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The influence of learning environmentson students epistemological beliefsand learning outcomesDenise Tolhurst aa University of New South Wales , AustraliaPublished online: 05 Jun 2008.
To cite this article: Denise Tolhurst (2007) The influence of learning environments on studentsepistemological beliefs and learning outcomes, Teaching in Higher Education, 12:2, 219-233
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562510701191992
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The influence of learning environments
on students epistemological beliefs and
Denise Tolhurst*University of New South Wales, Australia
There is evidence that students epistemological beliefs impact on approaches to learning and
consequent learning outcomes. Epistemological beliefs have been shown to influence students
approaches to study and problem-solving, motivation and persistence in information seeking.
There are also some preliminary research findings that suggest the structure of learning
environments can influence students epistemological beliefs. A study was designed to investigate
the impacts of a new course on students epistemological beliefs. The new course structure was
based on engaging students in web-supported independent activities prior to small-group
workshops that focused on active learning. Findings indicate that students epistemological beliefs
changed during the course implementation, and that students with more complex epistemological
beliefs achieved better results in the course.
Increasing interest and research activity is evident in the literature concerning how
students beliefs about knowledge and knowing mediate their learning processes.
There is growing evidence that indicates epistemological beliefs influence students
learning (Brownlee et al ., 2001; Buehl & Alexander, 2001; Hofer, 2001; Schraw,
2001; Hofer & Pintrich, 2002; Tolhurst & Debus, 2002; Andre & Windshitl, 2003).
In a review that investigates the implications for teaching and learning for students
personal epistemology, Hofer (2001) concludes that a growing body of work
provides evidence that personal epistemology is an important component of student
Beliefs about knowledge have been shown to influence factors such as students
motivation, persistence and problem solving approach (Schommer, 1994; Jacobson
& Spiro, 1995; Kardash & Scholes, 1996; Schraw, 2001). Kardash and Scholes
(1996) draw attention to A growing body of evidence (that) suggests individuals
epistemological beliefs play a critical role in strategic learning in general and higher-
order thinking and problem solving in particular. Schommer (1994) suggests that
*School of Information Systems, Technology and Management, Quadrangle Building, University
of New South Wales, UNSW Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. Email: email@example.com
ISSN 1356-2517 (print)/ISSN 1470-1294 (online)/07/020219-15
# 2007 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/13562510701191992
Teaching in Higher EducationVol. 12, No. 2, April 2007, pp. 219233
. . . epistemological beliefs affect the degree to which individuals (a) actively engage
in learning, (b) persist in difficult tasks, (c) comprehend written material, and (d)
cope with ill-structured domains. In each of these areas, the evidence suggests that
epistemological beliefs may either help or hinder learning. In summing up the article
Schommer concludes that . . . there is enough evidence to suggest epistemological
beliefs are critical to the learning process. Similarly Schraw (2001) suggests As
(epistemological) beliefs change and become more sophisticated, thinking and
problem-solving skills improve as well.
The concept of simple versus sophisticated epistemological beliefs derives from the
work of Marlene Schommer (1990) who proposed five epistemological dimensions.
. Certainty of knowledge (absolute to tentative).
. Structure of knowledge (simple to complex).
. Source of knowledge (handed down by authority to derived by reason).
. Control of knowledge (ability to learn is fixed at birth to ability to learn can bechanged).
. Speed of knowledge acquisition (knowledge is acquired quickly or not-at-all toknowledge is acquired gradually).
Simple epistemological beliefs take knowledge to be absolute, simple, handed
down by authority, acquired quickly or not at all and that the ability to learn is fixed
at birth. Students with simple beliefs are likely to engage in study habits in which they
rely on authority (perhaps the lecturer) to provide clear answers. When researching,
such students are likely to be satisfied with the first information they find that they
believe provides a suitable answer, and not persist if they do not locate information
quickly and easily (Tolhurst & Debus, 2002). They are not likely to seek information
from multiple sources, or to integrate ideas. Students with more sophisticated
epistemological beliefs are more likely to consult multiple sources, integrate ideas,
value different opinions and persist in the event of not being successful at first. Hofer
and Pintrich (1997) link epistemological beliefs to academic tasks that, over time,
shape epistemological beliefs. They suggest . . . students who are given multiple
choice tests composed of low level items may come to view knowledge as a collection
of facts and learn to study for tests by using memorization and rehearsal strategies.
Moving to a class where higher-level processes are expected may require not only a
change in strategy use, but a change in epistemological theories.
In work exploring dimensionality of students epistemology, Hofer (2000)
proposed the existence of domain-specific epistemological beliefs that differ from
general epistemological beliefs. In this work that compared the beliefs of science and
psychology students Hofer found that disciplinary differences in students epis-
temologies were strong. She concluded that . . . 1st-year college students see
knowledge in science as more certain and unchanging than in psychology . . ..
Support for domain differences for epistemological beliefs is also found in the work
of Paulsen and Wells (1998) who found that students studying in the applied fields
were more likely to hold simple epistemological beliefs, while students majoring in
220 D. Tolhurst
soft, or pure fields were less likely to hold simple beliefs. There is growing evidence
that epistemological beliefs can be both general and domain specific (Quain &
Alvermann, 1995; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Paulsen & Wells, 1998; Hofer, 2000;
Schraw, 2001), although others contend that such differences do not exist
(Sternberg, 1989; Schommer-Aikins et al ., 2003).
Recognising that epistemological beliefs have an influence on students learning, it
is important to effective teaching in universities to consider how we can promote
more sophisticated beliefs about knowledge in students: beliefs that lead students to
view knowledge as complex, as requiring the integration of ideas and requiring task
persistence. How can we structure our curriculum, courses and learning environ-
ments to encourage the development of more sophisticated epistemological beliefs