Instructional Science

, 37:107 | Cite as

Distinguishing between knowledge and beliefs: students’ epistemic criteria for differentiating

  • Angela Boldrin
  • Lucia Mason


“I believe that he/she is telling the truth”, “I know about the solar system”: what epistemic criteria do students use to distinguish between knowledge and beliefs? If knowing and believing are conceptually distinguishable, do students of different grade levels use the same criteria to differentiate the two constructs? How do students understand the relationship between the two constructs? This study involved 219 students (116 girls and 103 boys); 114 were in 8th grade and 105 in 13th grade. Students had to (a) choose which of 5 graphic representations outlined better the relationship between the two constructs and to justify their choice; (b) rate a list of factual/validated, non-factual/non-validated and ambiguous statements as either knowledge or belief, and indicate for each statement their degree of truthfulness, acceptance and on which sources their views were based. Qualitative and quantitative analysis were performed. The data showed how students distinguish knowledge from belief conceptually and justify their understanding of the relationship between the two constructs. Although most students assigned a higher epistemic status to knowledge, school grade significantly differentiated the epistemic criteria used to distinguish the two constructs. The study indicates the educational importance of considering the notions of knowledge and belief that students bring into the learning situation.


Knowledge Beliefs Epistemic criteria Epistemological thinking Epistemological beliefs 



We are very grateful to the principals of the high and middle schools of Dolo (Venice), to the teachers for their collaboration and to all the students, whose work made this study possible. Moreover, we wish to warmly thank Gianmarco Altoè and Lucia Ronconi for their statistical suggestions and help. Finally we wish to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and valuable comments on an earlier version of this work.


  1. Abelson, R. P. (1979). Difference between belief systems and knowledge systems. Cognitive Science, 3, 355–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abelson, R. P. (1986). Beliefs are like possessions. Journal of the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16, 223–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alexander, P. A. (1992). Domain knowledge: Evolving themes and emerging concerns. Educational Psychologist, 27, 33–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Alexander, P. A. (2001). Rethinking the nature of change in students’ knowledge and beliefs: Introduction to the special issue on persuasion. International Journal of Educational Research, 35, 629–631.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Alexander, P. A., & Dochy, F. J. R. C. (1995). Conceptions of knowledge and beliefs: A comparison across varying cultural and educational communities. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 413–442.Google Scholar
  6. Alexander, P. A., Murphy, P. K., Guan, J., & Murphy P. A. (1998). How students and teachers in Singapore and the United States conceptualize knowledge and beliefs: Positioning learning within epistemological frameworks. Learning and Instruction, 8, 97–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Alexander, P. A. & Sinatra, G. M. (2007). First steps: Scholars’ promising movements into a nascent field of inquiry. In S. Vosniadou, A. Baltas, & X. Vamvakoussi (Eds.), Reframing the conceptual change approach in learning and instruction (pp. 221–236). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  8. Anderson, R. C., Reynolds, R. E., Schallert, D. L., & Goetz, E. T. (1977). Frameworks for comprehending discourse. American Educational Research Journal, 14, 367–382.Google Scholar
  9. Boscolo, P. (1997). Psicologia dell’apprendimento scolastico. Aspetti cognitivi e motivazionali [Psychology of school learning. Cognitive and motivational aspects]. Torino: UTET.Google Scholar
  10. Chambliss, M. (1994). Why do readers fail to change their beliefs after reading persuasive texts? In R. Garner & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Beliefs about text and instruction with text (pp. 75–89). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  11. Chinn, C. A., & Brewer, W. F. (1993). The role of anomalous data in knowledge acquisition: A theoretical framework and implications for science instruction. Review of Educational Research, 63, 1–49.Google Scholar
  12. Chinn, C. A., & Brewer, W. F. (1998). An empirical text of a taxonomy of responses to anomalous data in science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35, 623–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chinn, C. A., Anderson, R. C., & Waggoner, M. A. (2001). Patterns of discourse in two kinds of literature discussion. Reading Research Quarterly, 36, 378–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chinn, C. A., & Samarapungavan, A. (2001). Distinguishing between understanding and belief. Theory into Practice, 40, 235–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Garner, R., & Alexander, P. A. (Eds.). (1994). Belief about text and instruction with text. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  16. Hynd, C. (2003). Conceptual change in response to persuasive messages. In G. M. Sinatra & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Intentional conceptual change (pp. 291–315). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  17. Johnson, C. N., & Wellman, H. M. (1980). Children’s developing understanding of mental verbs: Remember, know, and guess. Child Development, 51, 1095–1102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kardash, C. M., & Scholes, R. J. (1996). Effects of preexisting beliefs, epistemological beliefs, and need for cognition on interpretation of controversial issues. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 260–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescent and adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  20. Kuhn, D. (2000). Metacognitive development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 178–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kuhn, D., & Weinstock, M. (2002). What is epistemological thinking and why does it matter? In B. K. Hofer & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing (pp. 121–144). Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  22. MacNamara, J., Baker, E., & Olson, L. (1976). Four year olds’ understanding of pretend, forget and know: Evidence for propositional operations. Child Development, 47, 62–70.Google Scholar
  23. Maggioni, L., Riconscente, M. M., & Alexander P. A. (2006). Perceptions of knowledge and beliefs among undergraduate students in Italy and in the United States. Learning and Instruction, 16, 467–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Moshmann, D. (1998). Cognitive development beyond childhood: Constraints on cognitive development and learning. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & D. Kuhn, & R. Siegler (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 2: Cognition, language, and perception (5th ed., pp. 947–978). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  25. Mason, L. (2000). Role of anomalous data and epistemological beliefs in middle school students’ theory change about two controversial topics. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 15, 239–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Mason, L. (2001). Responses to anomalous data and theory change. Learning and Instruction, 11, 453–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Mason, L. (2003). Personal epistemologies and intentional conceptual change. In G. M. Sinatra & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Intentional conceptual change (pp. 199–236). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  28. Mason, L., & Boscolo, P. (2004). Role of epistemological understanding and interest in interpreting a controversy and in topic-specific belief change. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 29, 103–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mason, L., & Scirica, F. (2006). Prediction of students’ argumentation skills about controversial topics by epistemological understanding. Learning and Instruction, 16, 492–509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Murphy, P. K. (2007). The eye of the beholder: The interplay of social and cognitive components in change. Educational Psychologist, 42, 41–53.Google Scholar
  31. Murphy, P. K., & Alexander, P. A. (2004). Persuasion as a dynamic, multidimensional process: An investigation of individual and intraindividual differences. American Educational Research Journal, 41, 337–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Murphy, P. K., Alexander, P. A., Greene, J. A., & Edwards, M. N. (2007). Epistemological threads in the fabric of conceptual change research. In S. Vosniadou, A.Baltas & X. Vanvakoussi (Eds.), Reframing the conceptual change approach in learning and instruction. (pp. 105–122) Oxford, UK: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  33. Murphy, P. K., & Mason, L. (2006). Changing knowledge and changing beliefs. In P. A. Alexander & P. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 305–324). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  34. Nespor, J. (1987). The role of beliefs in the practice of teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 10, 317–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Nisbett, R., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgement. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  36. Pajares, M. F. (1992). Teachers’ beliefs and educational research: Cleaning up a messy construct. Review of Educational Research, 62, 307–332.Google Scholar
  37. Perkins, D. N., & Simmons, R. (1988). Patterns of misunderstanding: An integrative model of science, math, and programming. Review of Educational Research, 58, 303–326.Google Scholar
  38. Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and etical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar
  39. Qian, G., & Alvermann, D. (1995). Role of epistemological beliefs and learned helplessness in secondary school students’ learning science concepts from text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 282–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rokeach, M. (1968). Beliefs, attitudes, and values: A theory of organization and change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  41. Schommer, M. (1994). An emerging conceptualization of epistemological beliefs and their role in learning. In R. Garner & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Beliefs about text and instruction with text (pp. 25–40). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  42. Shatz, M., Wellman, H. M., & Silber, S. (1983). The acquisition of mental verbs: A systematic investigation of the first reference to mental state. Cognition, 14, 301–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sinatra, G. M., & Pintrich, P. R. (Eds.). (2003). Intentional conceptual change. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  44. Sinatra, G. M., Reynolds, R. E. & Jacobson, T. (2003). Knowledge and beliefs: Empirical investigation of conceptual difference. In Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.Google Scholar
  45. Scheffler, I. (1965). Conditions of knowledge. New York: Scott, Foresman & Co.Google Scholar
  46. Southerland, S. A., & Sinatra, G. M. (2003). Learning about biological evolution: A special case of intentional conceptual change. In G. M. Sinatra & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Intentional conceptual change (pp. 317–345). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  47. Southerland, S., Sinatra, G. M., & Mattews, M. (2001). Belief, knowledge, and science education. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 325–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Weinstock, M., Neuman, Y., & Tabak, I. (2004). Missing the point or missing the norms? Epistemological norms as predictors of students’ ability to identify fallacious arguments. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 29, 77–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Developmental and Socialization PsychologyUniversity of PadovaPadovaItaly

Personalised recommendations