Unit A – Teaching & Learning Theories

A7. Student Epistemological Growth

Student Epistemological Growth

If metacognition is thinking about thinking, then epistemology is thinking about knowing and knowledge.

Epistemology is important to instructors because “Most of those who have studied epistemological beliefs have concluded that there is some developmental progression of these beliefs in the movement to adulthood, particularly for those who experience a college education” (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p. 120). Many HE institutes believe one of their roles is to support students in progressing their epistemological thinking. Transformative learning and threshold concepts often require changes in thinking about knowledge.

Most epistemological theories indicate that many new college students have simplistic beliefs about knowledge – that:

  1. There is a single truth
  2. The instructor knows the truth
  3. Once you know the truth, it never changes

These beliefs about knowledge may be subject-specific – so, for example, a person might believe we know all the chemical elements, but also believe we learn more about good teaching practices as experts do more research.

Consequently, you need to know that some college students may become frustrated if you:

  1. Ask them to do more than memorize facts
  2. Put them in groups to do work
  3. Challenge their thinking and/or
  4. Provide conditional answers (“It depends…”)

Epistemology is about “how individuals come to know, the theories and beliefs they hold about knowing”, and how their thoughts and beliefs about knowledge influence their thinking and reasoning (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p.88). Based on a comparison of theories of epistemology, Hofer & Pintrich describe two aspects: the nature of knowing and the nature of knowledge.

Nature of Knowledge

What one believes about the nature of knowledge is “a progressive understanding that moves from the view of knowledge as absolute to a relativistic view and then to a contextual, constructivist stance“ (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p. 119). They describe the nature of knowledge and the progression as follows (See Figure):

A progressive understanding that moves from the view of knowledge as absolute to a relativistic view and then to a contextual, constructivist stance.

Certainty of knowledge. The degree to which one sees knowledge as fixed or more fluid … a continuum that changes over time, moving from a fixed to a more fluid view. At lower levels, absolute truth exists with certainty. At higher levels, knowledge is tentative and evolving.

Simplicity of knowledge. … knowledge is viewed on a continuum as an accumulation of facts or as highly interrelated concepts. The lower-level view of knowledge is as discrete, concrete, knowable facts; at higher levels individuals see knowledge as relative, contingent, and contextual.

Nature of Knowing

“Beliefs about the process by which one comes to know … includes beliefs about the source of knowledge and the justification for knowing, which includes evaluation of evidence, the role of authority, and the process of justification” (Hofer & Pintrich, 1997, p. 120). They describe the nature of knowing and the progression as follows:

Source of knowledge. At lower levels of most of the models, knowledge originates outside the self and resides in external authority, from whom it may be transmitted. The evolving conception of self as knower, with the ability to construct knowledge in interaction with others, is a developmental turning point of most models reviewed.

Justification for knowing. This dimension includes how individuals evaluate knowledge claims, including the use of evidence, the use they make of authority and expertise, and their evaluation of experts. As individuals learn to evaluate evidence and to substantiate and justify their beliefs, they move through a continuum of dualistic beliefs to the multiplistic acceptance of opinions to reasoned justification.

Figure: Belief About the Nature of Knowledge & Knowing Based on Hofer & Pintrich

Nature of Knowledge
Certainty of knowledge ranges from​
Knowledge is fixed​: absolute truth exists with certainty​
Knowledge is fluid​: knowledge is tentative and evolving
Simplicity of knowledge ranges from
Knowledge is accumulation of facts ​
Knowledge is highly interrelated concepts
Nature of Knowing
Source of knowledge ranges from: Expert is knower, knowledge resides in external authority who transmits it
ToSelf as knower: Self’s ability to construct knowledge 
Justification for knowing ranges from: Dualistic: “The experts say…” 
Multiplistic: People can have different opinions
Reasoned justification: reasoned justification for beliefs

Common Theories of Epistemological Development

The five most common theories of student epistemological development are Perry’s Intellectual and ethical development, Belenky’s Women’s ways of knowing, Baxter Magolda’s Epistemological reflection, King & Kitchener’s Reflective judgement, Kuhn’s Argumentative reasoning, and Schommer’s Epistemological belief systems. Hofer & Pintrich (1997, pp. 89–110) categorize these:

  • “How individuals interpret their educational experiences” – Main authors: Baxter Magolda; Belenky et al.; Perry
  • “How epistemological assumptions influence thinking and reasoning processes, focusing on reflective judgment” – Main authors: King & Kitchener
  • “Epistemological ideas are a system of beliefs that may be more or less independent rather than reflecting a coherent developmental structure” – Main authors: Ryan, Schommer

For details comparing the various theories, see Hofer & Pintrich (1997). The Development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing and Their Relation to Learning. Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 88–140. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543067001088.

IDI & Epistemological Growth

Image indicating these concepts can be applied at all steps.

The following describe actions you can take to use concepts from student epistemological growth in the IDI model:

Step 1. Where are You Starting?

1.2 Identify Student Learning Characteristics
  1. Identify the percentage of students who are in their first year of college. When students enter a course, they may be at differing levels of belief about knowledge and knowing. Some students, especially first-year students, may believe that you are the source of all knowledge, and your job is to give them this knowledge.

Step 2. Where are You Going?

2.1 Write Learning Outcomes & Objectives
  1. Current state of knowing: If you have identified that you will incorporate either transformative learning outcomes or threshold concepts into your course, you evaluate these against students’ current thinking.
2.2 Finalize Learning Model
  1. Nature of knowing: Students with a duelist mindset may resist group learning, problem-based learning, flipped classrooms, etc. because they believe they are wasting their time listening to non-experts. On the other hand, students who understand knowledge as evolving and interrelated may resist lectures because they may prefer a discussion.

Step 3. How Will You Know If You Get There?

3.1 Develop Assessments & Rubrics
  1. Provide feedback and support on both a cognitive and emotional level.

Step 4. How Will You Get There?

4.1 Develop & Teach Course
  1. Consider the role of student motivation in their learning.

The following tips are from Graupmann (n.d., p.1):

  1. “If necessary, break points of view into smaller units – track these units visually on a board or overhead as you lead discussion.” 
  2. “Balance talk time (your own and students’).” 
  3. “Provide a framework for (help students put a name to) different levels of cognitive processing. For example, students might create questions about course material using different levels of Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy and answer them in groups. Those that can’t be answered can be shared with the instructor and/or mentor.” 
  4. “Reinforce the idea that alternative points of view may be legitimate.” 
  5. “Require students to explain their reasons for rejecting other viewpoints.” 
  6. “Reinforce the legitimacy of students’ personal experiences.” 
  7. “Reinforce that it’s always possible to change one’s mind.” 
  8. “Balance talk time (your own and students’).” 
  9. “Provide “safe” opportunities to disagree with course material. (For example, students are free to agree or disagree with the text on an exam provided they are able to summarize the author’s viewpoint as well as their own.)” 
  10. “Provide opportunities for reflection & silence. Encourage students to ask questions of one another (ex: “does everyone know what Jill means by that?”)” 
  11. “PRACTICE PATIENCE … each of us has had to struggle through our OWN milestones of development, after all. The awareness that annoying behaviors could be related to developmental issues could create the extra “window” for considering alternative responses.”

Hofer (2001) offers the following suggestions:

  1. Provide “opportunities for students to discuss and analyze ill-structured problems” (p.375)
  2. Teach “students the skills of gathering and evaluating data” (p.375)
  3. Engage “students in the discussion of controversial issues” (p.375)
  4. Help students examine “their assumptions about knowledge and how it is gained” (p.375)
  5. “Show respect for students’ assumptions, regardless of developmental level” (p.375)
  6. “Provide feedback and support on both a cognitive and emotional level” (p.375)
  7. Help students understand that not all problems have a single right answer and that, as we learn more, the right answer may change (p.376).
  8. “Discuss not only ‘what we know’ but ‘how we know what we know’” (p.376).

Step 5. How Did It Go?

5.1 Evaluate Course Success
  1. Use the class outline to note how various activities worked.


Graupmann, S. (n.d.). Responding to Diverse Learning Needs: William Perry’s Cognitive Development Model: What’s an Instructor to DO? http://msgraupmann.weebly.com/uploads/9/1/6/0/9160435/teaching.diverse.needs_.pdf.

Hofer, B. K. (2001). Personal Epistemology Research: Implications for Learning and Teaching. Educational Psychology Review, 13(4), 353.

Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). The Development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing and Their Relation to Learning. Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 88–140. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543067001088.