(Extracted for a Draft Working paper)
Distributed institutions face an increasing challenge to be able to afford, or deliver efficiently, the central services to meet diverse student needs. Changing contexts, notably the move towards the notion of the lifelong learner, means changing support structures and given the limitations of costs it becomes clear that foundations matter (Field, Gallacher, & Ingram, 2009).
Any review undertaken to inform the student support strategies identified a need for epistemological orientation in learning and teaching activities and assessment practices. The most common language used terms such as ‘orientation’ or ‘induction’ and the focus has tended to be on the ‘first-year experience’ (Nelson, Quinn, Marrington, & Clarke, 2012). Also highlighted were the range of excellent opportunities for greater international and culturally diverse insights to be contributed by staff and students from different backgrounds into the curriculum (Hammer, Bennett, & Wiseman, 2003). This need for enhancement was particularly relevant to the stages of pre-arrival support, pre-sessional support and induction within the Student Life-cycle.
Effective induction, orientation and retention require an appropriate epistemological foundation for all students a number of ways:
- To enable students to achieve a more effective transition regarding pedagogical methodology from previous educational experiences to their experiences in UK higher education;
- To facilitate the more effective integration of students into relevant learning communities;
- To develop faculty awareness, skills and teaching strategies by the more effective application of epistemological orientations (evidenced notably as ‘cultural sensitivity’) into their teaching practice which will thereby develop the effectiveness of student learning environments.
A focus on epistemological orientation in the contemporary context of UK higher education must surely be to regard all students as ‘international students’, in that they are operating within a global context regardless of their discipline, nationality or status, and increasingly diverse nature of students necessarily should also force us to consider all students as ‘transitional students’.
Interest in how students learn is extended in the field of meta-cognitive research into student awareness and motivation for how they learn, the notion of ‘epistemological beliefs’. Research in this area is based in part on the assumption that students have discernible beliefs about the nature of knowledge and that these assumptions, or conceptions, affect their performance in learning activities. Schommer developed a questionnaire used to establish epistemological beliefs amongst college students in the United States and this instrument has been used in other studies to justify a number of cultural differences (Schommer, 1990, 1993). The question as to whether the instrument developed by Schommer is contextually specific, in other words whether it can be used outside of the context for which it was developed, is itself the subject of research (Clarebout, Elen, Luyten, & Bamps, 2001), however a review of epistemological beliefs instruments, drawing on the work of Bennett (M. J. Bennett, 1986), Magolda (Magolda, 1992) Schommer (Schommer, 1990, 1993), Schoenfeld (Schoenfeld, 1983), Dweck (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) and Perry (Perry, 1968) suggested there are fundamental questions students can and should be asked to establish their beliefs about learning. For example, Dweck explores the need for individuals to identify themselves as being and “entity” theorist or and “incremental” theorist, where in the first instance one believes that intelligence is largely fixed and cannot be changed through effort and incremental theorist believes they can increase their intelligence through effort (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) which lends itself to the fairly straightforward question; “Who is responsible for my learning?”.
The empirical date to support correlations between student success and epistemological beliefs is contested. In their review of epistemological beliefs survey instruments and their theoretical underpinnings, Hofer and Pintrich conclude that there is little consensus amongst researchers about the construction of epistemological belief and their relationships with other factors impacting on student attitude and approaches (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997). They express a particular concern with the conflagration of very different concepts in a single survey instrument, particularly the mixing of questions related to intelligence and to learning. In this early evaluation of the field they have already identified the difficulties of ambiguous language and assumptions being made by researchers about the clarity of underlying constructs. Schommer positions her own work as an attempt to diversify the dimensional aspects of earlier work by Perry who she argues produced a unique dimensional and fixed notion of personal epistemological development (Perry, 1968; Schommer, 1990). Schommer attempted to create more complex matrices of interdependent values recognising that beliefs may develop along different dimensions at different rates. She proposes five epistemological dimensions the first three of which relate to knowledge itself, namely structure, certainty, and source and to others which relate to the acquisition of knowledge, namely control and speed. For each of these dimensions Schommer proposes subsets of questions, 63 in all, creating a complex array of questions.
Recent attempts to explore the relationship between epistemological beliefs and meta-cognition, particularly the issue of how and why in epistemological beliefs have an impact on learning have explored the COPES model (Bromme, Pieschl, & Stahl, 2010). The COPES model conceptualise as epistemological beliefs as “internal conditions of learning” suggesting that beliefs are part of an internal self-regulation system (Greene & Azevedo, 2007). This system provides an internal conceptual framework about the nature of what is to be learnt and how such learning occurs. The justification for the study of epistemological beliefs and meta-cognition, and their relationship to self-regulated learning, is important if one accepts the premise that beliefs both scaffold and constrain the learners’ assumptions about both learning content and context. Epistemological beliefs can be seen as a lens through which the learner perceives the substance to be learnt as well as the landscape in which learning is to take place. The system the student puts in place to cope is represented by the notion of ‘self-regulated learning’ (Winne, 2005) .
Within educational psychology framework consisting of four identifiable and interrelated dimensions of belief provides a useful exploratory framework for epistemological beliefs (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997). The first two-dimensions, or binary juxtaposition, explores the nature of knowledge through the concept of certainty and structure. Certainty of knowledge is concerned with perceptions of the stability of knowledge and the strength of supporting evidence and structure, or simplicity, of knowledge seeks to define the complexity or connectedness of knowledge. The second binary juxtaposition is concerned with the nature of knowing, rather than knowledge itself, and contrast the justification of knowledge and the source of knowledge. Justification of knowledge is concerned with the process by which individuals evaluate and validate knowledge claims and the source of knowledge is concerned with notions of place and origin, where knowledge resides. There remains a debate as to the extent to which these dimensions are universal or whether there are domain or subject differences (Buehl & Alexander, 2001).
A core principle emerging from the educational psychology literature is that learners’ epistemological beliefs develop over time as a result of educational processes from the ‘naïve’ towards the ‘sophisticated’ (Bromme et al., 2010). A naïve epistemological framework would be one in which an individual sees knowledge as fixed and canonical, a collection of certain facts whose source is guaranteed by the authority the person declaring the knowledge. A sophisticated perspective might be described as one in which any knowledge claim is regarded as dependent on context and which is continuously challenged and re-evaluated through a process of social interaction. Whilst a naïve view might suggest that knowledge is unchanging whereas a sophisticated view defines knowledge as uncertain and continuously reconstructed. It is worth noting perhaps that the very language itself describing these two different epistemological beliefs could be regarded as pejorative since the term naïve and sophisticated carry significance in the English-language. Convinced, as I am that a profound shift in focus in our institutional support mechanisms for effective learning requires an engagement with the epistemological belief foundations of learners, perhaps a bigger problem is that such educational language, of psychology and meta-cognition, indeed of epistemology, is alien to the majority of teaching faculty and certainly beyond many students. What solutions present themselves?
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