July 21st, 2014

Examining Knowledge Beliefs to Motivate Student Learning


“I just cram for the exam and then forget everything.”

“If I can just get this last paper done I am in the clear.”

Comments like these make us cringe, but we all know the external factors that motivate students: grades, grades, grades. I spend a great amount of time providing students with concrete, detailed feedback on papers only to hear someone say, “Oh, I didn’t look at the feedback, just the grade.” From a faculty perspective, the grade is the least important. The joy of student engagement and learning drives our work. We ended up in higher education for a reason—most of us see great value in the learning process.

So how can we help students understand that there is more to college and learning than getting good grades and fulfilling requirements? Is there a way to reach the student and help her understand how learning can be supported and viewed as important? Is it essential that the student become internally motivated? The research on epistemological beliefs and development lends some insight to these questions (Hofer & Pintrich, 2002). Epistemology explores the beliefs we hold about knowledge, what knowledge is, how knowledge is constructed, and what constitutes knowledge. Beliefs about the sources of knowledge will influence our decision-making processes, guide critical thinking practices, and facilitate self-regulated learning (Bakx, VanDer Sanden, Sijtsma, Croon, & Vermetten, 2006).

Ignoring the epistemological belief systems of students can lead us to ineffective teaching strategies and learning outcomes (Marra & Palmer, 2008). We end up spinning our wheels and wondering why the student is not responding to our pleas for improvement. If the student does not believe there is significance or importance to developing certain forms of knowledge then he keeps the knowledge separate; establishing a dualistic knowledge reference (Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002). If the student believes the knowledge is relevant and important then the student is more likely to internalize her learning and work towards building more knowledge, rather than just focusing on the grade (Kuhn & Weinstock, 2002). I have seen students make this shift in classes to the point where they are just as interested in the feedback and how to improve as the grade. These students begin to demonstrate a willingness to examine how they construct knowledge and what this means to their future.

There is no magic solution to the motivation question. Motivation for learning is an extremely complex entity and scholars disagree on how to measure motivation, evaluate learning, etc. (Schunk, 2012). I believe the heart of motivating students lies in the ability to reach the student at the beliefs level.

By working with students to help them explicitly (rather than just implicitly) understand how they view knowledge and the implications of knowledge beliefs can make a difference. In my research classes, I provide students with a “beliefs questionnaire” at the beginning of the research methods courses. The questions require students to rate their agreement with sources of knowledge, the validity of that knowledge, the construction of knowledge, and so on. Students share the responses in small group discussion where they compare their beliefs with others. The conversations become very animated. Students seem to light up as they begin to discover how and why they believe what they do about school and learning. Students will indicate a new awareness of how their knowledge beliefs lead to biases in how they interpret various forms of knowledge. Students indicate that they have never discussed knowledge beliefs before, and certainly never with other students. A frequent comment is “so this is why we have to learn to read research articles.”

Based on a study I conducted of student epistemological beliefs, it became clear that the majority of students’ knowledge and beliefs of knowledge are based on their personal life experiences and relationships with others. Given the diverse background of life experience and relationships that formed students’ knowledge beliefs it is pertinent to try and connect our material to the students’ beliefs. We need to utilize students’ beliefs about knowledge to help motivate them to question and learn in a new way thereby enhancing epistemological development. This does not mean the classroom turns into a support group where students share personal experiences. Helping students understand how their ideas are formed, the sources they use for the ideas, and the connection to critical thinking sets a foundation for students to engage in the learning process in a new way.

Instructors also can utilize concrete strategies to facilitate epistemological development. Specific strategies include:

  • allowing students to choose topics for research;
  • encouraging targeted peer discussion about knowledge beliefs and their impact on learning;
  • letting students form their own work groups (and then teach conflict resolution for the ensuing challenges);
  • providing lecture material (yes, some lecture) on what is epistemology and how it informs learning; and
  • designing a variety of exercises to have students compare sources of knowledge when dealing with a difficult scenario.

Despite the wealth of literature about self-regulated learning, motivation, cognitive/affective development, and epistemological development, there is no simple solution for motivating student learning. In the end, students are still going to focus on grades, their personal relationships, and outside work, but perhaps there will be greater understanding of the importance of examining and developing beliefs in order to enhance critical thinking, decision making, and knowledge building. Bottom line, because students are relationship driven, faculty have to model the importance of epistemological development for our disciplines.

Bakx, A. A., van der Sanden, J. M., Sijtsma, K. K., Croon, M. A., & Vermetten, Y. M. (2006). The role of students’ personality characteristics, self-perceived competence and learning conceptions in the acquisition and development of social communicative competence: A longitudinal study. Higher Education, 51(1), 71-104. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6377-6

Hofer, B., & Pintrich, P. (2002). (Eds). Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. New York: Routledge.

Kuhn, D., & Weinstock, M. (2002). What is epistemological thinking and why does it matter? In B. Hofer & P. Pintrich (eds.), (2002) Personal Epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing. (pp.121-144). New York: Routledge.

Marra, R. M., & Palmer, B. (2008). Epistemologies of the sciences, humanities, and social sciences: Liberal arts students’ perceptions. JGE: The Journal of General Education, 57(2), 100-118. http://www.psupress.org/journals/jnls_jge.html

Schunk, D. (2012) Learning theories: An educational perspective. (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Jennifer Anderson-Meger, DSW, MSSW, CAPSW, associate professor, Social Work Program/Master of Arts in Servant Leadership Research Faculty, Viterbo University.

  • Willena

    Is there any possibility that you would make a copy of your "beliefs questionnaire" available to your readers? I think I would like to adopt this technique. Seeing a successful questionnaire would be helpful to create my own.

  • cmadland

    I'd be very interested to learn how students' conceptions of knowledge and its development align with accepted epistemological theories. I suspect that there would be a significant gap and a high incidence of misconceptions about knowledge, which would both be fruitful areas of discussion in any classroom.

    I am intrigued at the relationship between epistemology, learner agency, and critical thinking…thanks for providing some grist for the mill.

  • Neil Haave

    I would also like a copy of your questionnaire if you are willing to share. I have been trying to increase students' engagement in their own learning by having them consider their own learning philosophies. I think incorporating into that exercise a consideration of their knowledge beliefs would be really useful.

  • Eileen

    I, too, would appreciate the use of the "beliefs questionnaire" if you're willing to share.

  • Tore Ståhl

    Sounds interesting. Your work apparently also confirms context specific personal epistemologies, as suggested by some researchers. I'm into researching the dimensions in personal epistemologies using the instruments by Schommer, Wood&Kardash and Schraw et al. Would be interested in knowing more about your instrument, eg. to which extent have you included the dimensions suggested by the aforementioned researchers?

  • Carolyn

    I am also interested in viewing and/or using your questionnaire if you are willing to share it.

  • Kathleen

    I, too, would like to view your questionnaire.

  • Jack Delivuk

    To repeat what others have said, I would also like you questionnaire for use with my Christian family class. jdelivuk at geneva.edu Thanks.

  • Hello readers, I am posting the following on behalf of Jennifer Anderson-Meger based on your requests for a copy of her beliefs questionnaire.
    Mary Bart
    Editor, Faculty Focus
    I developed the Beliefs about Knowledge in Social Work questionnaire based on material from Gambrill and Gibbs (2009) and the Epistemological Beliefs Inventory. The original instruments provided ideas for questions. The questions I developed are specific to social work. The questionnaire has not been tested for validity or reliability as my numbers are too small at this point. The questionnaire should not be used in published research unless permission is granted. I am currently seeking permission to adapt from Gambrill since most of the ideas come from her inspiration. I have not heard back from her and will continue to follow up. In the meantime feel free to use my version in classroom exercises. If I do not hear back from Dr. Gambrill soon I will seek further clarification on the adaptation question regarding usage. If anyone has any hints on how this works please let me know. I encourage anyone with interest in the topic to contact me directly. It would be great to do some collaborative work! Thank you so much for your interest.

    A pdf of the questionaire: http://bit.ly/1qbpOEA

    Jennifer Anderson-Meger, DSW, MSSW, CAPSW
    Professor, Social Work MASL Research Faculty
    Viterbo University
    900 Viterbo Dr.
    LaCrosse, WI 54601
    (608) 796-3722

  • Pingback: Helping to Evolve Students’ Beliefs about Knowledge | Glendale Community College()

  • PaulineJ

    Your work is very relevant and very interesting. Hats off to you for going ahead to develop this questionnaire.
    I guess we have that problem with students unable to see the link between courses such as research and their professional careers.
    THank you for sharing.