Tolerance Of Ambiguity: Measuring This Life-Long Skill

May 4, 2015

UMR Students In ClassroomThe fear of the unknown. When you're in college, everything is new, in both a social and academic setting.

So how do students deal with vague, uncertain, and incomplete understanding of the concepts and skills that they will need to become successful lifelong learners and, eventually, effective professionals and citizens?

One of the skills that the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) curriculum aims to teach students is understanding and pushing through the "tolerance of ambiguity" -- the way that an individual perceives and responds to vague, incomplete, uncertain, or inconsistent information or situations.

For example, in a science or statistics course, when analyzing data, students will often have to decide whether to accept or reject a hypothesis under conditions of uncertainty and/or with limited data. In these situations, students who are more tolerant of ambiguity will be less likely to give up and more motivated to try to resolve the ambiguity.

"To help facilitate students' conceptual understanding and knowledge acquisition, educators must teach students how to be able to recognize and react appropriately to ambiguous information and situations," said Assistant Professor of Philosophy Aaron Kostko, Ph.D.

However, despite the importance of understanding tolerance of ambiguity, it is rarely considered a variable in designing a curriculum and rarely investigated using the tools of learning analytics, according to Kostko.

In his current research project, along with collaboration from fellow Center for Learning Innovation faculty members Robert Dunbar, Ph.D. and Rajeev Muthyala, Ph.D., Kostko aims to address why there is a lack of research about tolerance of ambiguity. The research hopes to answer these specific questions:

  • Does a student's tolerance of ambiguity change within a given semester as a result of course work at UMR?
  • Does a student's tolerance of ambiguity change from year to year?
  • If so, how do these changes correlate with students' performance in specific courses or on specific types of assignments?

Aaron Kostko"Possessing such an ability is necessary for conceptual understanding and knowledge acquisition in both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and humanities courses," said Kostko.

He also said a student's ability to tolerate ambiguity is particularly important for those seeking to enter the medical profession, where they will often encounter uncertain information or situations.

The key example in health care would be when diagnosing a patient. Although many tend to think a diagnosis is fairly straightforward (if you have the symptoms, then you have the disease), patients may only present some of the symptoms associated with a particular condition or present them to varying degrees. This is where the ambiguity comes in.

"A health care professional who is better able to tolerate this ambiguity and uncertainty would be able to function more efficiently in this situation because they will not be discouraged by the absence of a clear answer," said Kostko.

The goal of the research project is to better understand a student's level of tolerance of ambiguity and how it correlates with measures of academic success. The research team will measure this skill at multiple points throughout the student's academic career, which will help to provide a baseline measure of student's level of tolerance of ambiguity and to track how this ability changes within a given year as well as over the course of a student's academic career at UMR.

"This data will then be analyzed for each course in which we collect data using BoSCO, a versatile learning analytics tool that can handle both grade data as well as survey data," said Kostko.

After analyzing the initial data, Kostko said they hope to broaden the scope of the project by recruiting additional faculty in other disciplines to contribute course data and disciplinary perspectives.

"This will enable us to get a more comprehensive picture of how students' level of tolerance of ambiguity correlates with success in different courses, different types of courses, and perhaps on specific types of assignments," he said.

Kostko said the long-term goal is to utilize the information to identify specific teaching practices that facilitate tolerance of ambiguity and to reinforce these practices throughout the curriculum.

The research project is still in the early stages with questionnaires being given to students. They hope to analyze the data by this summer.