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Nudging strategic processing research forward

This chapter has touched on avenues by which person-centered approaches have and have yet to be utilized by strategic processing researchers. Examining how theory, validated by variable-centered research, is expressed by distinct subgroups is an example of an exploratory application (e.g., Prosser et al., 2003). Comparing students’ experiences in distinct learning contexts (e.g., two courses at university; Alexander et al., 1995), and retesting cross-theoretical connections suggested by past variable-centered analyses (Fryer et al., 2016) are two more practical uses of cross-sectional research designs.

Person-centered longitudinal studies are much less common but have considerable potential for contribution to our understanding of strategic processing theory and its application to different populations (and subpopulations) across time. In its simplest form, they can track both subgroup membership and profile stability across time, thereby suggesting a pattern of population change (Fryer, 2017b). Findings from these studies derive their strength from the categorical nature (i.e., membership and potential movement between subgroups) focusing on distinct individuals, and vulnerable subpopulations can yield results that speak to popular readership and, potentially, policymakers. Longitudinal person-centered studies can, like cross-sectional studies, be conducted to supplement and support variable-centered findings (Fryer & Ain-ley, 2019). However, they can also provide a more dynamic and fine-grained perspective on longitudinal variable-centered studies, which might be lost in a focus on the average student experience (Fryer & Bovee, 2018). It is possible to examine not just the separate subgroups at different time points but also the movers (students moving between one subgroup and another over time). Results from this kind of targeted examination might support theory confirmation and building regarding how (as well as whether) students’ strategies meaningfully develop. Extensions to this kind of study might include regression as part of the analysis (rather than as an ad hoc addition) to resolve important questions. First the outcomes of membership to a specific group might be assessed and perhaps more interestingly the movement between groups can also be predicted (Morin et al., 2017; Muthen & Muthen, 1998-2015).

Looking to the future and where strategic processing research must go if it is to continue to develop, the gaps and overlaps of our theories are an area in need of attention. This issue has been raised in a recent special issue (Dinsmore & Fryer, 2018) seeking to bring together metacognitive and cognitive strategy research. Unfortunately, it was chiefly in the commentaries for this special issue that these strategies were meaningfully addressed together. Part of the reason for this might be that the special issue was dominated by variable-centered studies in which, due in part to their analytical approach, most contributors applied a single theory to their chosen questions. Per-son-centered and, in some cases qualitative (See Cho et al., this volume), studies are analytical tools that are in many ways better situated to support potential theoretical integration. Cross-sectional snapshots of how strategies might come together will certainly be useful to researchers interested in contributing to this area. Longitudinal studies, across time and context, are crucial for seeing how individuals apply different strategies concurrently and sequentially. Longitudinal studies will provide perspective on how individuals’ strategy use develops, and to the strategy use that signals that development. Again, crucially, the categorical nature of change within longitudinal person-centered studies is both a strength and a weakness. Used in combination with variable-centered analysis like latent curve analysis, however, its weakness is less apparent.

In conclusion, person-centered analyses are a mature area of analysis that is under-exploited by strategic processing researchers. Their potential as a means of support and extension for variable-centered studies, which continue to dominate strategic processing research, has barely been tapped. The most promising uses for some of these analytical techniques have yet to even be considered by strategic processing researchers. A new generation of researchers coming to the field of strategic processing, unbound by loyalty to one or other theory, however, will (I hope) see their potential for the theoretical extension and integration that needs to come.

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