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Situating person-centered analyses within quantitative approaches to researching cognitive strategies

Strategic processing is a complex field further complicated by its assortment of isolated theories, each seeking to describe similar cognitive and meta-cognitive processes. There are practical reasons for the lack of interaction between strategic processing theories. The chief of these pragmatics is the way programs of research develop and are then handed down from supervisor to student, generation to generation. Another reason and one this chapter will return to, is that the dominant approach to research design and analysis has for some time been (and remains) variable-centered. As will be discussed later, variable-centered analyses lend themselves to testing hypothetical connections between variables, generally within one theoretical framework. Variablecentered studies depend on these established theoretical connections for both research design and resulting modelling/analysis. Person-centered approaches, while similarly drawing on strong theory for hypothesis development, also have a parallel interest in how a theory or multiple theories are actually expressed in a population. The additional, more recent area of investigation yields more space for cross-theory research.

Strategic processing researchers have an increasingly broad array of variablecentered approaches available to them. Early theories of strategic processing research often relied on difference testing and experimental research design (Craik & Tulving, 1975; Marton & Sàljô, 1976a, 1976b). In the more than four decades since these foundational theories were conceived, strategic processing researchers have moved from increasingly complex comparisons of means (e.g., Biggs, 1978; Gadzella, Ginther, & Williamson, 1986), to correlative-based analysis (e.g., Entwistle, 1989; Entwistle & Waterston, 1988) as more large-scale research was carried out in natural settings with surveys. The currents of variable-centered research since the late 1990s have been a slow increase in longitudinal research paired with increasingly complex analytical approaches. There has also been a steady shift towards diversifying the ways in which we collect data about how individuals strategically process information. Some of these include qualitative approaches such as think aloud (for some recent examples, see

Deekens, Greene, & Lobczowski, 2018; Dinsmore & Zoellner, 2018; Parkinson & Dinsmore, 2018) combined with modelling such as path analyses. They also include popular research technologies such as eye-tracking for reading experiences (Catrysse et al., 2018), click traces left from interacting with digital multimedia (Winne & Hadwin, 2013), and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) during tasks (Dinsmore, Hooper, & Macyczko, 2018).

Despite these advances, the field has been hindered from progressing analytically, relative to other areas of educational psychology, for several reasons. For some areas of strategic processing research, such as approaches to learning, context has been largely restricted to higher education. These smaller islands of research have resulted in a kind of Galapagos effect, with scant incoming and outgoing exchange of ideas. Other major strategic processing theories have faced similar growing problems, remaining fixed to specific groups of researchers.

Furthermore, due to the complex, ongoing processes under examination by strategic processing researchers, there is a growing agreement that survey-based self-reports alone are not a data source sufficient to continue to push the field forward (Dinsmore, 2017). This is a research tool that has dominated strategic processing for nearly four decades. Including alternative data sources (such as achievement data) for intensive analytical approaches such as Structural Equation Modelling (SEM) and latent growth analysis can be difficult.

Given the underdeveloped nature (analytically) of the field of strategic processing and pressure to move beyond surveys as the only means of assessing students’ strategic processing, our first question is: Where does person-centered research fit in and amongst this somewhat constrained variable-centered field (see Freed et al. this volume for a comprehensive overview of the variable-centered approaches)?

Person-centered and variable-centered approaches to analyses are “considered as complementary approaches, as both provide alternative views of the same reality” (Morin et al., 2017, p. 400). In some respects, person-centered approaches are less restrictive than many variable-centered approaches. Perhaps the most important example of this is that variable-centered approaches assume participants come from a single population and derive mean-based parameters from these participants for analysis. In contrast, person-centered approaches relax this assumption, and allow the possibility that a sample of participants might include subpopulations with different sets of parameters. This difference is particularly important for research with heterogenous samples, and in contexts where sensitive subgroups are the target.

One further critical difference is that person-centered analyses provide a means of examining the interactions among the many psychological and environmental components which are each integral to the research of something as complex as cognitive processing, e.g., the motivations and beliefs which propel (or impede) individuals as well as the affordances and constraints of learning environments. A person-centered approach to research design necessitates that research question framing diverges from standard correlational questions focusing on variables. Research questions need to focus on how variables are expressed together by an individual and groups of individuals and the differences between subgroups’ attributes (i.e., level and shape, which are explained in the next section). This is a shift in researching paradigm that needs to be considered prior to embarking on these methods.

The next section will review how person-centered research approaches have and are currently being applied. Examples of recent strategic processing and related research in the area of motivations and beliefs will be discussed along with directions for future research.

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