Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

How College-Level Introductory Instruction Can Impact Student Epistemological Beliefs

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

How College-Level Introductory Instruction Can Impact Student Epistemological Beliefs

Article excerpt

Studies investigating student epistemologies are not new, although measurement of student epistemological beliefs in college science courses has largely been neglected (May & Etkina, 2002). Comparisons of student views to those of scientists often reveal that students have very different ideas about the nature of science and learning science than experts (Edmonson & Novack, 1993; Gire & Jones, 2009). As educators, we expect students to move from novice understandings toward more expert understandings as they progress through our courses. However, research with large introductory physics and chemistry courses shows a vastly different trend, revealing that students tend to become more "novice-like" in their views after taking introductory-level science courses in these subject domains (Adams, Perkins, Dubson, Finkelstein, & Wieman, 2004; Ding, 2014a; Gire & Jones, 2009; Perkins, Adams, Pollok, Finkelstein, & Wieman, 2006; Zhang & Ding, 2013).

To better understand students' science epistemologies, researchers have developed domain-specific instruments to gauge students' attitudes and beliefs in biology, chemistry, and physics (Adams et al., 2004; Barbera, Perkins, Adams, & Wieman, 2008; Perkins et al., 2006; Semsar, Knight, Birol, & Smith, 2011). The research reported here is based on work published in reference to introductory biology courses that reveals similar results to the work in physics and chemistry. Namely, students in large-enrollment introductory biology courses exhibited a novice-like shift in their thinking after a semester of college learning (Semsar et al., 2011). Building on previous discipline-based research, our study expands the prior findings to include a comparison between science majors and nonscience majors. In particular, we seek to investigate the differences between science and nonscience majors in their epistemologies of biology and learning biology and the extent to which a semester of introductory biology instruction may change student views.

Although this study focuses on college-level biology classes, the results reported herein have relevance to teaching and learning in all disciplines. Knowing what students think about science and learning science is important to teaching all students, and yet little research has been done to investigate student epistemologies among nonscience majors in introductory courses. Large-enrollment introductory courses are often the last opportunity to expose these students to the relevant subject matter. Therefore, promoting accurate views of science and positive attitudes toward learning science is critically important in these courses, just as it is in majors' courses. The present study is an initial step toward a more thorough understanding of all students' epistemologies about biology and learning biology, which may lead to future instructional improvements in introductory courses.

Epistemological beliefs

Epistemological beliefs are defined as an individual's attitudes, ideas, and views about the nature of knowledge and the nature of knowing, and they are considered foundational to other knowledge (Hofer, 2004; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Schommer, 1990; Schommer-Akins, 2004; Pajares, 1992). There is agreement in existing research that epistemological beliefs generally consist of four components: certainty of knowledge, justification of knowing, simplicity of knowledge, and source of knowledge (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Schommer, 1998; Ulucinar, Akar, Demir, & Demirhan, 2012). In a more generalizable framework (Figure 1), these four components are considered as subsumed under two overarching dimensions that pertain respectively to the nature of knowledge and the nature of knowing (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997).

Historically, research on student epistemologies has been situated in the notion that epistemologies are context dependent (Hammer & Elby, 2003; Hofer, 2001). Although investigations of this topic in general science may help reveal student views about universal knowledge, more useful details can be revealed through discipline-specific studies. …

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