Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Students' Epistemic Beliefs

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 06, 2006

I found this to be an interesting paper, one that captures and explores some useful intuitions, but which nonetheless depends rather too much on its assumptions in the drafting of its conclusion.

The part of the paper that I think is useful is this: the observation that students may have different epistemic beliefs about the nature of knowledge and the nature of knowing. In one sense, this should be obvious (it would be more surprising were they all to have the same epistemic beliefs), and yet, the characterization of this difference as a difference of this type does, as the authors suggest, address issues in instructional design.

What I would like to challenge, however, is the contention that there is a (natural?) progression from one type of epistemic belief - the absolutist authoritarian perspective, to coin a term - to a better (or at least, more sophisticated) type of epistemic belief - the relativist libertarian perspective, if you will.

I challenge this perspective on two grounds:

First, there is no reason a priori to suppose that the one epistemic belief is an improvement over the other. I say this, while believing that the relativist libertarian perspective is better, based on the large number of very well educated and well informed people who have, over the years, insisted on one or another sort of absolutism or authoritarianism.

Second, there is no reason a priori to suppose that this migration from one type of epistemic belief to another represents some sort of development. This presumes that it is natural that students would emerge from public education bearing an absolutist authoritarian epistemic belief set. But this is the case, I would argue, because we put it there. Just as students can learn to progress from selfishness to sharing at the age of two, they can also achieve the same epistemological feat at the same age. Unless they are taught (or indoctrinated) into selfishness, into epistemic absolutism.

To combine the two points: I would suggest that there is no small number of people who would characterize what happens to a person's epistemic belief set through the process of college or university as a regression from knowledge to uncertainty, a regression caused not as much by the teaching as by the undisciplined and intellectually sloppy environment of the traditional university.

I am arguing this case not merely to be a devil's advocate, but to show very clearly that there are some epistemological issues that have been glossed over in the paper, and that to represent the migration through those issues as a developmental process is to misunderstand the nature of the process that must lead one through to such a conclusion - a process that is noticeably absent in any number of well educated absolutist authoritarians. The epistemic development is not merely a dawning of the understanding that there are multiple points of view, not merely a dawning of the understanding that knowledge is a personal, and not professorial, process.

It is disappointing to see the design of this study such that it lends encouragement to the misinterpretation of the data. Once again I am forced to point out that a study of "184 undergraduate and graduate students from eight classes at a large public university in the Midwest United States" is epistemically and scientifically useless and to in no uncertain terms urge that people who undertake scientific studies learn something of the philosophy of science.

Consider, for example, the study's findings that first year students tend toward a higher absolutist authoritarian score. Well big surprise. Some people may think of midwestern university students as somehow being 'average', but as for myself, I can think of no other group in the world (save radical Muslim clerics) to lean toward absolutism and authoritarians after a public school education. This group represents people who have not only grown up in a radically conservative part of the world, and been schooled in its tenets, but also, who have been successful in this schooling, and who (because they can afford college) come from families who are successful in this environment. Talk about rigging a sample group!

Another problem with a survey of this type is with the rigor with which the questions are formulated. Unfortunately (or perhaps happily) we are not presented with the full set of questions. However, those we do view are disturbing. What does one make of a question such as, "College Instructors should present various ideas on an issue." Does this mean that professors should present various perspectives? various theories? various responses? The question is so vaguely worded that when presented in the context of the midwestern U.S. it could be interpreted to be a question about the teaching of evolution, and hence absolutists (who want to see creationism taught) would select "strongly agree" while relativists (seeking to keep religion out of the classroom) may select "strongly disagree." Students in higher grades, of course, would present different answers, having become accustomed to such research questions.

In a similar manner, responses to a question like "In an online course, I would want the instructor to answer the questions I post instead of other students" may reflect diminishing selfishness rather than increasing libertarianism. The question may be read (by semi-literate students) as wanting the instructor to comment on their own questions rather than on other students' questions. More experienced (and literate, and altruistic) students may read the question as intended, and display no preference for having a professor respond to their question or to having another student respond.

If the remainder of the questions are this vague, the study may 'prove' any number of theses, and rewrite our understanding of freshmen theology in the process.

Finally, there is nothing in the research or argumentation that supports the authors' "pragmatic" conclusion, specifically, that given that students in earlier years are less likely to be epistemically sophisticated, instructional design for those grades ought to be adjusted accordingly, and hence providing "
providing an authoritative, supportive online environment for young-mid undergraduates."

This perspective makes sense if the progression is indeed natural, and if it is indeed reasonable to expect students to graduate with an absolutist authoritarian set of epistemic beliefs. And perhaps it is in some places. From my perspective, however, this reflects a student population that has been significantly harmed by its public school education, one that speaks of a drastic need for reform at the lower grade levels and remediation before such students are capable of university-level studies, even at the undergraduate level.

This situation is indeed from my perspective analogous to illiteracy or innumeracy - I am tempted to all it 'epistemic illiteracy' or 'inepistery' (sorry, couldn't help coining one more term before the end of this response). These students' natural capacity to know and to learn have been so badly damaged during their public school education that they cannot assess truth or validity for themselves, but must rely on artificial devices (teachers, the media, and other authority figures) to do it for them.

The 'natural progression' perspective masks this. It accepts the existing system of education as normal. It is as though universities had simply acquiesced to accepting illiterate undergraduate students, and decided to be "pragmatic" by rewriting all undergraduate texts as picture-books.

What would better research show?

In my view, it would show that the 'natural' epistemic beliefs set (at least as instantiated, if not reported) would be what we se in young children before they have been sent to the educational system: alert, curious, experimental, communicative, questioning and sceptical. They would accept things on faith if it is reasonable to do so, but would nonetheless pester these same 'authorities' with persistent why-questions. They would be easily able to imagine alternative worlds and world views (since, in their imaginations, they already have several, and their imaginary friends even more). One wonders what sort of learners such people would be in their undergraduate years, were authority not substituted for epistemology ion their school years.

Thus, while I think this paper opens the door to an interesting topic, it treats that topic in far too light-handed a way, failing to probe beyond what may be seen as relatively superficial presumptions about the domain of inquiry, and failing through inadequate examination to wrestle with some of the more important underlying issues. As a result, the prescription it advocates is more likely damaging than remedial. Universities should be requiring that students, on entry, be able to think for themselves, rather than instead pandering to those who cannot, and to schools who will not let them.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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