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«Significance of Epistemological Beliefs for Teaching and Learning Psychology: A Review Heather J. Green and Michelle Hood Behavioural Basis of Health ...»

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Significance of Epistemological Beliefs for Teaching and Learning Psychology:

A Review

Heather J. Green and Michelle Hood

Behavioural Basis of Health Program, Griffith Health Institute and School of Applied


Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia


Word Count: 3,937

Correspondence should be addressed to: Dr Heather Green, School of Applied

Psychology, Gold Coast campus, Griffith University Qld 4222, Australia Email: H.Green@griffith.edu.au; Phone +61 7 5552 9086; Fax: +61 7 5552 8291 Significance of Epistemological Beliefs 1 Author Biographies Heather J. Green PhD is a Lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia. A registered psychologist, she teaches clinical and health psychology. Her main disciplinary research interest is psychooncology and her main teaching interest is self-knowledge and skills development in students of professional training programs.

Michelle Hood PhD is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia. A registered psychologist, she teaches educational and developmental psychology. Her main disciplinary research interest is literacy and numeracy development and achievement motivation and her main teaching interest is in developing research methodology and statistics skills and knowledge of developmental psychology in undergraduate psychology.

Acknowledgements We would like to thank Dr Debra Bath, Prof John O’Gorman, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.

Significance of Epistemological Beliefs 2 Abstract Beliefs about the nature of knowledge, termed “epistemological beliefs”, are relevant to understanding educational strategies of both learners and teachers. Epistemological beliefs arguably have particular relevance in the discipline and profession of psychology, due to an emphasis on integration of knowledge from multiple theoretical perspectives. This article provides an overview of peer-reviewed literature in this area and suggests implications and directions for teaching and learning of psychology, with particular reference to the higher education context.

Key Words: Epistemology, Learning, Professional Education, Psychology, Review, Teaching Significance of Epistemological Beliefs 3 Significance of Epistemological Beliefs for Teaching and Learning

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Beliefs about the nature of knowledge influence learning and teaching (Bendixen & Rule, 2004). These “epistemological beliefs” (EB) can vary across individuals and disciplines (Hofer, 2001; Kaartinen-Koutaniemi & Lindblom-Ylänne, 2008). Despite their importance, to our knowledge, there is no previous published review of EB specific to teaching and learning psychology.

EB are arguably important to both academic and applied psychology.

Development of scientific reasoning skills has been recommended as a central goal of psychology education (Cranney et al., 2008; Halonen et al., 2003). Similarly, codes of ethics state that applying psychological knowledge requires awareness of the need for ongoing learning and limitations of existing knowledge (Australian Psychological Society, 2007). A critical perspective regarding new knowledge requires relatively sophisticated EB (Halonen et al., 2003). Therefore, for graduates to apply psychological knowledge ethically, technical skills need to be accompanied by skills for discovering, interpreting, and integrating relevant evidence, which involves welldeveloped EB.

Other terms for EB and related concepts include “personal epistemologies”, “epistemic beliefs”, “epistemic cognition”, and “epistemological resources”, among others (Elby & Hammer, 2001; Murphy, Alexander, Greene, & Hennessey, 2012).

The present review uses the term EB, for consistency. Concepts and measurement of EB will be discussed, followed by findings and recommendations regarding learning

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Concepts Perry’s pioneering research in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Perry, 1968) used annual interviews to show that university students’ conceptions of the nature of knowledge develop over time. Less experienced tertiary students are more likely to demonstrate dualist beliefs, whereby knowledge is viewed as absolute and the teacher’s role is to communicate that knowledge. In the next stage, multiplism, there is acknowledgement of multiple perspectives, but still the idea that there is a specific, yet undiscovered, truth. Later, relativism acknowledges that some viewpoints are better than others. The most sophisticated beliefs, commitment within relativism, involve making and evaluating flexibly held commitments to beliefs that incorporate personal values (Brownlee, Boulton-Lewis, & Purdie, 2002; Hofer, 2001). Later EB research, including children’s and adults’ education, has identified similar developmental stages, termed realist, absolutist, multiplist and evaluativist by Kuhn (2005; 2009).

For example, a student with dualist (or absolutist) EB might explain IQ score as “the way you measure intelligence”. Differing responses would be expected with multiplist EB, e.g., “one of the ways to measure intelligence”; relativist EB, e.g., “a measure of performance on a standardised test that is believed to reflect the construct of intelligence”, or commitment within relativism (evaluativist) EB, e.g., “a measure of performance on a standardised test that is believed to reflect current understanding of the construct of intelligence”. (A single response is not sufficient to identify EB;

these examples are offered as illustrations only.) Relatively few students reach the “highest” stages (Entwistle & Peterson, 2004; Kuhn, Cheney, & Weinstock, 2000). Also, students may return to “earlier”, less

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(Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Weinstock, Neuman, & Glassner, 2006). Affect, particularly anxiety, potentially plays a role in this regression (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997) as well as in other aspects of shifts in EB (Bendixen & Rule, 2004).

Perry’s higher categories overlap with “constructivist epistemology”.

Constructivism posits that individuals learn through experience, deriving meanings that are influenced by context and by their previous knowledge and viewpoints (Lea, Stephenson, & Troy, 2003; Muis, 2007). A constructivist approach to learning aligns with EB at the relativism or commitment within relativism stages, due to its emphasis on the importance of students’ experiences and perspectives in developing their knowledge. More generally, EB can be viewed as a “psychological approach to the philosophical field of epistemology” (Hofer, 2008, p. 5).

Alternative developmental models to Perry’s include Women’s Ways of Knowing, the Epistemological Reflection Model, and Reflective Judgment (Hofer, 2001). Despite a lack of consensus on one model (Bendixen & Rule, 2004), longitudinal research supports the usefulness of developmental models. For example, a review of longitudinal research on Reflective Judgment found that most individuals either maintained or progressed EB, with at most 16% displaying regressions (King & Kitchener, 2004). However, regressions are likely to be more frequent if students shift learning contexts (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997).

Developmental models of EB are complemented by models that address other aspects, such as motivation, affect, and dimensionality of beliefs. Regarding dimensions, reviewers have suggested that beliefs about what knowledge is (certainty and simplicity of knowledge) are distinct from beliefs about processes of knowing (source and justification of knowledge; Bendixen & Rule, 2004; Hofer & Pintrich,

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and complex rather than simple, would generally be viewed as more sophisticated EB (although see Elby & Hammer, 2001, for critique of “consensus” views of EB sophistication). Similarly, viewing the source of knowledge as “experts” would be considered less sophisticated than viewing the source as an array of evidence potentially varying in quality, support for or against a proposition, and replicability.

Structure of EB and boundaries with other constructs continue to be debated (Chinn, Buckland, & Samarapungavan, 2011), but reviews have consistently supported utility of EB for understanding and improving teaching and learning, due to associations between EB and both learning and motivation (Bendixen & Rule, 2004; Greene, Muis, & Pieschl, 2010; Hofer, 2001; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; King & Kitchener, 2004; Schommer-Aikins, 2004). Potential cultural differences in EB have also been explored (Braten, Gil, Stromso, & Vidal-Abarca, 2009; Khine, 2008).

Measurement EB measures vary with different models (e.g., see reviews by Braten et al., 2009; Buehl, 2008; Hofer, 2006; Limón, 2006). Many studies have used the Schommer Epistemological Questionnaire (EQ; Schommer, 1990) or have adapted it (Jehng, Johnson, & Anderson, 1993; Kardash & Wood, 2000; Schraw, Bendixen, & Dunkle, 2002). EQ factors of Simple Knowledge, Certain Knowledge, Innate Ability, and Quick Learning have fair internal consistency (e.g., Cronbach alphas between.54 to.76, Schommer-Aikins, 2004). Unfortunately, concerns about the theoretical basis, poor replicability of factors, and reliability of the EQ and related measures limit their usefulness (DeBacker, Crowson, Beesley, Thoma, & Hestevold, 2008). More recent written measures include the Connotative Aspects of EB (Stahl & Bromme, 2007) and

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Perry (1968) used interviews. A widely used format is the semi-structured Reflective Judgment Interview (King & Kitchener, 2004). The student is questioned about several controversial topics (e.g., the accuracy of news reporting). Questions include the student’s beliefs, their certainty about those beliefs, and how people including experts may disagree on this topic. Internal consistency is high (median Cronbach’s alphas around.80; King & Kitchener, 2004). A written adaptation of the Reflective Judgment Interview also has acceptable pre-post test reliability (Valanides & Angeli, 2005). There is to date no consensus on EB measurement and it is recommended to consider relevance for the intended purpose, as well as psychometric properties when selecting measures.

Domain Specificity: EB in Psychology versus Other Disciplines EB may be domain- or discipline-specific (Hofer, 2001; KaartinenKoutaniemi & Lindblom-Ylänne, 2008), although domain-general EB may co-exist (Muis, Bendixen, & Haerle, 2006). Domain-specificity has been examined by comparing students of different disciplines and by comparing students’ EB regarding knowledge domains. Paulsen and Wells (1998) assessed EB among 290 university students majoring in disciplines that were hard-soft (“hard” emphasising one specific paradigm; Biglan, 1973a) or pure-applied (“applied” emphasising applying subject matter to practical problems). Psychology is “soft” and “pure” (Biglan, 1973a, 1973b). As predicted, students from “soft” and “pure” disciplines had significantly more sophisticated EB than did students from “hard” or “applied” disciplines. For example, social sciences and humanities (soft and pure) students were less likely to have naïve beliefs in simple or certain knowledge than were engineering (hard and applied) or business (soft and applied) students. Karseth and Solbrekke (2006)

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were more likely to view their task as learning a single, “correct” legal method, whereas psychology students emphasised the importance of understanding multiple theoretical perspectives.

Longitudinal German research measured EB in final year high school (N=2,854) and second year university (N=1,495; Trautwein & Lüdtke, 2007). EB predicted students’ choice of discipline (self-selection hypothesis of EB-discipline associations) and changed in different ways depending on the discipline the student studied (socialisation hypothesis; Trautwein & Lüdtke, 2007). Specifically, high school certainty beliefs were highest among students who chose business at university and lowest among students who chose social science. By second year university, certainty beliefs declined further in social science and humanities students, but increased in engineering students.

Examining individuals’ discipline-specific EB, Hofer (2000) found that psychology students’ EB about science and psychology differed. They believed that in psychology, knowledge was less certain, truth was less attainable, personal experience was more important as a source of knowledge, and knowledge from experts was less important compared with science. Similarly, Estes, Chandler, Horvath, and Backus (2003) found that undergraduate students who had studied psychology believed that psychological phenomena were less knowable through scientific methods than were biological phenomena, and that psychological phenomena could be understood via common sense and personal experience. These data imply increased readiness to develop sophisticated EB regarding psychology than some other topics, although alternative explanations such as lack of understanding of scientific methods in psychology are also possible. More sophisticated EB regarding psychology than other

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pronounced difference found among students at higher year levels (unpublished data from Wood, Kitchener & Jensen, cited by King & Kitchener, 2004).

Students’ EB change with time in psychology programs. Focus groups conducted with beginning, second and third year psychology students in the United Kingdom (UK) showed that beginning students viewed psychology as being openended and creative (suggesting relativist and constructivist epistemologies), but also as constituting a body of knowledge (suggesting a dualist epistemology; Wallwork, Mahoney, & Mason, 2006). Second and third-year students referred to the discipline’s complexity, with this being viewed more positively by third years. This implied greater acceptance of relativism by advanced students.

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