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An Examination of Demographic Differences in Decision-Making Among Adolescents Participating in a Community-Based Service-Learning Project

 

Janet Fox
4-H Youth and Family Development
Louisiana State University

Melissa Cater
LSU AgCenter
Louisiana State University

Joni Nunnery Shreve
Information Systems and Decision Sciences
Louisiana State University

Kimberly Y. Jones
4-H Youth and Family Development

Abstract

Researchers have embraced service-learning as a key strategy for responsible decision-making that is imperative for adolescent cognitive development. This study examines the demographic differences in decision-making among early and middle adolescents who have participated in a community-based service-learning project.  Overall, the respondents indicated that they gained decision-making skills as a result of service-learning.  All demographic categories (gender, age, race, and residence) had highest agreement with the decision-making item “look at different ways to solve problems.”  In contrast, with the exception of rural youth, all demographic categories had lowest agreement on “list my options before making a decision.”  Females scored higher than males on all decision-making measures.  Among all items, there were more differences between early and middle adolescents than any other demographic variable.  High quality service-learning experiences provide a concrete platform for a multitude of real world decision-making opportunities. 

Keywords

Service, learning, decision, making, youth, adolescence, community, demographic, gender, ethnic background, residence

 Introduction

Decision-making is a cognitive process of choosing a path of action in response to potential alternatives after examining possible consequences of each alternative (Beyth-Marom and others 1991; Nelson 1984; von Winterfeldt and Edwards 1986).  Reasoning skills refer to the explicit cognitive abilities, some of which include probability evaluation, and abstract thinking employed in the decision-making process (Fischhoff, Crowell, and Kipke 1999).

According toCaskey and Anfara (2007), infancy to early adolescence is a time of exuberant brain synapse development. Gislason (2011) reported cortical thickness in the brain increases during childhood followed by cerebral cortex thinning during adolescence. As the cortex of the brain thins, the underlying myelin content of the white matter increases. This "pruning" of cells is a crucial development that helps retain and enhance critical cognitive function.  In point, the cells and connections that are utilized endure while those cells and connections that are not used expire. Successful pruning increases brain efficiency and that superior intelligence correlates with an initial accelerated, prolonged phase of cortical increase in children followed by equally vigorous cortical thinning by early adolescence (National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH] 2011).     Mann, Harmoni, and Power (1989) found that many youth who have reached age 15 have achieved a reasonable level of decision-making proficiency. However, adolescents do not always apply sound decision-making skills to all decisions, especially when confronted with conflict or stressful circumstances. This may be explained by the mounting evidence that the negative emotional responses and lack of impulse control evidenced by adolescents are affected by the changes in the brain circuitry, their age, and every-day experiences like sleep deprivation (Beebe et al. 2008; NIMH 2011; O’Brien 2009; O’Brien and Gozal 2004). The complexity of the interaction of brain development and decision-making quality is further explained by research showing that adolescents and adults use different parts of the brain to make decisions, especially when faced with emotional situations or situations requiring impulse control. Teens are more likely to use the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, to make decisions, particularly in emotionally intense situations, while adults are more apt to use the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center for planning, reasoning, and problem solving (Hare et al. 2008). This differential processing occurs because the limbic system matures earlier than the prefrontal cortex.

Previous research indicated that gender as a predictor of risk taking did not reveal itself in a straightforward nor stable manner but instead varied across age and context (Byrnes, Miller, and Schafer, 1999). Other research showed gender differences in risk preference with males showing greater inclination than females (Gardner and Steinberg   2005). Likewise, studies of racial differences indicated no consistently universal predilection for risk preference, risky behaviors, or risk-taking. In fact, results were similar to the findings for gender in that age and context interacted with race as predicators (Blum and others 2000). Yet in these and in most studies the focus has been on risk-taking, risky behaviors, and risk preference. There were no studies considering these factors from a positive youth development standpoint.

In this rapidly changing world, youth need to be equipped with skills to guide them as they make sound decisions.  Making sound decisions not only assists youth in resisting pressure to engage in risky behaviors, but also fosters social skills and social awareness, and encourages them to think about consequences, decide on goals, and understand their own and others' feelings (Elias and Tobias 1990; Mince Moyer and Perkins 2003).   In addition, young people make lifestyle and career choices that will impact their future and the future of society. 

Researchers have embraced service-learning as a key strategy to assist youth in developing critical decision-making skills (Elias 2004; Fredericks 2003).  Elias (2004) believed that “social emotional learning provides the skills while service-learning provides the opportunities to apply the skills” (p. 1).  According to Burns (1994) and Billig (2002), participation in meaningful service-learning is characterized by needs assessment, goal setting, planning, problem solving, and decision-making ultimately helping others.  One of the hallmarks of successful service-learning programs is that youth voice is incorporated and prevalent.  Youth voice and engagement in service-learning are important means to build skills such as decision-making and effect a constructive and positive change for society (Fox, Tarifa, and Machtmes 2008; Tarifa and others 2009).

Methodology

The purpose of the study was to determine if there were differences in the perception of decision-making ability among youth who participated in service-learning projects based on demographic characteristics. The independent variables to be examined for this study were the demographic categories of age, gender, ethnicity, and residence.  The dependent variable was perception of decision-making ability.  The population for the study was a census of youth who participated in local 4-H service-learning programs in a state in the southeastern region of the United States.

A survey was developed based on a review of literature regarding the perception of decision-making ability.  A panel of experts consisting of a vocational education faculty member, a parish youth development professional, a regional youth development program administrator, a program evaluator, and two state level youth development professionals assessed the instrument for content and face validity.  A Cronbach’s alpha was performed on the five-item decision-making scale yielding a reliability coefficient of .81.

The researchers administered the instrument via an on-line survey tool.  The local youth development professionals, who provided leadership and support to the service-learning projects, distributed the survey link to youth participants. The local youth development professionals received an electronic cover letter requesting their youths’ participation, which included instructions for completing the on-line survey.  Dillman’s (2000) electronic survey design and methodology was followed throughout data collection. 

Over the course of two years, the population of youth participating in the service-learning project was 1264.  A response rate of 64 percent was achieved with 810 usable surveys.  Participants completed the survey over a four month time period. Due to the nature of the distribution of the survey and the fact that the respondents were anonymous, accurate non-responder follow-up was not possible.   However, late responders were compared to early responders and no significant differences were found in their responses (Lindner, Murphy, and Briers 2001).

The majority of the respondents were female (65 percent) while 35 percent were male. Seventy-one percent of the respondents were white with the remaining 29 percent falling into the non-white category. Of the non-white category, 17 percent were African American and four percent each were Asian and Hispanic.  Three percent reported being mixed race.  Less than a percent reported being Arabic, Egyptian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Native Alaskan, and Native American. The largest age population (20 percent) of the respondents was 15 years old followed closely by 16 year olds (18 percent).  Fifteen percent of the respondent’s population was 14 while fourteen percent was 17 years old.  Nine percent of the respondents were 13 years old while four percent were 12 years old. 

Approximately a quarter of the respondents were from towns with a population under 10,000 (26 percent), rural, non-farm areas (25 percent) and  towns whose populations were between 10,000-50,000 people (24 percent).  Eighteen percent of the respondents were from rural farms while the fewest respondents (6 percent) were from cities and suburbs with a population over 50,000.

Findings

Respondents completed a five item inventory about the impact of service-learning on the development of decision-making.  Participants indicated their perceived development of decision-making as a result of the service-learning project using a five-point Likert-type scale (-2=strongly disagree, -1=disagree, 0=not applicable, 1=agree, 2=strongly agree).  Multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted to determine if there were differences in the decision-making abilities as a function of gender, age, race, and residence, respectively.

Decision-making by Gender

The results of the multivariate analysis of variance indicated that there were differences in decision-making abilities when comparing males and females (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9847, p=0.0292); however, while those differences are statistically significant, they are not practically significant.  Table 1 provides the sample size, means, and standard deviations for each of the items for both males and females.  On all five items, both males and females rated their overall decision-making abilities positively with means greater than zero.  Note that while the differences are not statistically significant, females rated their overall decision-making ability slightly higher than males.  Males and females both had the highest mean for “think about what might happen because of my decisions” and the lowest mean on “list options before making a decision.”  

Table 1.  Decision-making- by Gender

[Table 1 Summary: Summary for Table 1 goes here.]

The results of the multivariate analysis of variance indicated that there were differences in decision-making abilities when comparing males and females (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9847, p=0.0292); however, while those differences are statistically significant, they are not practically significant. 

Male

Female

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

List my options before making a decision.

290

1.00

.995

528

1.16

.902

Look at different ways to solve problems.

290

1.02

.924

526

1.37

.826

Think about what might happen because of my decision.

290

1.18

1.06

528

1.39

.905

Feel comfortable making decisions.

288

1.11

.990

527

1.23

.933

Evaluate decisions I have made.

290

1.10

.970

527

1.17

.967

Five-point Likert-type scale (-2=strongly disagree, -1=disagree, 0=not applicable, 1=agree, 2=strongly agree) 

Decision-making by Age

The results of analysis indicated that there were no significant differences in decision-making abilities when comparing the participants by age group (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9969, p=0.8395); Early and middle adolescents rated their decision-making abilities positively as indicated in Table 2 with highest ratings for the item “look at different ways to solve problems” and “think about what might happen because of my decision.”  For both groups, the items rated lowest were “list my options before making a decision” and “evaluate decisions I have made.”  

Table 2  Decision-making by Age

[Table 2 Summary: Summary for Table 2 goes here.]

When investigating white and non-white adolescents, the differences in their decision-making abilities are insignificant (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9917, p=0.2520).

12-14 years

15-17 years

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

List my options before making a decision.

233

1.07

.911

434

1.12

.097

Look at different ways to solve problems.

233

1.27

.844

433

1.34

.899

Think about what might happen because of my decision.

233

1.25

.983

434

1.33

.954

Feel comfortable making decisions.

233

1.18

.980

434

1.17

.980

Evaluate decisions I have made.

233

1.12

.927

433

1.13

1.01

Five-point Likert-type scale (-2=strongly disagree, -1=disagree, 0=not applicable, 1=agree, 2=strongly agree) 

Decision-making by Race

When investigating white and non-white adolescents, the differences in their decision-making abilities are insignificant (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9917, p=0.2520). In fact, the differences in means range from zero on “list my options before making a decision” to 0.17 on “feel comfortable making decisions” as seen in Table 3. Both white and non-white adolescents rated their decision-making abilities positively with the highest rating on “think about what might happen because of my decision.”  Both groups were in lowest agreement on “list my options before making a decision.”   

Table 3. Decision-making by Race

[Table 3 Summary: Summary for Table 3 goes here.]

As with gender, age, and race, the results of the analysis indicated that there were no significant differences in decision-making abilities when comparing the adolescents on their places of residence (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9941, p=0.5686).

Non-white

White

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

List my options before making a decision.

236

1.11

.922

571

1.11

.944

Look at different ways to solve problems.

236

1.38

.813

569

1.30

.855

Think about what might happen because of my decision.

235

1.44

.886

572

1.27

.993

Feel comfortable making decisions.

235

1.23

.876

569

1.17

.992

Evaluate decisions I have made.

236

1.19

.891

570

1.14

.989

Five-point Likert-type scale (-2=strongly disagree,-1=disagree, 0=not applicable, 1=agree, 2=strongly agree) 

Decision-making by Residence

As with gender, age, and race, the results of the analysis indicated that there were no significant differences in decision-making abilities when comparing the adolescents on their places of residence (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9941, p=0.5686). Adolescents from both urban and rural settings scored positively on their decision-making abilities, with the highest on “look at different ways to solve problems” followed by “think about what might happen because of my decisions.”  

Table 4. Decision-making by Residence

[Table 4 Summary: Summary for Table 4 goes here.]

The results of the analysis indicated that there were no significant differences in decision-making abilities when comparing the adolescents on their places of residence (Wilks’ Lambda = 0.9941, p=0.5686).

Urban

Rural

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

N

Mean

Standard Deviation

List my options before making a decision.

202

1.10

.969

459

1.15

.965

Look at different ways to solve problems.

202

1.38

.802

457

1.30

.920

Think about what might happen because of my decision.

202

1.25

1.06

459

1.25

.956

Feel comfortable making decisions.

201

1.22

.919

457

1.16

1.01

Evaluate decisions I have made.

201

1.18

.958

459

1.12

1.00

Five-point Likert-type scale (-2=strongly disagree, -1=disagree, 0=not applicable, 1=agree, 2=strongly agree) 

Limitations

While the service-learning program design for this study was intentionally supported by the service-learning cycle, the multi-site nature of the study could result in a lack of consistency.  Some influential factors might not have been controlled. It is reasonable to assume that the quality of the service-learning experience would influence its effect unless the quality is uniform across service-learning projects. Student traits such as academic preparation and prior experience such as leadership experience that coincides with the tenets of service-learning could potentially influence one’s decision-making ability.  Such data were not available for this study.

Discussion

In looking at the decision-making process within a service-learning project, all demographic categories (gender, age, race, and residence) had highest agreement with the item “look at different ways to solve problems.”  In contrast, early and middle adolescents, non-white and white adolescents, females, males, and urban youth had lowest agreement on “list my options before making a decision.” Rural youth had lowest scores on “evaluate decisions I made.” With the exception of rural youth, the study yielded homogeneous results pointing to the value of using service-learning to promote decision making among a wide range of demographic variables.    

When looking at differences between genders, females rated their overall decision-making ability higher on all items when compared to males. While not statistically significant, this finding provides a framework for guiding positive youth development program planning. Whereas previous research indicated variability in risk-taking and risky behaviors across age and context (Byrnes, Miller, and Schafer, 1999) and greater risk preference among males (Gardner and Steinberg, 1999), this study suggests there may be little difference between males and females in their perception of decision-making ability. Thus, program planners may use some common core components for building positive decision-making skills (i.e. service-learning programs) while providing individualized opportunities for reflection which accommodate gender differences.  

Among all items, there were more differences between early and middle adolescents than any other demographic variable. Early adolescents scored higher than middle adolescents on “feel comfortable making decisions.”  In the context of service-learning projects the findings from this study support those of Billig (2000) who found that younger children were more cognitively engaged than older students.  The students’ problem-solving abilities showed strong increases in cognitive complexity and other related aspects of problem solving. Youth development programs may find it easier to cognitively engage early adolescents, yet must give special attention to using different strategies for engaging middle adolescents. Middle adolescents had stronger agreement on “look at different ways to solve problems” and “think about what might happen because of my decision” than did early adolescents. This finding supports research by Mann, Harmoni, and Power (1989) who found that younger adolescents are less able to identify options, identify a range of risks and benefits, understand or predict the risks and benefits, and accurately assess the information received from sources that may have vested interests in the decision.  When it came to “thinking about what might happen because of my decision,” Kuther and Higgins-D’Alessandra (2000) found that service-learning allows adolescents to recognize and comprehend how their decisions affect others.  These decision-making processes mature with age and experience and are influenced by an adolescent's brain development and acquisition of knowledge (Gordon 1996).  Thus, more concrete adult-guided practice in forming ideas, selecting among alternatives, and creating a plan may be necessary when working with early adolescents.

Urban adolescents rated themselves higher on all decision-making measures than rural adolescents except on the following item: “think about what might happen because of my decision.”  This finding complements Boyd’s (2001) study which found that decision-making increased among inner city students who engaged in service-learning. Billig (2002) discovered that urban youth were more likely to view social or community problems as systemic rather than personal, become more action oriented in their solutions, create more solutions, and proceed with more rational solutions. Researchers found that students in a rural setting took a deeper, more analytic approach to the problem solving (Billig and Meyer, 2002; Billig, Meyer, and Hofschire, 2003). However, there was a fundamental lack of research when comparing decision-making skills between rural and urban adolescents’ decision-making skills in the context of service-learning.   

Non-white adolescents scored higher than white adolescents on all measures of decision-making except for “list my options before making a decision” which was the same mean score.  Researchers support the influence of an individual’s cultural background on the distinguishing ways of approaching information (Chi-Ching and Noi, 1994; Sternberg and Grigorenko 1997).  Brown 1987, Evans 2004, Lieberman 1994 and Powell and Andersen 1995 examined the approach to problem solving within the context of learning preferences.  Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans tend to utilize a field-dependent learning style where the events are perceived holistically with environmental variables taken into account.  This might explain why non-white adolescents scored higher on the decision making items of “”look at different ways to solve the problem,” “think about what might happen because of my decision,” and “evaluate decisions I have made.” A field-independent learning style where an analytical approach with background variables isolated is favored by Caucasian and Asian learners which would involve “listing the options before making a decision.”  

In reviewing the literature, beginning instruction in decision-making in early adolescence seems especially important.  Even when youth are prepared with information-processing decision-making skills, factors such as motivation, social, emotional, and developmental differences affect their decision-making ability (Jacobs and Ganzel 1993). In future studies, the role of emotions should be considered as a factor in adolescent decision-making. Adolescents often experience strong emotions that can affect decision-making.  Through service-learning experience, adolescents can be taught how to recognize the effects of their emotions on decision-making. Thus, adolescents who comprehend the decision-making process and think through a decision may rely less on emotion (Fischoff, Crowell, and Kipke 1999).

High quality service-learning experiences provide a concrete platform for a multitude of real world decision-making opportunities.  During the service-learning process, youth have the chance to have a voice in what is decided.  Youth examine a complex, community need as part of their service-learning project. Through a service-learning project, youth plan and prepare for the service, providing them with ample opportunity to explore options and make decisions. As youth monitor the progress of the service-learning project, they are provided with additional problem solving opportunities when barriers occur.  At the conclusion of the project, youth use critical thinking skills associated with decision-making to evaluate the project and apply their knowledge to new situations.  Throughout the service-learning process, youth are required to search for new information, exposing them to a variety of options.  Reflection helps adolescents promote critical thinking skills, avoid overestimating their capabilities, and recognize their own biases.   When done correctly, service-learning projects add a layer of experience to the development of decision-making skills, as these skills are not practiced in isolation.  Often times, consensus building coached by an experienced adult provides youth with a system of making well thought out decisions within a wide range of settings. Service-learning projects provide great avenues to practice and rehearse decision-making in a safe environment with adult coaching and peer input.

Conclusion

Service-learning did have a positive impact on adolescents’ decision-making skill development.  In this study, a statistical difference was found between males and females in their self-perceived decision-making skills within the context of a service-learning project, with females rating themselves higher in decision-making.  No other demographic variables including age, residence, and race showed statistically significant differences among the adolescents’ decision-making skills in the setting of a service-learning project.   Little is known about adolescents and their decision making skills in a positive youth development context such as service-learning.  These research findings help inform future research to examine the demographic differences and their implications more fully.

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http://www.ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2012/v17-n2-2012-summer-fall/index-v17-n2-december-2012.php

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