What we know: Students as learners: Learning is affected by epistemological development

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Learning is affected by epistemological development 

What do we know?

Students’ learning is affected by their attitude to knowledge and what they believe knowledge to be. There are a number of clearly different ‘positions’ that can be held, which can be arranged in a developmental hierarchy of intellectual and cognitive development. Education and experience are likely to aid the ‘journey’ through these relevant ‘positions’.

Since the initial work by William Perry, different theorists have defined and arranged these positions in slightly different ways. Essentially, however, they start with an initial position where learners view things as either right or wrong (‘dualist’), and believe that there is a ‘correct’ answer to be found to any question (even if nobody knows it yet), move through positions that start to acknowledge uncertainty and see knowledge more as a matter of opinion, through, ultimately, to the view that some explanations, based on evidence, are more valid than others (‘relativist’).

Marcia B. Baxter-Magolda presented a four-stage model:

  • Absolute knowing – the purpose of learning is to find and know the right answer
  • Transitional knowledge – knowledge is partially certain/uncertain and the purpose of learning is to understand
  • Independent knowing – knowledge is uncertain and the purpose of learning is to produce one’s own perspectives
  • Contextual knowing – knowledge is based on knowledge in context and the purpose of learning is to think though problems and integrate and apply knowledge

Her research with US students, at a well-funded, highly-selective institution, found that 68% of first year undergraduates were at the first of these levels and 32% were at the second; only 16% of seniors were at the third level, but this rose to 57% one year after graduation.  One year after graduation the fourth level had still only been reached by 12%.

Implications for improving student learning

Arguably the most important thing that we can do is to make ourselves aware (as much as possible) of which of these stages our students are at, and then to offer learning opportunities to encourage and aid their transition to the next.  Craig Nelson has offered a range of examples of how one might do this, including:

considering the history of knowledge in a discipline (e.g. what was thought to be ‘true’ 100 years ago?), setting tasks such as having to choose between competing theories or ideas and justifying the choice, and hypothesis testing.  A further suggestion he makes is “paradigm choice and paradigm mixing”; for example, considering the advantages and disadvantages of the different possible ways of addressing schizophrenia – “as a genetic defect, as a biochemical disequilibrium, or as a response to social stress” (p175).

Further reading

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2004) Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transforming Higher Education to Promote Self-development, Sterling, VA:Stylus Publishing

Nelson, C.E.  1999. On the persistence of unicorns: The tradeoff between content and critical thinking revisited. In B.A. Pescosolido and R. Aminzade, Eds., The Social Worlds of Higher Education:  Handbook for Teaching in a New Century, Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1981) Cognitive and Ethical Growth:The Making of Meaning. In Arthur W. Chickering and Associates, The Modern American College, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 76-116

Richardson, J.T.E. (in press) Epistemological development in higher education, Educational Research Review, available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X12000486


About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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