Dimension 4: Epistemic Beliefs/Metacognition

Epistemic beliefs refer to beliefs about knowledge (including its structure and certainty) and knowing (including sources and justification of knowledge; Buehl & Alexander, 2001; Duell & Schommer-Aikins, 2001; Hofer, 2000; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997). Increasingly, educational researchers have become interested in how epistemic beliefs about knowledge and knowing are a part of the process of learning and instruction, and how these beliefs affect or mediate the knowledge-acquisition and knowledge construction processes. Students’ and teachers’ epistemic cognition and views about the nature of science must often be revised (Duit & Treagust, 2003) in order to effectively construct new knowledge in science.
Most students do not seem to have an epistemology of science that is consistent with current inquiry-based approaches to learning science, and few students see science as a process of building and testing models and theories. Instead, science is seen as a steady accumulation of facts about the world, as piecemeal information that is unconnected to everyday experience, and which is to be accepted because of the authority of the teacher or text (Carey & Smith, 1993; Driver, Leach, Millar, & Scott, 1996; Hammer, 1994; Linn & Songer, 1993; L. Liu & Hmelo-Silver, 2009; Smith, Maclin, Houghton, & Hennessey, 2000). Research has shown that students’ epistemic beliefs about the structure of knowledge as well as the construction and stability of scientific knowledge predict better learning gains, and that only students holding constructivist epistemic beliefs achieve a deep conceptual understanding of scientific knowledge, such as Newtonian dynamics (Stathopoulou & Vosniadou, 2007).To improve students’ epistemic understanding of the nature of science, it is essential to promote teachers’ understanding in this area (Yoon, Liu, & Goh, 2009).
Research shows that teachers who believe that knowledge is derived from experts, and that one’s learning ability is innate, are more likely to engage in traditional, teacher-centered instructional practices. In contrast, teachers who believe that knowledge is constructed from one’s experiences and judgment, that knowledge is tentative and changing, and that one’s ability to learn can be changed, tend to conduct progressive instructional practices that are student-centered (Chan & Elliott, 2004). Therefore, educational researchers and practitioners call for approaches to shifting teachers’ and students’ epistemic beliefs from an absolutist (knowledge is objective, located in the external world, and certain) to a constructivist view (knowledge is constructed and uncertain). We propose an approach to using formative assessment that includes many opportunities to engage students in learning experiences that focus on the development of personal epistemologies through engaging learners in learning activities of doing science, to help foster the shift of epistemic beliefs. The assumption is that if students are taught science in the context of inquiry, they will know what they know, how they know it, and why they believe it (Duschl, 2003). This approach requires that instruction be continuously modified while learning is taking place. This continuous modification is where formative assessment comes into effective instruction. When, appropriately designed and implemented, formative assessment involves gathering, interpreting, and acting on information about students’ learning so that it may be improved (Bell & Cowie, 2001; Duschl, 2003) and can support learning (Black & Wiliam, 1998).
Epistemic beliefs are often related to one’s metacognitive knowledge (metacognition).
Metacognition is often referred to as thinking about thinking and can be used to help students learn how to learn. Specifically, metacognition refers to students’ awareness of their own knowledge and their ability to understand, control, and manipulate their own cognitive processes (Flavell, 1979). Metacognition consists of several essential elements: planning (developing a plan of action), monitoring (maintaining the plan), and evaluating (evaluating the progress). Below we elaborate on these elements:
  • Planning: During the planning process, students need to have an understanding of what prior knowledge they have and whether it is useful for a particular task. They also need to know what other knowledge is needed to complete the task.
  • Monitoring: During the monitoring process, students attempt to keep themselves on the right track of problem solving and iterate back and forth between the planning process, the use of knowledge, and the learning strategies needed to achieve the targeted learning goals.
  • Evaluating: During the evaluating process, students assess whether they have reached their goals; determine what gaps in their knowledge, skills, or abilities still need to be filled in; and most importantly, recognize how they obtained the necessary knowledge for problem solving.

The term metacognition has been used interchangeably with the term self-regulation (Azevedo & Hadwin, 2005), which emphasizes students’ ability to adjust their learning processes in response to their perception of feedback regarding their current status of learning.
Engaging students in metacognitive processes guides students’ thinking as they work through a problem and make decisions. Davidson and Sternberg (1998) have argued that metacognitive knowledge allows the problem solver to better encode and represent the givens in a problem context (i.e., what information is provided in the problem), break down the problem into smaller questions that are relevant, and therefore derive a better solution.
It is particularly challenging to assess students’ metacognitive processes, as those processes are often hidden in thinking. Traditionally, students’ metacognition is assessed through Likert-type self-report surveys (Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1993; Weinstein, Zimmermann, & Palmer, 1988). Other research has focused on providing metacognitive scaffolds to make evidence of students’ thinking visible by asking students to think aloud verbally or to write down their thinking (e.g., Azevedo & Hadwin, 2005; Brush & Saye, 2001). To this end, some virtual learning environments in science, such as ThinkerTools (White, 1993) and WISE (Slotta, 2004), build in functions to log students’ pathways to problem solving, so that students can visualize their thinking process during problem solving. Although there have been some advances in the measurement of metacognition, more work establishing the reliability and validity of the available measures is needed.
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