The influence of learning environments on students’ epistemological beliefs and learning outcomes

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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

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  • The influence of learning environments

    on students epistemological beliefs and

    learning outcomes

    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:

    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




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  • . . . 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




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  • 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