The beliefs students hold about scientific knowledge can affect their ability to understand physics - a finding that researchers say has implications for the way students are taught.
Greek psychologists Christina Stathopoulou and Stella Vosniadou tested the epistemological beliefs of 394 students aged about 15 years, all of whom had taken courses in physics.
For example, the researchers measured the students' belief in the stability and structure of scientific knowledge by gauging their agreement with statements like: “Physics textbooks present theories that have been confirmed by scientists and are not going to change.”
Next, the ten per cent of the students with the most sophisticated beliefs about knowledge, and the ten per cent with the least sophisticated beliefs, answered questions on Newton's three laws of motion.
Those students with sophisticated beliefs about scientific knowledge, who recognised that knowledge is changing and constantly reorganised, were significantly more likely to show an understanding of Newton's laws of motion, than were the students whose epistemological beliefs were less sophisticated. By contrast, the students' past school grades in physics did not predict whether they would understand Newton's laws.
Not all students with more sophisticated epistemological beliefs showed a deep understanding of Newton's laws, but none of the students with less sophisticated beliefs did. That is, in this study, sophisticated epistemological beliefs were necessary but not sufficient for a deep understanding of Newton's laws.
“If we are interested in designing effective learning environments it is important to pay more attention to students' epistemological beliefs and to develop curricula and instruction explicitly designed to promote epistemological sophistication,” the researchers said.
Stathopoulou, C. & Vosniadou, S. (2007). Exploring the relationship between physics-related epistemological beliefs and physics understanding. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32, 255-281.
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