Comparing Career Development Outcomes Among Undergraduate Students in Cognitive Information Processing Theory-Based Versus Human Relations Courses.

Author:Osborn, Debra S.

The effectiveness of undergraduate career courses has been demonstrated for multiple variables, including career certainty, maturity, decision-making skills, and reduction of dysfunctional career thoughts. Although such studies used the career course as an intervention, most failed to include a comparison course, nor were grounded in career theory. This study used a comparison group of 152 undergraduates enrolled in career development courses and 50 students enrolled in undergraduate human relations courses. Pre- and posttest comparisons indicated that the career course yielded significant improvements in career decision state, cognitive information processing (CIP) skills, career decision-making stage, knowledge of next steps, and anxiety about current career concern, but the human relations course did not. The CIP-based career course is supported as a valid career intervention, and individuals may benefit from targeted interventions depending on their CASVE cycle position. Future research might compare different career theory-based or atheoretical career courses on career development outcomes.

Keywords: undergraduate career course, cognitive information processing theory, comparison study, empirical, career development


Career development (CD) courses have been recognized as integral to promoting effective career decision-making (Folsom, Peterson, Reardon, & Mann, 2005). However, CD courses alone are not enough because other courses could teach skills necessary to improve career decision-making. Because only a few studies have compared undergraduate CD courses with general academic courses (Cheung & Jin, 2016; Grier-Reed & Chahla, 2015; Hansen, Jackson, & Pedersen, 2017), more research is needed to support conclusions about the impact of CD courses on outcomes such as decision-making. Additionally, results of previous studies that did not use comparison groups remain speculative given that confounding variables might have been responsible for the observed changes. Many prior studies have also not been framed within a theoretical context. We address these issues by using a quasi-experimental control condition and a theory-based CD course to determine the impact of the course on select career outcomes.

Undergraduate CD Courses

Studies have supported the effectiveness of undergraduate CD courses in decreasing decision-making difficulties (Fouad, Cotter, & Kantamneni, 2009) and negative career thinking (Osborn, Howard, & Leierer, 2007), increasing career decision self-efficacy (Scott & Ciani, 2008) and graduation rates (Reardon, Melvin, McCain, Peterson, & Bowman, 2015), and creating positive changes in career-decision state and goal stability (Freeman, Lenz, & Reardon, 2017). Not all outcomes have been positive, however. For example, Grier-Reed and Skaar (2010) found no significant impact for career decidedness or career decision self-efficacy by the course's end.

A criticism of CD course studies is the lack of a control group. Two studies (Grier-Reed & Chahla, 2015; Hansen et al., 2017) that used a comparison group focused primarily on academic outcomes, finding that a CD course did not have a significant impact. Cheung and Jin (2016) found positive gains for CD course students on self-exploration, environment exploration, decidedness, and career decision-making confidence, as compared with those in academic courses; however, this study was conducted in Hong Kong and has limited generalizability. Reese and Miller (2006) found that CD course students experienced increases in overall career decision self-efficacy by obtaining occupational information, developing career goals, and engaging in career planning. However, a weakness of the study was its small, homogeneous sample, especially given the types and number of analyses run. Despite these weaknesses, the positive impact of career courses seems clear. Nevertheless, most CD course studies have not based the curriculum on a theoretical model.

A Cognitive Information Processing Theory-Based Course

CD course effectiveness is determined by the use of evidence-based interventions supported through theory (Whiston & James, 2013). Grounding an undergraduate CD course in career theory results in positive outcomes, such as improved decision-making and reduced negative career thoughts (Reardon & Lenz, 2018). In the present study, cognitive information processing (CIP) theory (Sampson, Reardon, Peterson, & Lenz, 2004) was used to develop such a theory-based course. According to CIP theory, four components are essential for making effective career decisions: (a) self-knowledge, (b) options knowledge, (c) decision-making skills (i.e., progression through the CASVE cycle), and (d) an executive processing domain that houses metacognitive processes of how one thinks about one's career decision and the other areas (i.e., self-knowledge, options knowledge, and decision-making skills).

The CASVE cycle is a decision-making model. CAS stages occur earlier in decision-making and include communication (i.e., being aware of a gap via internal or external pressures), analysis (i.e., understanding how self and options relate), and synthesis (i.e., generating and narrowing a list of options). Latter stages (VEC) include valuing (i.e., narrowing and prioritizing options), execution (i.e., trying the prioritized option), and communication-revisited (i.e., reexamining the gap).

The four components of the pyramid of information processing (i.e., self-knowledge, options knowledge, decision-making skills, and dysfunctional career thinking) are hypothesized to be correlated. Specifically, the first three components are hypothesized to be positively correlated with each other, whereas dysfunctional career thoughts are thought to be inversely correlated with the other components. CIP theory has been used in over 180 empirical studies (Sampson, Reardon, Peterson, & Lenz, 2019) and has been credited as the theory with "probably the most widely studied career interventions" (Brown, 2015, p. 62). Much research has focused on dysfunctional career thinking (e.g., Bullock-Yowell, Peterson, Reardon, Leierer, & Reed, 2011; Leierer, Wilde, Peterson, & Reardon, 2016), consistently showing negative effects on variables such as career decidedness and life stress (Bullock-Yowell et al., 2011), career decision state (Leierer et al., 2016), depression (Dieringer, Lenz, Hayden, & Peterson, 2017), and neuroticism (Kelly & Shin, 2009). Still, validation of the relationships among these four components and their impact on an individual's career decision-making abilities is needed.

Career Decision State

Related to CIP theory is the construct of career decision state, defined as "a person's state of being or consciousness during career problem solving and decision making" (Leierer, Peterson, Reardon, & Osborn, 2017, p. 3). Career decision state comprises certainty, clarity, and satisfaction; relates especially to the communication stage of the CASVE cycle (Leierer et al., 2017); and correlates negatively with dysfunctional career thinking (Leierer et al., 2016) and neuroticism (Bullock-Yowell et al., 2011). Because one of the goals of CIP theory is to assist individuals in making a career decision, knowledge of changes in a person's career decision state after a career intervention is desirable.

Twenty-six empirical studies on the CIP-based CD course used in the present study have identified positive career outcomes (Reardon & Lenz, 2018); however, none used a comparison course. In addition, none included any measure of skills within the CIP pyramid of information processing domains, nor their placement within the CASVE cycle. Miller, Osborn, Sampson, Peterson, and Reardon (2018) found that career decision state scores improved after an undergraduate career course. In addition, Osborn, Hayden, Peterson, and Sampson (2016) demonstrated that a CIP-based career intervention (i.e., drop-in career advising) affects individuals' knowledge and confidence in next steps as well as their anxiety regarding their current career concern. However, these variables have yet to be examined as potential outcomes for a CD course.

Purpose of the Study

We examined the effect of an undergraduate CIP-based CD course on career-related outcome variables as compared with an undergraduate human relations (HR) course using a quasi-experimental pre-post design. We sought to determine the effects of the CIP-based course on students' career decision state, self-assessed CIP information processing skills, placement within the CASVE cycle, knowledge of and confidence in next steps, and anxiety about their career decision as compared with individuals in the HR course. We chose the HR course because we aimed to have the samples match to the highest degree possible to allow us to test the CD course as an intervention.

Historically, both courses are taught in the same department by graduate students, have similar enrollment patterns (freshmen to...

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