Students’ beliefs about knowledge and knowing may manifest themselves as theories that color the way in which they approach various learning tasks, monitor their knowledge, seek information, and evaluate its relevance (Greene et al. 2016; Lonka and Lindblom-Ylänne 1996; Schommer 1993; Vermunt 1998). Such epistemic theories have been referred to as “personal epistemologies” (Hofer and Pintrich 1997; Hofer 2000, 2001). The present article looks at the complex relations among epistemic theories, conceptions of learning, and academic achievement in the context of higher education.
Recently, a new inclusive umbrella term epistemic cognition has been introduced (Hofer 2016). It is not only about beliefs or theories, but also about how knowledge is defined, acquired, and used (e.g., Hofer 2016; Kitchener 1983; Kuhn 1999; Greene et al. 2016). Within this vocabulary, epistemic beliefs refer to beliefs about knowledge and the processes of knowing that constitute more or less coherent epistemic theories (Hofer 2016; Muis et al. 2016) as an essential part of epistemic cognition.
Originally, Kitchener (1983) came up with the term ‘epistemic cognition’ when she analyzed the cognitive processes that people used when the problem at hand was complex, was open-ended, and involved contradictory evidence or opinions. Typical of such open-ended or ill-defined problems is that there are no clear-cut correct answers or a reasonable consensus within the respective expert communities about what constitutes an acceptable solution (Lonka 1997). Kitchener defined three levels of cognitive processing when dealing with such problems: (1) cognitive (reading, solving problems etc.), (2) metacognitive, during which individuals monitor their progress when engaged in such cognitive activities, and (3) epistemic cognition, during which individuals reflect on the limits of their knowing, the certainty of knowing, and the criteria of knowing. According to Hofer (2016), the prior understandings of cognition and metacognition did not account for the kinds of mental processes involved in epistemic cognition referring to critical thinking as well as looking at the limits, certainty, and criteria for knowing.
In the present paper, we operationalize epistemic theories as epistemic profiles by clustering the students based on the epistemic beliefs they express. This is done by using a person-oriented approach, specifically, latent profile analysis (see e.g., Vermunt and Magidson 2002). The latent profiles, based on beliefs, are then interpreted to reflect epistemic theories shared by a certain group of university students. In our previous studies, we have found this person-oriented strategy fruitful in understanding how undergraduate students approach their studies in various disciplines (e.g., en et al. 2017).
The present study thus looks at the epistemic beliefs that constitute the epistemic theories (empirically manifested as profiles) of university students. Our interest is in how epistemic theories are related to students’ ideas of learning and whether they have any bearing on their academic progress in five different disciplines. In the present paper, we do not directly look at the processes of epistemic cognition, as this is an umbrella term that covers both beliefs and actions: Instead, we focus on the belief level.
On the development and variation of epistemic beliefs
The first wave of research on epistemic beliefs (or personal epistemologies) started with qualitative studies, and the early models were developmental in nature (Hofer 2016). In his seminal work, Perry (1970) described the epistemological development of college students: At the beginning of their studies, students saw knowledge as an unorganized set of discrete and absolute truths (dualist orientation), but this conception gradually transformed through relativistic ideas, in which all viewpoints were merely “opinions,” and further into seeing knowledge as an array of interpreted and integrated positions (see also Hofer and Pintrich 1997).
The phases of epistemic development have been described as three levels of beliefs: (1) Absolutism or dualism, (2) multiplism or relativism, and (3) evaluatism or integrated thought (Kuhn and Weinstock 2002). Increasingly relativistic and integrated ideas of knowledge tend to develop during long-term university studies (e.g., Baxter Magolda 1992; Hofer 2004b; Perry 1970). Such epistemic change rarely happens over a short period of time (Hofer 2001).
The second wave of research on epistemic beliefs intended to quantify the phenomenon by using Likert-type questionnaires. Mixed methods were also used to, for instance, look at how beliefs were related to study activities. It appeared that epistemic beliefs did play a role in how students approached various learning tasks and thus played a role in students’ metacognition. Already, Ryan’s (1984) study showed that “dualists” often reported knowledge standards (how much one knows), whereas students classified as “relativists” more often reported comprehension standards (how much one understands) when evaluating their learning from text. Ryan further showed that students reporting the use of comprehension criteria earned better grades in a psychology course. Lonka and Lindblom-Ylänne (1996) later replicated this relation between epistemic beliefs and criteria for comprehension among students in medicine and psychology: In their study, epistemic beliefs were also related to preferred study strategies: “Relativists” significantly more often suggested elaborative study strategies than “dualists.” Tsai and Liu (2005) summarized research on science learning and concluded that the more students see scientific knowledge as being constructed by scientists (a relativist view), the more likely they are to employ meaningful strategies in science learning. In sum, epistemic beliefs may have practical consequences for how students act. Epistemic beliefs and theories are an essential part of epistemic cognition, that is, how knowledge is acquired and used (Greene et al. 2016).
Multidimensionality in epistemic beliefs was introduced by Schommer (1990, 1993), who proposed that epistemic beliefs constitute belief systems that may or may not develop in a synchronized way. She used Likert-type questions in various dimensions of beliefs. Her measures focused only on dualist dimensions and included conceptions of learning: (1) Innate ability, when students believed the ability to learn is predetermined, (2) quick learning indicating that learning occurs rapidly or not at all, (3) simple knowledge, a belief that knowledge can be described as isolated facts, and (4) certain knowledge, seeing knowledge as unchanging. Later, Schommer-Aikins (2011) theorized about more complex epistemic beliefs that were related to cognitive flexibility, such as seeing knowledge as tentative, gradual learning, or complex knowledge that could encourage learners to resist premature closure and make them search for more options, sources, or viewpoints in order to solve complex problems.
In other multidimensional models of epistemic beliefs, separate beliefs constituted intuitive epistemic theories. Hofer and Pintrich (1997); see also Hofer 2004a) were critical of mixing conceptions of learning with epistemic beliefs. They proposed a model that constituted four dimensions: Certainty of knowledge reflected the willingness to seek certain and fixed facts, in contrast to tentative and evolving knowledge and simplicity of knowledge, referring to seeing knowledge as discrete and simple facts instead of relative, contingent, contextual, or interrelated ideas. The other two beliefs were about knowing: Source of knowledge refers to the locus of knowledge that may originate outside the self, given by the authorities who transmit it, or something actively constructed by the learner. Justification of knowing refers to beliefs of how people justify their beliefs and how they evaluate their own or other people’s knowledge.
Greene et al. (2008) pointed out that from the philosophical point of view, only justification is really related to classic philosophical epistemology that does not refer to whether knowledge is simple or certain but rather to the kinds of claims that can be justified. “Epistemological theory” implicates a metatheory about epistemic beliefs, as philosophers have pointed out (Hofer 2016). In the present article, we therefore talk about “epistemic beliefs” or “epistemic theories” instead of “epistemologies.” The epistemic profiles, consisting of beliefs, are interpreted to reflect students’ more or less coherent epistemic theories.
Are epistemic beliefs general or based on discipline or domain?
There have been debates on whether epistemic beliefs are general, based on academic context (discipline), domain-specific, or even topic-specific. These levels of study are somewhat difficult to define. Schommer and Walker (1995) suggested domain-generality, whereas Muis et al. (2006) supported domain-specificity.
Students may share the same beliefs in a certain discipline, for instance, natural science students tend to be more absolutist or dualistic in their beliefs than humanities students (Nieminen 2011). This is between-student variation. Hofer (2000) indicated within-student variation in different fields of study by showing that first-year college students in an introductory psychology course saw knowledge in science as more certain and unchanging than that in psychology. Authority and expertise were more often seen as the source of knowledge in science than in psychology, and truth was more often seen as attainable in science than in psychology.
Hofer (2016) called for more precision and clarity on the relations among general-, discipline-, or topic-related beliefs. Lonka and Lindblom-Ylänne (1996) showed that the general level of dualism was higher among medical students than among psychology students, but in both disciplines, the advanced students expressed less dualist views than the novices. In their study, both discipline and level of studies appeared to be important. Merk et al. (2018) recently showed a reciprocal influence between topic-specific and more general epistemic beliefs. The current consensus is that epistemic beliefs have a dual nature: They are both domain-general and domain-specific (Hofer 2016; Mason 2016). We wanted to see, how epistemic theories varied across disciplines in higher education.
Conceptions of learning meet epistemic beliefs
The aims of university students vary; they may have different goals for knowledge, understanding or seeking truth (Buehl and Fives 2016). Some students want to reflect on their own thinking and study materials or create knowledge collaboratively, while others prefer receiving directly applicable, certain, and simple knowledge from their teacher (Lonka et al. 2008). Our interest is in how closely such beliefs of knowledge and learning are related to each other and whether they form systematic theories.
From the point of philosophy, conceptions of human knowledge and learning are not only epistemological; they are also ontological, as they involve assumptions about the known world and the knowing person (Packer and Goicoechea 2000). Lonka et al. (1996) proposed that students’ definitions of learning provide a window for looking at their personal epistemologies, because conceptions of learning implicitly include conceptions of the origin and nature of knowledge. If we come to learn something, this inevitably refers to a process of how knowing and learning happens and what the origin of knowledge is.
Initially, Hofer and Pintrich (1997) as well as Hofer (2001) suggested that personal epistemologies should be separated from conceptions of learning, whereas Schommer (1990) suggested that personal epistemology could be seen as a collection of beliefs about knowledge and learning. Hammer and Elby (2002) also suggested that epistemic beliefs include ideas on both knowledge and learning. Many researchers looked at conceptions of learning and epistemic beliefs simultaneously using qualitative categories (e.g., Lonka et al. 1996; Marton et al. 1993; Säljö 1979; Vermunt 1996). Conceptions of learning were classified in increasingly complex categories, starting from memorizing and knowledge acquisition, then applying knowledge, understanding, or making sense of knowledge, and, further, and finally seeing knowledge from new perspectives or changing as a person or creating new knowledge. In qualitative studies, conceptions of learning and knowledge often merge. For instance, in her empirical study, Hofer (2004b) showed that epistemic theories and approaches to learning were indeed closely linked. In the context of school science, Shubert and Meredith (2015) used the term “pragmatic epistemology” to combine students’ ideas about knowledge, knowing and learning in their own academic practices.
Marton and Säljö (1976) originally identified deep and surface approaches to learning as different strategies: In general, the surface approach referred to an intention that was extrinsic to the real purpose of the learning task, aiming to memorize or invest minimal time and effort, whereas the deep approach was based on the strategy of maximizing understanding (Biggs 1985). A wave of quantitative studies followed to explore approaches to learning: Entwistle and Ramsden (1983) introduced the Approaches to Studying Inventory (ASI; later ASSIST, Tait et al. 1998), Biggs (1985) constructed the Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ), and Vermunt (1998, 2020) and colleagues developed the Inventory of Learning patterns of Students (ILS) to measure students’ learning patterns.
The ILS contains 16 scales to measure four learning components: processing strategies, regulation strategies, conceptions of learning, and learning orientations. The ILS includes three scales to measure the conceptions of learning that are students’ views on (good) learning and teaching. They measure the degree to which students view learning as the intake of knowledge, the construction of knowledge, and the use of knowledge. The final learning component of the ILS are students’ learning orientations, representing their motives, aims, goals, and worries with regard to their studies: Personal interest, certificate orientation, self-test orientation, vocational orientation and ambivalence (for a review, see Vermunt and Donche 2017).
Vermunt and Vermetten (2004) conceive a learning pattern as a coherent whole of processing and regulation strategies that students usually employ, their conception of learning, and their learning orientation, a whole that is characteristic for them during a certain period of time. A reproduction-directed learning pattern involves both surface strategies, a conception of learning that emphasizes the intake of knowledge, as well as certificate and self-test learning orientations. Meaning-directed learning is typified by the use of deep processing strategies as well as construction of knowledge as learning conception, and personal interest as learning orientation. Students who adopt an application-directed learning pattern often use concrete processing strategies, attach a great deal of value to using knowledge, and are vocationally motivated to learn (e.g. Vermunt and Donche 2017). Vermunt (1998) found the application-directed learning pattern to be especially prevalent among older students with work experience. Smith et al. (2007) found that application-directed learning dominated among pharmacy students in Australia and remained stable throughout the study.
Lonka and Lindblom-Ylänne (1996) also found reproduction and meaning orientations as well as a professional orientation, resembling application orientation. They combined ILS measures with ASI as well as with measures of epistemic beliefs and conceptions of learning. They found that advanced medical students typically showed a strong professional orientation. Lonka and Lindblom-Ylänne (1996) showed that the surface approach, dualistic epistemic beliefs, and the ILS conception of learning “intake of knowledge” all loaded on reproduction orientation factor, the deep approach and “construction of knowledge” loaded on meaning orientation factor, whereas the professional orientation factor was separate from these two with a strong loading by “use of knowledge.”
Lonka et al. (2004) proposed that the conception of the deep approach should also involve collaborative aspects of learning, because the current socio-constructive ways of learning (i.e. problem- and inquiry-based learning) are based on the idea of knowledge as socially created (e.g., Paavola and Hakkarainen 2005; Scardamalia and Bereiter 2006). Lonka et al. (2008) later showed that among medical students, the deep approach to learning, valuing metacognition, reflective learning, and collaborative knowledge-building indeed all loaded on the same factor, whereas belief in certain knowledge, surface approach to learning, and valuing practical knowledge, all loaded on the same factor. Later, a person-oriented approach showed more variation: The epistemic profile of “a reflective professional” emerged, where practical value was related to reflective learning and valuing metacognition (Heiskanen and Lonka 2012).
Research on epistemic beliefs in higher education is rather complex itself. Adding the vast literature on research on approaches to learning (and conceptions of learning) complicates the question even more. By using a person-oriented strategy, we wanted to test our theoretical ideas and deepen our understanding of the relations between these two fields of study. Current understanding is that conceptions of knowledge and learning are intertwined, and we wanted to further test this assumption. There is also a need to further validate survey instruments that capture complex epistemic beliefs in higher education (Richardson 2013).
We wanted to combine the various dimensions of epistemic theories and investigated their simultaneous relation to conceptions of learning and academic achievement. A variable-oriented approach describes overall relations among variables, behind which differently functioning subgroups of individuals and the specific relations between variables may be hidden. Instead, we adopted a person-oriented approach (see e.g., Bergman and Magnusson 1997) in order to investigate the associations between various dimensions of students’ epistemic theories and their combined effect on academic achievement and conceptions of learning. Person-oriented methods represent a cluster analytical approach, one in which students with a similar profile in a set of variables can be classified as one type (e.g., Vermunt and Magidson 2002).
Our first research question was “Does our instrument comprise a five-factor structure of epistemic beliefs consisting of (1) reflective learning, (2) collaborative knowledge-building, (3) valuing metacognition, (4) certain knowledge, and (5) practical value in this population?” Based on previous research, we expected the goodness-of-fit indices to support a five-factor model (Lonka et al. 2008; Vedenpää and Lonka 2014).
Our second research question was “What kinds of epistemic theories can a person-oriented approach find?” The person-oriented analysis can reveal groups of students who share the same epistemic beliefs that form their shared epistemic theory. We expected variation, and similar patterns to those in our previous studies using both variable- and person-oriented approaches (Heiskanen and Lonka 2012; Lonka et al. 2008). We expected to find three to four groups of students. Because the participants were mainly undergraduates, we expected that the profiles would be dominated with beliefs in certain knowledge, rather than beliefs of metacognition, reflection, and collaborative knowledge-building. Because we were dealing with academic professions (e.g. future teachers and lawyers), we also expected practical ideas of knowledge to dominate.
Our third question was “How are epistemic theories related to Vermunt’s conceptions of learning (1996, 1998)?” We expected the epistemic profiles emphasizing metacognition, collaborative knowledge-building and reflection to be related to the “construction of knowledge” conception of learning, valuing practical knowledge to be related to “use of knowledge” and profiles valuing certain knowledge to be related to the view of learning as “intake of knowledge.”
Our fourth research question was “Do epistemic profiles differ in terms of academic achievement, discipline or age?” Based on previous studies (Lonka and Lindblom-Ylänne 1996; Tsai and Liu 2005), we expected younger students and students in science and engineering to value certain knowledge more than mature students and students of law, theology, and teacher education. As within the latter domains the phenomena (or problems) are more open-ended in nature, we expected less beliefs in certain knowledge and more collaborative or constructivist beliefs.