To grasp physics, students need to know about knowledge

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.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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One thought on “To grasp physics, students need to know about knowledge”

  1. I wonder whether this effect is moderated by intrapersonal characteristic(s) of the students? For example, it may work for some personality types, but not others.As an engineering student, we were expected to take some serious 3rd year maths courses and for whatever reason, I just could not follow them. Desperate, and just prior to the final exam, I did a cause on logic, which can be framed as an epistemology of mathematics.Logic I could understand easily. Once I had done this course, suddenly all the proofs that I could never follow nor remember became easy. I could even generate most of them myself using the logic epistemology. I even managed to end up with a first, and today, maths and stats are keen loves of mine! 🙂 All because I learned the epistemology behind them.I had never thought of articulating this as a theory as succinctly as Stathopoulou & Vosniadou, but I think they’re definitely onto something potentially big.

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