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

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This article was downloaded by: [University of Notre Dame]On: 26 August 2014, At: 21:21Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UKTeaching in Higher EducationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cthe20The 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, 219-233To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562510701191992PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLETaylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (theContent) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as tothe accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinionsand views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Contentshould not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sourcesof information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims,proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoeveror howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to orarising out of the use of the Content.This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Anysubstantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms &Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cthe20http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562510701191992http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionsThe influence of learning environmentson students epistemological beliefs andlearning outcomesDenise Tolhurst*University of New South Wales, AustraliaThere is evidence that students epistemological beliefs impact on approaches to learning andconsequent learning outcomes. Epistemological beliefs have been shown to influence studentsapproaches to study and problem-solving, motivation and persistence in information seeking.There are also some preliminary research findings that suggest the structure of learningenvironments can influence students epistemological beliefs. A study was designed to investigatethe impacts of a new course on students epistemological beliefs. The new course structure wasbased on engaging students in web-supported independent activities prior to small-groupworkshops that focused on active learning. Findings indicate that students epistemological beliefschanged during the course implementation, and that students with more complex epistemologicalbeliefs achieved better results in the course.IntroductionIncreasing interest and research activity is evident in the literature concerning howstudents beliefs about knowledge and knowing mediate their learning processes.There is growing evidence that indicates epistemological beliefs influence studentslearning (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 studentspersonal epistemology, Hofer (2001) concludes that a growing body of workprovides evidence that personal epistemology is an important component of studentlearning.Beliefs about knowledge have been shown to influence factors such as studentsmotivation, 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 individualsepistemological 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, Universityof New South Wales, UNSW Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. Email: d.tolhurst@unsw.edu.auISSN 1356-2517 (print)/ISSN 1470-1294 (online)/07/020219-15# 2007 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/13562510701191992Teaching in Higher EducationVol. 12, No. 2, April 2007, pp. 219233Downloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 . . . epistemological beliefs affect the degree to which individuals (a) actively engagein 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 thatepistemological beliefs may either help or hinder learning. In summing up the articleSchommer concludes that . . . there is enough evidence to suggest epistemologicalbeliefs are critical to the learning process. Similarly Schraw (2001) suggests As(epistemological) beliefs change and become more sophisticated, thinking andproblem-solving skills improve as well.The concept of simple versus sophisticated epistemological beliefs derives from thework 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, handeddown by authority, acquired quickly or not at all and that the ability to learn is fixedat birth. Students with simple beliefs are likely to engage in study habits in which theyrely 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 theybelieve provides a suitable answer, and not persist if they do not locate informationquickly and easily (Tolhurst & Debus, 2002). They are not likely to seek informationfrom multiple sources, or to integrate ideas. Students with more sophisticatedepistemological beliefs are more likely to consult multiple sources, integrate ideas,value different opinions and persist in the event of not being successful at first. Hoferand Pintrich (1997) link epistemological beliefs to academic tasks that, over time,shape epistemological beliefs. They suggest . . . students who are given multiplechoice tests composed of low level items may come to view knowledge as a collectionof 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 achange 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 fromgeneral epistemological beliefs. In this work that compared the beliefs of science andpsychology students Hofer found that disciplinary differences in students epis-temologies were strong. She concluded that . . . 1st-year college students seeknowledge in science as more certain and unchanging than in psychology . . ..Support for domain differences for epistemological beliefs is also found in the workof Paulsen and Wells (1998) who found that students studying in the applied fieldswere more likely to hold simple epistemological beliefs, while students majoring in220 D. TolhurstDownloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 soft, or pure fields were less likely to hold simple beliefs. There is growing evidencethat 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, itis important to effective teaching in universities to consider how we can promotemore sophisticated beliefs about knowledge in students: beliefs that lead students toview knowledge as complex, as requiring the integration of ideas and requiring taskpersistence. How can we structure our curriculum, courses and learning environ-ments to encourage the development of more sophisticated epistemological beliefs instudents that lead to greater personal involvement and acceptance of responsibilityfor learning?A research study by Brownlee et al . (2001) provides some encouragement for thepotential of influencing students epistemological beliefs through learning environ-ments. Brownlee et al . conducted a study at the University of Queensland that showsit is possible to influence students epistemological beliefs significantly and producepositive learning outcomes. They measured students beliefs before and after a year-long course of study. One group in the study was taught an educational psychologycourse which required them to regularly reflect on their epistemological beliefs usingpersonal diaries. The other group studying educational psychology were not requiredto undertake any reflection. Brownlee et al . found that the group involved inreflective practice experienced a statistically significant shift to more complexepistemological beliefs that those students who were not required to reflect. Theyconclude that students epistemological beliefs can be influenced by learningenvironments, and this has implications for how educators structure such learningenvironments.The findings of Brownlee et al . provided the motivation for a course revisionreported in this paper. Staff teaching first-year Information Systems undergraduatesobserved that the lecture/tutorial format seemed to produce students that exhibitedcharacteristics that were indicative of simple epistemological beliefs. Staff questionedwhether the delivery model of presenting information to large groups of students,requiring passive reception of information by students, was problematic. Itappeared to encourage reliance by students on lecturers as source of authority andas a result students seemed to lack independence and did not appear to acceptresponsibility for their own learning. There was a relatively low level of criticalthinking evidenced in students work, and on the whole students displayed relativelysimple epistemological beliefs.This paper reports the changes made to the course structure that attempted todevelop students epistemological beliefs and describes a study that aimed tomeasure changes in beliefs attributable to the new structure. The paper presentsfindings and discusses the implications of this research for future curriculum design.The influence of learning environments 221Downloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 New structure of the courseIn an attempt to overcome the problems identified with the existing undergraduateintroductory Information Systems lecture/tutorial course structure, an altern-ative structure was designed that aimed to minimise large lecture groups, encouragestudents independent learning and also maximise the opportunity for student small-group interactions that allowed students to actively engage with key concepts. Thekinds of activities designed placed an emphasis on the problem-based learning goalsas described by Biggs (1999), specifically: structuring knowledge for use; developingreasoning processes; developing self-directed learning; increasing motivation forlearning; and developing group skills.The new structure had at its focus web-supported independent activities (WSIA)and regular small-group workshops. The lecture component was minimised to fiveone-hour lectures during the session of fourteen weeks. These main components aredescribed in the ensuing sub-sections. This structure was adopted in the belief thatindependent activities and small-group activities would engage students. Small-group workshops offered many opportunities to establish collegiate groups ofstudents that are likely to develop closer relationships with workshop facilitators.The WSIA were organised to precede the corresponding workshop (or lecture). Bothcomponents, the independent activities and the workshops, were seen as enablingstudents to accept a greater degree of responsibility for their own learning than wasthe case in large lectures. A diagrammatic representation of the course structure isshown in Figure 1.Web Supported Independent Activities (WSIA)Weekly activities required students to undertake regular independent work, asspecified on a course website. It was assumed that students had completed this workWeekWSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIA WSIALect Lect WS WS WS Lect WS WS WS WS Lect WS WS LectLab Access1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14Note: WSIA = Web-supported Independent Activities done in preparation for the nextweeks class. Lect = Lecture. WS = Workshop. Lab Access - computer laboratoryaccess to allow students to do WSIA, assistance also available in labs 4 hours per day.Figure 1. Diagrammatic representation of the new course structure222 D. TolhurstDownloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 before attending the weekly formal class. The independent activities requiredstudents to undertake tasks such as:. making notes, answering questions, drawing diagrams, etc. based on readings;. preparing hand-ins;. reading journal articles;. reading case studies, preparing responses to questions on the cases;. undertaking self-paced skill-development in software use;. completing on-line tutorials; and. exploration of commercial, and informational websites.In addition to the content-focused activities, the independent activities guidedstudents in finding information from a number of sources, with the extent ofsupporting instructions diminishing over the time frame of the course. During thecourse, students had to seek information from a number of sources, utilising:. course website and the textbook publishers website;. library catalogue, on-line databases and electronic journals;. library closed-reserve and general collection; and. commercial and informational websites.The WSIA were intended to prepare students in the basics of a topic of study to beexplored later in either the workshops or lectures. Ideas and impressions gained bystudents from the exploration of commercial websites (current uses and implemen-tations of technology) were linked to the theoretical information that students read injournal articles and textbook chapters. To additionally support learners, studentswere explicitly referred to the learning support resources.Laboratory access and supportTo support the students undertaking their independent work a computer laboratorywas available. Students were not allocated laboratory class time, but were required tomanage their own time, using the laboratories at a time that suited them. Studentscould also complete independent activities in any other location with internet access.Students could seek assistance from laboratory demonstrators if they were havingdifficulty locating information or using software.WorkshopsEight workshops of 24 students (maximum) were held during the session. Workshopswere held in a room with flexible furniture, and the arrangement of the seating andtables was varied from week to week depending on the activities undertaken thatweek.Each workshop was facilitated by an experienced member of staff who was able toencourage open discussion and answer questions that may arise from the workThe influence of learning environments 223Downloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 students had undertaken in the WSIA. An important aspect of the workshops is thatworkshops ran with the assumption that students had completed all the WSIA andthe workshop activities were designed to build on this work.Workshops involved students in activities like:. small and whole group discussions of activities from WSIA;. case studies, ranging from cases analysed as a WSIA to cases presented andanalysed during the workshop;. debates, prepared by groups of students and carried out during workshops;. tutorial activity*/data modelling, create a diagram, concept mapping;. quick quizzes marked by peers during the workshop;. student presentations, either individual or group;. short lecture-style wrap-ups; and. videos and demonstrations of software or websites.LecturesFive one-hour lectures (with repeats) were held during the session. Lectures in thefirst two weeks explained the course structure and introduced preliminary contentfor the course (see Figure 1). Two lectures strategically placed in the sessiondiscussed the integration of topics addressed in the course so far and introducedtopics for the weeks ahead. The final lecture provided a summary of the coursecontent and information about the final examination. Lectures also required studentsto complete WSIA, and called upon that preparation.Summary of the course structureThe weekly experience of students was to undertake the independent activities, andattending either a workshop or lecture. The course structure was designed to benefitstudents by:. encouraging independent learning and small-group interaction;. exposing students to current websites, readings, cases and other materials focusingon real-world, up-to-date information;. reducing class sizes to allow students and staff to develop closer relationships thanwould occur in large-lecture situations;. including activities in workshops and WSIA that enhanced students developmentof skills in language and communication, research and referencing, informationliteracy, group work; and. including learning activities that catered to the diversity of student backgroundsand learning styles.224 D. TolhurstDownloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 Structure of the course versus structure of the domainAlthough this course was very structured in terms of the expectations of studentsregarding preparation and attendance at classes, is was one that did not provide greatcomfort for the students in terms of structure of the domain. Students found theyneeded to make decisions regarding the depth and breadth of their preparation as theWSIA were left open-ended to allow students to be challenged. Students did notreceive closed outcomes as a result of the workshop sessions. Compared to walkingaway with a set of lecture notes that clearly defined the content coverage, studentsoften left a workshop with questions to resolve in their minds. It was accepting thechallenge of struggling with the domain that was expected to influence studentsepistemological beliefs in some way.Expected impacts of the new course structure on students epistemological beliefs and learningIt was anticipated students beliefs would be influenced by the new course structure,moving students towards more sophisticated beliefs, beliefs that knowledge is morecomplex, more tentative, derived by reason, and acquired gradually (Schommer,1990). Factors in the new course structure expected to influence students beliefsincluded the requirement that students research independently before attendingclass. WSIA used multiple sources, sometimes conflicting ones. Students wererequired to read and prepare, consulting multiple reliable sources. In workshopsstudents engaged with others on an intellectual level, supporting their discussionpoints and opinions from credible sources, rather than relying on opinion andhearsay. Students were challenged to develop their understanding of a complexdomain by grappling with the ideas in the literature and the ideas of their colleagues.The lecturer was not the focus of classes, but a facilitator who guided activities. It wasanticipated that activities would illustrate to students the complexity of knowledge,the need to consider multiple sources, the need to construct knowledge and that thelecturer was not the only source of knowledge.Description of the studyA study that explored the influence of this different course structure on studentsepistemological beliefs was undertaken in conjunction with the introduction of thenew course. Consistent with the approach of Brownlee et al . (2001) this studymeasured students epistemological beliefs at the very beginning of the course, andthen again 12 weeks later.Two questionnaires were used to measure students epistemological beliefs. As theliterature suggests, students may possess domain-specific in addition to generalepistemological beliefs. One questionnaire presented to students included a set ofitems address general epistemological beliefs (Schommer, 1998) and another set ofitems addressing domain specific epistemological beliefs (Hofer, 2000).The influence of learning environments 225Downloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 Schommers Epistemological Questionnaire (1998) is a 63-item questionnairethat measures 5 epistemological dimensions, with 12 subscales. This questionnairemeasures general epistemological beliefs and requires students to respond tostatements, expressing their agreement or disagreement on a five-point Likert scale.Examples of items include: If scientists try hard enough, they can find the truth toalmost anything (certain knowledge); How much a person gets out of universitydepends on the quality of their teacher (omniscient authority). Item values werecombined to produce values for the five dimensions identified by Schommer (1990):certainty of knowledge, structure of knowledge, source of knowledge, control ofknowledge and speed of knowledge. Within the dimensions 13 subscales, asidentified by Schommer, are also calculated from combined item scores. Table 1shows the 5 dimensions and 12 subscales (described fully in Schommers 1998article).Hofers Discipline Focused Epistemological Beliefs Questionnaire (2000) is an 18-item questionnaire to measure domain specific epistemological beliefs. Hofersquestionnaire measures four core epistemologies (see Table 2): certainty ofknowledge, justification of knowledge: personal; source of information: authority;and attainment of truth. Samples of the items from Hofers questionnaire are: Truthis unchanging in this subject (certainty of knowledge); If my personal experienceconflicts with ideas in the textbook, the textbook is probably right (Source ofinformation: authority). Hofers scale also require students to express theiragreement or disagreement on a five-point Likert scale. Item values were combinedto find values for each core epistemologies.Students were asked to complete both questionnaires in the first lecture and againin week 12, during a workshop session.Students studying the courseA total of 418 students in first-year undergraduate course in Information Systemsparticipated in this study. The course was offered within a Bachelor of Commercedegree programme, and is compulsory for first-year information systems majors andaccounting students. Quite a few students also take the course as an elective in otherdegree programmes, including Computer Science, Engineering and Arts. Thebackgrounds of students in this study were quite varied; approximately two-thirdsof the students are local (Australian), and one-third international (including Chinese,Indonesian, Malaysian, European and American).Results of the studyEpistemological questionnairesTable 1 shows the results of pre- and post-test administration of SchommersEpistemological Questionnaire, and Table 2 shows the results of pre- and post-testadministration of Hofers Domain Focused Epistemological Beliefs Questionnaire.226 D. TolhurstDownloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 Pair-wise deletion was used for missing data; if a student failed to complete an itemin a subscale, then their data were excluded for the whole subscale. Some studentsdid not complete both the pre- and post-tests due to absences, and some did notcomplete all items in the questionnaires. Pair-wise deletion and absences resulted indifferences between the pre- and post-test Ns, and the Ns in the repeated measures.As can be seen from Table 1, statistically significant differences were foundbetween pre-test and post-test means on 5 of the 13 subscales of Schommersquestionnaire of general beliefs. Trends in the development of more sophisticatedbeliefs were found on two subscales. First, students belief in simple knowledge, inparticular students belief in seeking single answers, was significantly reducedTable 1. Pre- and post-test means and standard deviations for Schommers Epistemological BeliefsQuestionnaireSchommersEpistemological BeliefsQuestionnaire (1998)Student responsesp Value for repeatedmeasuresscales, subscales Pre-test (M, SD, N) Post-test (M, SD, N)(N)Quick LearningLearning is quick 2.79, 0.52 (n397) 2.55, 0.58 (n328) 0.14 (n240)Learn first time* 2.46, 0.63 (n399) 2.52, 0.65 (n333) 0.02 (n249)Concentrated effort is awaste of time2.60, 0.71 (n399) 2.69, 0.73 (n334) 0.09 (n248)Certain KnowledgeAvoid ambiguity 3.09, 0.62 (n390) 3.15, 0.63 (n332) 0.31 (n243)Knowledge is certain 2.88, 0.46 (n394) 2.73, 0.50 (n330) 0.63 (n239)Avoid integration 2.44, 0.35 (n390) 2.89, 0.37 (n329) 0.86 (n237)Innate AbilityCan learn how to learn*** 2.26, 0.52 (n391) 2.37, 0.55 (n330) 0.00 (n240)Success unrelated to hardwork2.88, 0.46 (n394) 2.34, 0.61 (n325) 0.24 (n233)Ability to learn is innate 2.66, 0.72 (n389) 2.73, 0.67 (n326) 0.58 (n233)Omniscient AuthorityDepend on authority* 3.02, 0.56 (n396) 3.08, 0.56 (n333) 0.04 (n245)Dont criticiseauthority***2.30, 0.48 (n394) 2.38, 0.49 (n331) 0.00 (n241)Simple KnowledgeSeek single answers** 3.11, 0.33 (n383) 3.05, 0.31 (n327) 0.00 (n228)Avoid integration 2.44, 0.35 (n390) 2.89, 0.37 (n329) 0.86 (n237)Notes: Subscale range is 15, 5 represents strong agreement. * p B0.05, **p B0.01, ***p B0.001.Reliability of 63-item scale: pre-test standardised item alpha0.76, post-test standardised itemalpha0.80.The influence of learning environments 227Downloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 (mean3.11 to 3.05, p0.00). Students also had significantly increased beliefsthat it is possible to learn how to learn (mean 2.26 to 2.37, p0.00). Less desirabletrends were found on two subscales, first that students belief that learning occurs inthe first instance (i.e. quickly) was significantly increased (mean2.46 to 2.52, p0.02). The second less desirable trend was that students belief in omniscientauthority was significantly increased on two subscales, depend on authority (mean3.02 to 3.08, p0.04) and dont criticise authority (mean2.30 to 2.38, p0.00).The results on Hofers domain specific beliefs questionnaire in Table 2 show asignificant increase for the source of knowledge as being authority (mean2.96 to3.04, p0.00). An interesting detail on this scale as discussed by Hofer in her paper(2000) is that authority was described as related to expert knowledge, texts and otherexternal authority (as compared to individual opinion and first-hand experience).The trend regarding authority is consistent with the finding in Schommers scaleregarding Dont criticise authority, although interestingly Hofer interprets author-ity as being all authoritative sources, not just the teacher. Also a significant findingthat supports the development of more sophisticated epistemological beliefs onHofers domain-specific questionnaire was that at post-test students view knowledgeas less certain and simple (mean2.47 to 2.40, p0.01).Relationship between epistemological beliefs and achievement levelsCorrelations between students final marks in the course and the post-test scales onthe questionnaires were examined. Final grades in the course were determined by aTable 2. Pre- and Post-test means and standard deviations for Hofers Domain-SpecificEpistemological Beliefs QuestionnaireHofer (2000) DomainFocused EpistemologicalBeliefs QuestionnaireStudent responsesp Value forrepeated measuresPre-test (M, SD, N) Post-test (M, SD, N)(N)Certainty and simplicity ofknowledge**2.47, 0.52 (n370) 2.40, 0.51 (n323) 0.01 (n222)Justification of knowing:personala3.14, 0.60 (n382) 3.34, 0.59 (n318) 0.21 (n224)Source of knowledge:Authorityb ***2.96, 0.64 (n400) 3.04, 0.62 (n336) 0.00 (n247)Perceived attainability of truth 3.11, 0.78 (n401) 3.06, 0.83 (n341) 0.08 (n251)Notes: Subscale range is 15, 5 represents strong agreement. **p B0.01, ***p B0.001.aRepresents the view that knowing is justified by individual opinion or firsthand experience.bRelates specifically to expert knowledge, texts and other external authority as the source ofknowledge.Reliability of 18-item scale: pre-test standardised item alpha0.58, post-test standardised itemalpha0.60.228 D. TolhurstDownloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 combination of formative and summative assessment. Formative assessmentstrategies adopted included components of: a student portfolio based on WSIA;participation in discussions; a debate; an assignment based on the use of software.The summative component was a final examination, which contributed less than50% to the final mark. Assessment strategies were designed to be consistent with thephilosophy of the course.Significant negative correlations were found between the final course grades anda number of the subscales on Schommers and Hofers instruments (see Table 3).These significant negative correlations indicate that students with higher beliefson these subscales obtain lower marks in the course. For example, studentswho believe that Learning is quick or that one should Avoid integration, orknowledge is Simple and certain, achieved final marks in the course that weresignificantly lower. Conversely, students with more complex epistemologicalbeliefs, those who believe learning is not quick, requires integration, and thatknowledge is not certain nor simple, achieved higher final marks in the course.The strongest negative correlation with final mark was found on Schommerssubscales Learning is quick (0.33) and Avoid integration (0.29). On Hofersscales the highest negative correlation is with Certainty and simplicity of know-ledge (0.31).Table 3. Significant correlations between students final course results and Schommer (1998) andHofer (2000) Post-test Epistemological Questionnaire SubscalesScale/subscale Correlation with studentsfinal course resultsp Value of thecorrelationSchommer (1998)Quick learningLearning is quick 0.33*** 0.00Learn first time 0.13* 0.04Certain knowledge / simple knowledgeAvoid integration 0.29*** 0.00Innate abilitySuccess unrelated to hard work 0.15* 0.03Omniscient authorityDont criticise authority 0.15* 0.02Hofer (2000)Certainty and simplicity of knowledge 0.31*** 0.00Source of knowledge: authority 0.13* 0.04Note: *p B0.05, **p B0.01, ***p B0.001.The influence of learning environments 229Downloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 Limitations of the studyThis study does have some limitations. The absence of a control or comparisongroup is a weakness that makes it difficult to make claims regarding the causaloutcomes from the study. This design was necessary because of ethical clearancerequiring that no students be disadvantaged by being in one of two groups(experimental and control), which by design were believed to result in differentlearning outcomes. Consequently, all students involved in the study were involved inthe implementation of the new course structure. Using data from groups involved inprevious implementations of the old structure (lecture/tutorial) for comparisonwould not provide adequate experimental constraint as there would still be manyuncontrolled variables in two different implementations of the course.As it is not possible to make claims about any direct causes for the outcomes of thestudy due to the lack of a control group, there is the possibility that the changes thatoccurred between the pre- and post-test results are attributable to uncontrolledvariables. For example, it could be claimed that the changes may have occurred aspart of the expected maturation of beginning university students experiencing theirfirst year of tertiary study, or that the complexity of the domain itself (InformationSystems) may have caused the changes found. The experiences of lecturers ofprevious cohorts in lecture/tutorial course formats (described in the introduction)tend to refute these potential claims, but of course there is no empirical evidence thatthis is not the case. Repetition of the study in an environment permitting control andexperimental groups has an obvious potential to produce more robust findingsregarding the factors (and their interactions) that may have influenced the outcomes.A factor that may also have impacted on the results from the epistemologicalquestionnaires was the high proportion of overseas students, many from Asiannations. The questionnaires developed by Schommer and Hofer have been primarilytargeted and used in North American contexts. The impact of cultural differences onthe questionnaires is unclear, but Chan and Elliot (2002) have found differences inthe dimensions from data collected using Schommers questionnaires when it wasused with Hong Kong teacher education students. They attribute the differences tocultural influences. Different learning approaches of Chinese learners to Westernlearners have been recognised (Watkins & Biggs, 1996), approaches that may in turnbe reflected in epistemological beliefs not adequately measured by the questionnairesused. As culturally sensitive versions of epistemological questionnaires were notavailable, this was an uncontrolled variable in the study.DiscussionThe main focus of the study was to explore whether students beliefs would beinfluenced by a new course structure. It was anticipated that students beliefs aboutknowledge would become more complex, more tentative, and that students wouldperceive knowledge as derived by reason and acquired gradually. These changes wereanticipated as emerging as a result of being involved in a course in which students230 D. TolhurstDownloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 were more actively involved in their own learning, where they were required toresearch, read and prepare for each class, and then engage with others on anintellectual level in workshops, and in which they were required to support anydiscussion points and opinions from credible sources, rather than relying on opinionand hearsay.Although strong claims cannot be made that there were large changes in studentsepistemological beliefs in the duration of the 14-week course, an important resultfrom this study is that students epistemological beliefs were influenced in some way.Statistically significant changes were found on some subscales in the 12 weeksbetween the pre- and post-test scores. Although these statistically significant changesin the means were found on a relatively small number of subscales, it is educationallysignificant that there is some evidence of change in just 12 weeks in one course. If wecan influence students epistemological beliefs, as these results suggest, then it isimportant that research attention is afforded to exploring how to best exploit thispotential. If previous research indicates that more complex beliefs result in higherorder learning skills and consequent improved learning outcomes (Brownlee et al .,2001; Buehl & Alexander, 2001; Hofer, 2001; Schraw, 2001; Hofer & Pintrich,2002; Tolhurst & Debus, 2002; Andre & Windshitl, 2003), then research intocurriculum design for a degree programme (rather than the restructure of just onecourse) may produce more educationally significant findings. Perhaps this study liftsthe corner on a hidden opportunity, waiting to be fully developed.An aspect to consider in terms of the education significance of these outcomes isthat although changes in the mean values between pre- and post-tests may seemsmall in magnitude to the reader, large changes in magnitude for individuals are notreflected in mean values. Perhaps there are individuals for whom there were somepersonally highly significant changes in beliefs about knowledge and knowing thatimpact on personal study habits and learning outcomes, changes that are not trulyindicated in the mean values.The second important finding from this study is that students with moresophisticated epistemological beliefs achieved higher results in their final grades forthe course. As identified in the earlier discussion of the literature, studentsepistemological beliefs do influence their learning. Evidence suggests they have aneffect on critical and higher-order thinking, problem-solving, task persistence andmotivation (Schommer, 1994; Jacobson & Spiro, 1995; Kardash & Scholes, 1996;Schraw, 2001). Evidence from the present study provides some support for Schrawsprediction that as (epistemological) beliefs change and become more sophisticated,thinking and problem-solving skills improve as well (Schraw, 2001). If moresophisticated epistemological beliefs are linked with higher student performancelevels, then there is further encouragement to explore ways to encourage thedevelopment of more sophisticated epistemological beliefs.The question that does arise from this research is, if we can influence studentsepistemological beliefs through course structure and the learning environments wecreate, what are the characteristics of a course structure that may encourage the mostdesirable outcomes regarding students beliefs, and hence desirable learningThe influence of learning environments 231Downloaded by [University of Notre Dame] at 21:21 26 August 2014 approaches and outcomes? The course structure at the focus of this research wasdesigned to create a learning environment that engaged students in active andindependent learning. Positive trends were found on some subscales, less desirableoutcomes on some subscales, and no change on others. Although this study did notachieve all the changes in students epistemological beliefs it set out to, it did showthat students epistemological beliefs may be influenced in as short a time-period astwelve weeks. This means that our courses have the potential to contribute tostudents perceptions of knowledge and its nature in some way or another. Alleducators need to consider the implicit message that they convey to students throughthe structure of the courses they teach and the learning environments they create.These structures and environments implicitly reflect the beliefs that lecturers haveregarding knowledge in their discipline, be they carefully considered or subconscious.Epistemological beliefs do influence students approaches to learning and theirconsequent learning outcomes. It is apparent from this research on studentsepistemological beliefs that further research is needed to determine features of afacilitative programme and course structure and how to structure learning environ-ments to support students development of sophisticated epistemological beliefs thatare associated with desirable learning approaches and outcomes. The inclusion ofqualitative data collection and analysis has the potential to provide additional insightinto those aspects that may result in changes in epistemological beliefs, and futurestudies should include such features. It is also apparent that we need to consider themessages we convey to our students implicitly through the course structures weutilise, and the effects they might have on students learning.AcknowledgementsThanks to Bob Baker, Ray Debus and reviewers for helpful comments on previousversions. 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