especially over a more analytical style that might be favored by thinking types).

    Some interesting differences were found post hoc about the impact of the variouslearning tactics on the particular leadership practices. The feeling learning tacticexplained the bulk of the variance on the leadership practices of model the way andenable others to act. Action explained most of the variance around the leadershippractice of challenge the process and entered the equation in second place for inspiringa shared vision and encouraging the heart. Accessing others explained the major shareof variance for encouraging and second most for enabling. Thinking was mostsignificant for explaining Inspiring and entered second for challenging but did notmake a significant addition to either enabling or encouraging.

    Students most comfortable with learning through their feelings engaged in the twoleadership practices most associated with interpersonal relationships by both settingan example (modeling) and facilitating collaboration (enabling). Action orientedlearners were most engaged with challenging which makes logical sense since both



  • concepts (learning style and this leadership practice) involve taking risk,experimenting and learning experientially. Students comfortable with learning byreaching out and accessing others were, in turn, most engaged or comfortable withrecognizing and appreciating others (encouraging). The thinking learning tacticfacilitated the reflection and introspection associated with finding ones voice andenvisioning the future (inspiring). However, as previously noted, it is possible that toomuch thinking (alone) may get in the way of building relationships, as indicated by therelatively insignificant contribution to explained variance by thinking as a learningtactic to the enabling and encouraging leadership practices.

    These findings offer several implications for leadership educators working withstudents particularly; although they may also be applied in workplace settings. Forone, using a tool like the LTI helps students become more self-aware of their preferredlearning tactics, as well as strategies to develop and use to become a more versatilelearner. With this information they may to make better choices about puttingthemselves into situations that they can learn the most from. Second, because learningoccurs through a variety of modalities, any effort to develop leadership skills wouldbenefit from designs that access more than one learning style or modality. Forexample, rather than just having students listen to speakers talking about theirleadership lessons, they need to be challenged to have their own leadership experience,and take time for reflective engagement on both activities (Roberts, 2008). Havingidentified a specific leadership practice that needs further development educators maywant to design experiences that tap into the learning tactics most associated with thatparticular practice. For example, getting more comfortable with challenging theprocess may be most effectively facilitated by action-oriented experiences more thanthrough other learning tactics. Similarly, working with personal (cognitive) reflectionactivities may be the key to developing Inspiring a shared vision leadership behaviors.

    Leadership development is a learning process in itself (Posner, 2009). Leadershipdevelopment programs and approaches need to reach students at a personal andemotional level, triggering critical self-reflection, providing support for meaningmaking, for experimentation, and for taking action.

    Several limitations in this study are worth noting. Foremost are characteristics ofthe sample population, which was drawn from a single college campus, in a singlegeographical region, from students in a single discipline and in their first year ofuniversity education. The generalizability of these findings would benefit from studiesinvolving heterogeneous samples on all of these dimensions, not withstanding thevirtue of holding all these same variables constant in the current study. It should benoted, however, that the findings from this study do coincide with those reportedpreviously in studies drawn from managerial samples (Brown and Posner, 2001).

    Employing different measures of learning tactics and/or leadership might alsochange, or substantiate, the relationships found. For example, when measuringtransformational leadership post hoc as a linear sum of the five leadership practices(rather than computed using scores above the median) the amount of explainedvariance accounted for by these four learning tactics went up by nearly 30 percent.Finally, the implicit assumption is that engaging more in these leadership practicesmeans being a more effective leader (Kouzes and Posner, 2006, 2007). Future studiesshould endeavor to include assessments of leadership effectiveness to validate thisassertion in the context of transformational learning.

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    Further reading

    Bass, B. (1999), Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership,European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 9-26.

    Burns, J.M. (1978), Leadership, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

    Kayes, D.C. (2002), Experiential learning and its critics: preserving the role of experience inmanagement learning and education, Academy of Management Learning and Education,Vol. 1 No. 2, pp. 137-49.

    Posner, B.Z. (2008), On leadership, BizEd, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 26-7.

    Corresponding authorBarry Z. Posner can be contacted at: bposner@scu.edu

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