The impact of epistemology on learning: A case study from ...

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<ul><li><p>1 Submitted to the American Journal of Physics</p><p>The impact of epistemology on learning: A case study from introductoryphysics</p><p>Laura Lising* and Andrew ElbyDepartment of Physics, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742</p><p>We discuss a case study of the influence of epistemology on learning for a student in anintroductory college physics course. An analysis of videotaped class work, written work,and interviews indicates that many of the students difficulties were epistemological innature. Our primary goal is to show instructors and curriculum developers that a studentsepistemological stance her ideas about knowledge and learning can have a direct,causal influence on her learning of physics. This influence exists even when research-based curriculum materials provide implicit epistemological support. For this reason,curriculum materials and teaching techniques could become more effective by explicitlyattending to students epistemologies.</p><p>I. INTRODUCTION</p><p>In the past 15 years, physics education researchershave identified student difficulties in learning a broad rangeof physics concepts. Curricula targeting these difficultieshave produced dramatically improved conceptualunderstanding.1 In recent years, the physics educationresearch community also has begun to look at studentattitudes, expectations, and epistemologies (ideas aboutknowledge and learning).2,3,4 For instance, students maythink of physics knowledge as disconnected facts andformulas, or as interconnected concepts (often expressible asformulas). Students may think of learning physics asabsorbing information from authority or as building up theirown ideas.5 This discipline-specific epistemology researchbuilds on extensive research on more generalizedepistemology.6</p><p>The recent focus on epistemology in physics educationstems in part from two motivating ideas: (i) Studentsepistemologies may affect their science learning. In thatcase, attending to epistemology may help us explain thevariations in student learning outcomes with research-basedcurricula, create more effective curricula, and become betterphysics instructors. (ii) Fostering productive attitudes andepistemologies is in itself an important instructionaloutcome that could serve the students well beyond thecourse in question.</p><p>Our study addresses the first of these ideas and buildson previous research on college and pre-college learners.Most previous research has looked at correlations betweenepistemological measures and learning outcomes, findingthat specific clusters of epistemological beliefs correlatewith academic outcomes such as grade point average7 andmathematical text comprehension.8 In the physical sciences,one study found that certain epistemological beliefs correlatewith integrated conceptual understanding in middle school,9</p><p>while another found a correlation with ninth-graders abilityto reason on applied tasks.10 In college physics, May andEtkina found correlations between students gains onstandard conceptual measures and their epistemologies asinferred from weekly written reflections on their ownlearning.11</p><p>A few studies have gone beyond these correlationsto look at the causal influence of epistemology on studentslearning behavior. These studies, generally carried out byobserving students in the process of learning, have</p><p>attempted to describe not just whether, but how learning isaffected by epistemology and related factors. An excellentexample is Hogans thorough study on eighth-graders inwhich she observed relationships between studentspersonal frameworks for science learning and their socialand cognitive engagement patterns during group learning.12</p><p>Ryder and Leachs study found some correlations betweencollege students ideas about the nature of scientificknowledge and their self-reported activities duringinvestigative project work.13 Millar et al. observed that,among 9 to 14-year-olds, students interpretations ofclassroom inquiry tasks varied according to their perceptionsof the aims of scientific investigation.14 Taylor-Robertsonfound differences in cognitive strategies used by collegestudents according to their expectations of themeaningfulness of laboratory work,15 and Edmondson foundcorrelations between students reported learning strategiesand their epistemological stances as derived frominterviews.16 Dwecks work with students of varied agesshowed some dramatic differences in learning behavior inthe classroom which depended on students ideas about thenature of intelligence.17 And Hammers study on collegestudents described how students ideas about knowledge andlearning in physics affected how they solved physicshomework problems during think-aloud interviews.2 Takentogether, these studies suggest a causal link betweenepistemology and learning and also raise new questions andissues. One issue is the distinction between personal andpublic epistemologies. Public epistemology encompasses astudents ideas about the nature of knowledge and learningfor society as a whole - or for a disciplinary community.Personal epistemology concerns a students ideas about herown knowledge and learning. A students public andpersonal epistemologies can differ significantly. Forinstance, a student may doubt the possibility of coherencein her own knowledge (personal epistemology), but mayexpect scientists to seek and find coherence (publicepistemology). Some of the previous correlation studieshave looked at only one of these aspects of epistemology,while others have not made this distinction. Of the threepersonal frameworks for science learning in Hogansresearch, one aligns fairly closely with personalepistemology while another aligns with publicepistemology. She found that personal epistemology waslinked strongly to the students behavior, while publicepistemology showed almost no effect. Thus her results</p></li><li><p>2 Submitted to the American Journal of Physics</p><p>point toward personal epistemology as being much morerelevant to learning. For that reason, we focus on thepersonal epistemology of our student subject. This paperbuilds more on the work of Hogan,12 Hammer,2 and Mayand Etkina,11 which focused on personal epistemology, thanon the other studies mentioned above,3,4,7-10,13-16 whichlooked at public epistemology or a combination of personaland public epistemology and other attitude-related variables.</p><p>To build on this line of research, we have done anin-depth and naturalistic case study of a single student todistill and carefully describe the likely causal mechanisms.Of course, a case study cannot produce definitive,generalizable results about causality. But it can add depthand detail to the perceptive toolkit of the instructor andcurriculum developer by exploring specific causalmechanisms that might explain the correlations, and it cangenerate specific hypotheses about causal mechanisms forlater testing in controlled-intervention studies. Thefollowing hypothetical example illustrates this point.Suppose a correlation is found between how quickly peoplelearn rock climbing skills and how many safe exposures toheights they experienced as children. A possible causalmechanism underlying this correlation might be that lack ofsafe exposure to heights as children leads to a fear ofheights, which then leads to some learners making morecautious movements. Case studies of a few slow-learningnovice rock climbers might shed light on this hypothesis.As they first attempt new moves, do they give clues to theirfear of heights verbally or physiologically? Can we rule outother possible causes by watching their behavior in detail? Ifso, the next step toward establishing causal mechanismmight be a controlled-intervention study, safely exposingchildren to heights, enrolling them in a rock climbing class15 years later, and comparing their learning speed to acontrol group who received a different intervention aschildren (for example, reading about rock climbing). Ourgoal is to develop a plausible existence argument anddescriptive analysis for one particular causal mechanismbetween epistemology and learning, a mechanism that wehope will be tested in future controlled-interventionexperiments.</p><p>The various previous studies we have cited alsovary in the extent to which they disentangled studentspersonal epistemologies from their expectations aboutwhats rewarded in a particular course. It can be difficult todistinguish between what a student thinks is productive forher learning and what she perceives is required by theteacher or the curriculum. Yet these can be quite disparate attimes. Hammers work with one student illustrates anexample where a student ruefully and self-consciouslyabandoned her productive learning strategies to survive in amemorization-focused physics course.18 A 1999 study byElby gave some insight into the magnitude of theepistemology/expectations gap.19</p><p>Yet another issue arising in previous studies is thecontext-sensitivity of students epistemologies. Survey-based research on students epistemologies has establisheddifferences in approaches according to discipline, motivatingresearch that is discipline-specific (such as Ref. 3).However, studies that involved observations of learningbehaviors and studies with multiple epistemologicalassessments also uncovered a sensitivity of epistemology tocontext within a given discipline. Hogan, for example,</p><p>found that epistemologies assessed in interviews differedfrom the approaches students took in class. One mightexpect this difference between students tacit ideas and theirexplicitly articulated ones, but Hogans interview methodsincluded elicitation of tacit ideas through scenario-posing.12</p><p>Thus it has become clear that taking context-sensitivity intoaccount when designing studies and analyzing data is crucialin understanding epistemology and learning.</p><p>In our study, we look at a student, Jan and studyboth her personal epistemology and her learning anddescribe how one affects the other. By analyzing bothepistemology and learning from the same set of classroomdata, we avoid many context-related interpretive challengesand also provide a description that is immediately relevantto classroom learning and instruction. We use a separate setof data from interviews for a supplementary analysis,carefully accounting for context-driven differences andfactors that point to public epistemology, expectations, andother influences. From this analysis, we are able to describedirect, causal links that are likely to exist between Jansepistemology and her learning in the classroom. Due to thedifficulty of making and describing such an in-depthargument about causality, we will do so for only one facetof Jans epistemology, although Jan certainly possesses awide array of ideas about knowledge and learning. We willfocus only on how Jan selected and used conceptualresources in her physics learning, and not on other facets ofher epistemology such as whether she treated knowledge asstatic or evolving.</p><p>After discussing our methods in Sec. II, we present inSec. III two examples of Jans classroom behavior in groupwork. In Sec. IV we use these examples to argue that acomponent of Jans epistemology, her perception of a wallbetween formal reasoning and everyday/intuitive reasoning,contributes to her troubles learning the material. We thenuse an independent data set from clinical interviews to arguethat Jans epistemology does include this wall. Section IValso addresses alternative, non-epistemological explanationsof Jans classroom behavior. Although some of those factorscontribute to Jans actions, we argue that no combination ofthem adequately accounts for her behavior, unless ourepistemological explanation is included. This strengthensour case for a causal link between Jans epistemology andher learning. In Sec. V we summarize this argument anddiscuss implications for instruction and research.</p><p>II. METHODS</p><p>IIA. Selection of our case study subject and collection ofdata</p><p>The subject of this case study, Jan, was a third-yearstudent in the second semester of an algebra-basedintroductory physics course at the University of Maryland.The course, taken by about 100 students and taught by aphysics education researcher, consisted of 3 hours per weekof interactive lectures (including interactive lecturedemonstrations20 and other physics education researchinspired elements), one hour of tutorial (worksheet-ledconceptual group work21), and two hours of traditional-stylelaboratories. Jan had taken this courses prerequisite in theprevious semester in a large lecture, purely traditionalformat from a different professor. Although we willhighlight some of Jans difficulties, overall she was a</p></li><li><p>3 Submitted to the American Journal of Physics</p><p>capable student. She has excellent mathematical skills, didwell on the more traditional homework problems, and putin considerable effort, seeking help from peers. Someconcepts she learned quite deeply while others she did not.</p><p>Jan was in one of the two groups of students wevideotaped working in tutorials and laboratories over thecourse of the semester. For Jans group, we had two usablehours of videotape. The other videotapes of her group wereunusable because they were inaudible or because thediscussion focused primarily on logistics rather than physicsconcepts. From among the students in her group, we choseto study Jan because she was neither a top nor a low-performing student, and because we believed that we wereseeing epistemological indications in her behavior that wecould explore with further analysis. (Again, since we aretrying to make an existence argument and a descriptiveanalysis for a certain mechanism, rather than a generalizableconclusion, a random representative sample isnt necessary.)The following semester, she agreed to undergo sixinterviews about student reasoning with one of us (AE),whom she had not met previously. Over the following yearthe interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Jan received$10 per interview. The first four interviews consistedprimarily of Jan reasoning aloud in response to physicsquestions about real-world objects and phenomena. Thefinal two interviews consisted of more formal, quantitativeproblems and of increasingly direct probes of Jansepistemology.</p><p>IIB. Analysis of the data and interpretation of theresults</p><p>We reviewed the two usable hours of videotapedclassroom data and looked for instances in whichepistemology seemed to affect Jans approach to learningand doing physics. From this review we developed ahypothesis about Jans epistemology and its causalrelationship to her learning. To test this hypothesis, weattempted to explain her classroom behavior in non-epistemological terms, by focusing on expectations (herperceptions of what is rewarded in the course), confidence,skills and habits, and the social dynamics in her tutorialgroup and in the interviews. We also used Jans writtenhomework to test predictions of the hypothesis we generatedfrom the classroom and interview data. To quantify patternsin Jans reasoni...</p></li></ul>

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