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Nurse Education Today 36 (2016) 249254

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The learning environment as a mediating variable between self-directed

learning readiness and academic performance of a sample of saudi
nursing and medical emergency students
Khaled N. Alotaibi
Department of Educational Psychology, King Saud University, Saudi Arabia

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Accepted 2 November 2015
Self-directed learning readiness
Learning environment
Academic performance
Saudi Arabia

s u m m a r y
Background: There has been some ground-breaking research on self-directed learning (SDL) in nursing education
which reveals the superiority of SDL to traditional learning methods in terms of students' academic performance
and the development of positive attitudes toward the learning process on the part of both students and teachers.
Objectives: The relationship between students' self-directed learning readiness (SDLR) and students' academic
performance, and the mediating role of students' perceptions of the learning environment needs further investigation. In this study, it is proposed that students' perceptions of their learning environment could enhance their
SDLR and thus boost their academic performance (in terms of their GPA).
Design: A descriptive design was used to examine the relationships between the domains of SDLR, which are selfmanagement, desire to learn and self-control and students' perceptions of the learning environment (SPLE) and
students' GPA.
Data source: A survey involving 142 Saudi students from nursing and emergency medical services undergraduate
programs in King Saud University was used for this research.
Results: The results showed that SDLR level positively inuenced students' academic performance positively, and
that students' perceptions of their learning environment played a signicant role in determining their level of
SDLR and academic performance.
Conclusion: It is recommended that nursing and emergency medical services educators provide a supportive
learning environment in terms of good teaching, clear goals and standards, appropriate assessment, appropriate
workload, and emphasis on independence to encourage students to engage in the process of SDL which can, in
turn, enhance their academic performance.
2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Today's rapid changes at cultural, political, social, and economical
levels create an urgent need for self-directed learning (SDL), which is
equally important to both children and adults alike. In the information
age, knowledge explosion and the rapid evolution of technology have
become major challenges for learners to keep up with the large amount
of knowledge and practical applications of technological discoveries. In
addition, the difculty in predicting the potential changes brought
about by knowledge explosion makes learners more unprepared to
meet their future needs. Consequently, formal education and training
no longer help learners face their future learning needs in an effective
manner (Brockett, 2006).
From the above-mentioned ideas, it can be inferred that SDL has recently become one of the best ways of adapting to the current changes,
including the explosion of knowledge, as it can help learners to respond

E-mail address:
0260-6917/ 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

in a manner that achieves their individual subjectivity and positivity

and enable them to deal with the effects and consequences of
such changes effectively. Nowadays, the urgent need to enhance selfdirected learning readiness (SDLR) in adult education is widely recognized (Cohen, 2012).
As can be observed, modern learning approaches incorporate more
SDL activities and fewer structured learning tasks (Stewart, 2007).
However, SDL has become a practical approach that copes with modern
educational trends and is consistent with the economics of education
and saves time, effort, and money. SDL is more convenient for the nature
of the learning process because of the intrinsic nature of learning and its
dependence on positive learners' participation in this process, which
ultimately helps learners acquire expertise, modify their behavior, and
affect their personalities.
Over the past two decades, the strong connection between the learning mode, multiple intelligence, learners' personalities, and self-directed
learning (SDL) has received much attention in adult education research
(Donaghy, 2005). However, there has recently emerged a trend in this
area of research, which mainly focuses on the development of models


K.N. Alotaibi / Nurse Education Today 36 (2016) 249254

that explain the meaning and the context of SDL. Three parameters have
been taken into consideration by researchers to re-structure their works
and create an SDL theory. According to Roberson (2005), these parameters are (Shiong et al., 2009: 82):
i. an individual learner's dispositions and activities characterizing
self-directed approaches,
ii. a relevant cultural context or educational philosophy, and
iii. the social, historical, and educative conditions inuencing SDL.

The theoretical discussion and empirical ndings suggest that SDL

should be examined within the context of both learning environments
and individual learners' differences (Francis and Flanigan, 2012). The
current study addresses that suggestion by examining the effect of
SDL on students' academic performance using Saudi Nursing College
students as a unit of analysis. This study does not only concentrate on
the relationship between SDL and academic performance but also
focuses on the linking mechanisms, namely, the learning environment
as a mediating variable in this relationship.

Theoretical Framework and Hypothesis

Success in any task is based on a combination of willingness, selfregulation, and the ability to seize the right opportunities. SDL is the
way in which individuals acquire new knowledge, ideas, skills, attitudes,
and experience. It also includes a set of personal characteristics and specific skills. Knowles (1975) denes SDL broadly as a process in which individuals take the initiative, with, or without the help of others, to diagnose
their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for
learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning
outcomes (p. 18). Other authors dene SDL as a personal trait through
which learners' initiative ability and willingness to take control over an
SDL process is essential (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999; Candy, 1991).
Many researchers and authors in the eld of SDL try to conceptualise
this process by generating a set of models. These conceptual models fall
into three categories (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999):
1. Linear models: describe SDL as a series of steps through which
learners move (e.g., Knowles's (1975) Model).
2. Interactive models: suggest that learners' characteristics and instructional process interact to form episodes of SDL (e.g., Personal Responsibility Orientation Model (Brockett and Hiemstra, 1991)).
3. Instructional models: suggest that instructors in formal settings integrate self-directed methods of learning into their programs and
activities to encourage students to become independent and selfdirected learners (e.g., Grow's (1991), and Hammond and Collin's
(1991) model).
However, it is wrong to believe that learners are inherently selfmentors because SDL is a complex process that requires learners to
take the initiative and think about the needs and goals of learning in
order to improve their performance. In order to achieve the learning
goals, learners have to take into account the learning path that incorporates many different tasks. Accordingly, learners will diagnose and
identify new learning needs and formulate new goals for learning
(Jossberger et al., 2010). The extent to which learners possess the tendencies, abilities, and personality traits necessary for SDL is represented
by their SDLR (Fisher and King, 2010). Moreover, students' psychological
characteristics inuence directly the degree to which they demonstrate
SDLR. These characteristics include (1) proactiveness, independence,
and perseverance in learning; (2) acceptance of individual responsibility
for learning; (3) self-discipline; (4) a high degree of curiosity; (5) a great
ability to learn independently; (6) enjoyment of learning; (7) the tendency to be goal-oriented; and (8) the tendency to see problems as challenges, not obstacles (Lounsbury et al., 2009). In addition, social and

demographic considerations have indirect effects on SDLR (Oliveira

and Simoes, 2006).
Developing SDLR is a major priority for health professional education, including nurses and workers in the eld of medical emergency
services. Therefore, it is very important to develop awareness to implement appropriate and effective strategies for SDL in university education which promotes lifelong learning (Cadorin et al., 2013). For the
purpose of measuring the level of students' SDLR, Fisher et al. (2001)
developed an instrument for undergraduate nursing education. This instrument helps nursing educators diagnose students' attitudes, abilities,
and personality traits necessary for SDL. It consists of 40 items grouped
under three subscales, namely, self-management, desire for learning,
and self-control in relation to learning (Yuan et al., 2012; El-Gilany
and Abusaad, 2012; Williams and Brown, 2013).
To facilitate SDLR, Candy (1991) assumed that there was a strong
link between SDL as a method and SDL as an outcome. He suggested
that instructional processes such as using appropriate teaching methods
may enhance learners' autonomy and ability to handle and manage an
SDL process. It is worth mentioning that the effectiveness of various
teaching methods and approaches has been the main focus of empirical
nursing research on SDL (See, Wiley, 1983; Kang, 2002). However, until
now, there has been limited empirical evidence that supports the impact of such effectiveness on students' readiness for SDL.
A review of many previous studies shows the superiority of SDL to
the traditional learning methods in both students' academic performance (GPA) and the development of positive attitudes toward the
learning process (Hsu and Shiue, 2005; Stewart, 2007; Hudson and
Ramamoorthy, 2009; Williams and Brown, 2013). In the light of such
ndings, we put forward the following hypothesis:
H1. Students' SDLR level is positively related to students' academic
performance (GPA).
However, some empirical ndings indicate that the relationship between students' SDLR level and their academic performance (GPA) is
hard to recognize. For example, in their studies, Doherty (2000) and ElGilany and Abusaad (2012) found that there was no strong relationship
between students' SDLR and their academic performance. Thus, they
suggested that students' perception of the interactions between them
and the faculty member was one of the various factors in their success.
In the same vein, Reio and Davis (2005) believed that contextual
factors might inuence the relationship between students' SDLR and
their academic performance. They suggested that SDLR was a personal
trait that interacted with the situational variables such as the emotional
state of the individual which would stimulate behaviors related to SDL.
Accordingly, the emotional state mediates the relationship between
SDLR and students' performance in the classroom.
Furthermore, Nolan and Nolan (1997) argued that students' perception of an open learning environment, the exibility of learning
methods and control over the learning process are essential factors in
students' SDLR. According to Reio and Davis (2005), if the individual is
willing to integrate into SDL, the expression of this willingness may
diminish depending on the situation as a result of environmental constraints, such as lack of experience in the subject, anxiety, lack of motivation, and a preference for cognitive learning styles.
Recently, theories and empirical works have based their arguments on
students' perception of, and experience with, SDL in higher education, especially nursing education programs. Hewitt-Taylor's (2002) nding indicated that the gap in understanding SDL between nursing students and
teachers can impede the development of students' self-directed learning.
In the same vein, Lunyk-Child et al. (2001) found that uncertainty and
confusion between Canadian nurse educators and students when SDL
related-learning activities were implemented in the university might
impede the process of SDL. However, students' frustration and confusion
in the process of SDL can be managed by taking into consideration the
learning environment, including people, resources, assessment, time, etc.

K.N. Alotaibi / Nurse Education Today 36 (2016) 249254

Independent Variable
SDL Readiness
2-Desire to learn

Moderating Variable


Dependent Variable
Students' Academic

Students' Perception of the

Learning Environment

Fig. 1. Conceptual framework of the present study.

Research ndings support the existence of a relationship between

students' perceptions of their learning environment and their learning
approaches and outcomes (e.g., Lizzio et al., 2002; Ramsden, 2003;
Byrne and Flood, 2005). Ramsden (1991) identied ve factors
(domains) in the learning environment which students perceived to
be conducive to their learning and academic performance and other
outcomes: clear goals and standards, good teaching, appropriate assessment, appropriate workload, and emphasis on independence. In his
study, Ramsden (1991) developed the Course Experience Questionnaire
(CEQ), which incorporates these ve domains and which has been used
by various researchers to measure students' perceptions of their learning
The main conclusion one can draw from reviewing the literature is
that although the issue of SDLR and its link to students' academic performance has been exhaustively examined, research has failed to consistently support this link. Therefore, the present study suggests that
contextual factors, including the learning environment, are associated
with the link between students' SDLR and their academic performance.
Although the review of the literature did not locate any empirical
studies of higher education, which closely examined the learning environment as a moderating factor between SDLR and academic performance, we put forward the second hypothesis as follows:
H2. Students' perception of the learning environment mediates the relationship between students' SDLR and their academic performance.
The conceptual framework of the present study is presented in Fig. 1

Population and Methods
This study is cross sectional and descriptive in nature. Its target
population consisted of all nal-year undergraduate students at the
Nursing Department and Emergency Medical Services College of
Faculty of Applied Medical Sciences of King Saud University in Saudi
Arabia during the month of May 2014. These students are required to
complete a total of 3-year education after passing the preparatory
year, and they have to pass 1-year internship before holding the graduation certicate. The sample group included all nursing students in the
selected population. The questionnaire was distributed among the 167
registered students and collected during the class time. A total of 142
completed questionnaires were returned (response rate = 93.2%) and

Instrument Selection
Based on the conceptual framework of this study, some validated
instruments were found to be suitable for measuring the proposed
variables (factors). A questionnaire was designed in English (the formal
language of instruction) and included demographic data (age and
gender), academic performance in terms of students' GPA, students'
Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS), and Course Experience
Questionnaire (CEQ).

Students' Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale (SDLRS)

This instrument was developed by Fisher et al. (2001) for undergraduate nursing education to assist nursing educators in diagnosing
students' attitudes, abilities, and personality traits necessary for SDL. It
consisted of 40 items grouped under three subscales, namely, (a) selfmanagement which had to do with the ability to manage one's own
learning (13 items), (b) the desire to learn (12 items), and (c) selfcontrol or being in control of one's own learning (15 items). Students
responded using a 5-point Likert scale that ranged from 5 (strongly
agree) to 1 (strongly disagree), and the validity and the reliability of
the SDLRS were found to be acceptable in a variety of samples (see
Yuan et al., 2012; El-Gilany and Abusaad, 2012; Williams and Brown,
2013). In the present study, SDLRS showed acceptable testretest reliability (rinstrument = 0.77; rself-management = 0.89; rthe desire to learn =
0.78; rself-control of one's own learning = 0.72) and adequate internal reliability (instrument =0.88; self-management = 0.85; the desire to learn = 0.88;
self-control of one's own learning = 0.86).
Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ)
This instrument was developed by Ramsden (1991) to measure
students' perceptions of their learning environment. It contains 30
items with ve domains (subscales). These domains are (a) good
teaching, (b) clear goals and standards, (c) appropriate assessment,
(d) appropriate workload, and (e) emphasis on independence. The
scale is scored on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). CEQ's coefcient alpha values from the studies of Ramsden (1991) and Wilson et al. (1997) indicated acceptable
range from (0.77) to (0.80), and their explantaory and factor anlayses
showed high validity indicators. In the present study, CEQ showed acceptable testretest reliability (r = 0.74), and adequate internal reliability ( = 0.0.86).
Demographic factors such as students' age and gender, which could
affect SDLR, were included as control variables.
Statistical Analysis
A two-step procedure consisting of a conrmatory factor analysis
(CFA) and structural equation modelling (SEM) was used and AMOS
software tested the hypotheses.
a. Step 1: The CFA was carried out to check that the ve variables used
in this study were fairly distinctive (3 factors of SDLR, Students'
Perceptions of the Learning Environment (SPLE), and Students'
Academic Performance (GPA)). Toward this end, a 5-factor model,

Table 1
Conrmatory factor analysis (CFA) for the present study.






5-factor model
3-factor model
2-factor model
1-factor model








Note. Number of respondents = 243, 2 = chi-square, df = degrees of freedom, 2 =

chi-square difference, df = degrees of freedom difference.
p b 0.001.


K.N. Alotaibi / Nurse Education Today 36 (2016) 249254

Table 2
Descriptive statistics, Cronbach's coefcient alpha, and zero-order correlations.





Desire to learn
Students' perceptions of the learning
Students' academic performance (GPA)














Note. The values in bold are Cronbach's coefcient alpha reliabilities.

s b 0.001.

a 3-factor model, a 2-factor model, and a 1-factor model were used

and compared to test the variables of the study. The ve variables
were regarded as ve factors in a 5-factor model. In addition, SDLR,
SPLE, and GPA were treated as three factors in the 3-factor model.
SDLR was treated as one factor, and SPLE and GPA were processed
as another in the 2-factor model. Besides, all three variables were
treated as one factor in the 1-factor model. A chi-square difference
test was used to compare the integrated models with the proposed
5-factor model.
b. Step 2: To test the mediating effect of SPLE, the researcher used a
model comparison procedure to evaluate the structural models.
Moreover, the study followed techniques recommended by Baron
and Kenny (1986) who suggested four conditions for testing the mediator. These conditions are as follows: (a) the independent variable
is signicantly related to the dependent variable; (b) the independent variable is signicantly related to the mediator; (c) the mediator is signicantly related to the dependent variable; and (d) the
independent variable has no signicant effect on the dependent
variable when the mediator is held constant (full mediation) or the
signicant level should become smaller (partial mediation) (Tan,
2008). The model of mediation was checked after adding one path
from SDLR to students' GPA, and the fth model was measured
after adding all three paths from SDLR to students' GPA. These four
models were compared to the current study model of full mediation
to examine the fourth condition of mediation and determine the
most suitable model. In SEM, a comparison of the proposed model
and the anticipated path model acts as a test of the signicance of
the estimated parameters (Bentler and Bonett, 1980; Tan, 2008).
Finally, the researcher drew a comparison between the chi-square
differences and goodness-of-t indices.

According to Hu and Bentler (1999), the recommended score of the
TuckerLewis index (TLI), which is greater than or equal to 0.96, the
comparative t index (CFI), which is greater than or equal to 0.96, and
the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), which is less
than or equal to 0.06, prove that the proposed model of mediation is
the most suitable one. As Table 1 shows, the signicant difference in

chi-squares and the goodness-of-t indices at an acceptable level

conrmed that the 5-factor model was a suitable model. [2(151) =
675.15, p b 0.001; TLI = 0.97; CFI = 0.96; RMSEA = 0.05]. All the factors
examined in this study are individually assessed.
Table 2 includes the means, the standard deviations, Cronbach's
alphas, and correlations for all the variables of the study. As the table
clearly shows, the reliability scores were above 0.70, which forms an
acceptable consistency across the items.
Fig. 2 includes the results of a multiple regression analysis for testing
study Hypothesis 1 (H1). As the gure clearly shows, the variables of
SDLR are positively related to GPA as proposed in (H1).
To test the mediation effect of the students' perceptions of their
learning environment (SPLE) on the relationship between SDLR and
GPA as proposed in Hypothesis 2 (H2) of the present study, the researcher used a maximum likelihood parameter with AMOS. He also
conducted a number of chi-square tests and drew comparisons to
prove that the proposed model is the a priori model. Fig. 3 shows the
most suitable model which takes into account SPLE as a path in the previous model (5-Factor Model).
The results presented in Fig. 3 showed that SPLE fully mediates
self-manangement, desire for learning, self-control, and GPA. Therefore,
Hypothesis 2 (H2) of the present study is conrmed.
The present study explored the relationship between SDLR and
students' academic performance (GPA) and found that students' perceptions of their learning environment acted as a mediator in this relationship in contemporary programs on nursing and emergency medical
services at the level of higher education. The present study nding provided some support for students' perceptions of their learning environment, which was found to play a moderating role in the relationship
between SDLR and students' academic performance as proposed in
the hypotheses.
The results showed that the SDLR level inuenced students' academic
performance positively. This nding agrees with many previous studies
conducted for this purpose (e.g., Hsu and Shiue, 2005; Stewart, 2007;
Hudson and Ramamoorthy, 2009; Williams and Brown, 2013). However,
compared to other studies on SDLR, the results showed that all domains
of SDLR (self-management, desire for learning, and self-control or being

Self management
Desire to learn


Students' Academic Performance


**p < 0.001.

Fig. 2. Regression results of SDLR on GPA.

K.N. Alotaibi / Nurse Education Today 36 (2016) 249254



Desire to learn

Perceptions of
the Learning




**p < 0.001.

Fig. 3. Most suitable model and results of parameters for Hypothesis 2.

in control of one's own learning) are more instrumental in adding value

to the learning process.
With regard to the role of a mediator, SPLE fully mediates selfmanangement, desire for learning, self-control, and students' GPA.
This nding shows that students majoring in nursing and emergency
medical services who are looking for SDL in their institutions are likely
to have higher academic performance when they percieve that their
learning environment is productive and healthy in terms of good teaching, clear goals and standards, appropriate assessement, appropriate
workload, and emphasis on independence. This result indicates that
students' perceptions of their learning environment plays a signicant
role in determing their level of SDLR and academic performance. The
ndings reveal that the reduction in students' SDLR could be due to the
lack of a supportive learning environment, and this provides us with a
conceptual understanding of how students' SDLR may develop. By calling
for an integrative and supportive learning environment in terms of educational policies and practices, this paper conrms the strong relationship between SDLR and GPA via SPLE. The observation suggests that
the level of SDLR and students' success are interrelated and seem to be
mutually supportive in terms of the learning enviroment. The success
of higher education institutions in promoting their students' SDL capabilities mainly depends on creating a suitable learning environment that
meets the students' current and future learning needs.
Finally, these ndings may help nursing and emergency medical
services educators to realize the importance of learning environments
to the development and promotion of SDL skills, and the change of
students' perceptions of the learning environment may further contribute
to the development of students' SDLR.
It can safely be stated that the ndings of this study support its
theoretical framework. In addition, they raise some important issues
for future research as they suggest that SDLR is an important factor in
enhancing students' academic performance, and that students' perceptions of the learning environment enhance their efforts to adapt to SDL.
Future endeavors using different antecedents could provide conrmation for the present ndings on the role of some contexual factors in
SDL settings. In addition, this study takes students' GPA as an indicator
of their academic performance, which in return has some limitations.
However, future studies should seek to include other students' academic
indicators for more validity and reliability. Finally, qualitative methods
such as interviewing students and educators could also provide a profound understanding of the empirical ndings of SDLR research.
The increasing learning obligations presented by external economic
and technological pressures have forced students to go into the process
of SDL. More importantly, students in nursing and emergency medical
services programs are often confronted with new learning experiences,

which are entirely different from traditional types of learning. Thus,

promoting a learning environment that encourages students to be
self-learners has become an essential issue within a new learning context. The present study provides signicant ndings for nursing and
emergency medical services educators who should be aware of some elements of a learning environment that may foil their efforts to sharpen
their students' skills in SDL. The most important elements that should be
taken into consideration when designing an effective learning environment are good teaching methods, clear objectives and standards, suitable assessment, proper workload, and focus on independence.

The author extends his appreciation to the Deanship of Scientic
Research at King Saud University for funding this work through research
project number 008.

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