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Beliefs about knowing in pre-service teacher education students

Joanne Brownlee
School of Learning and Development
Queensland University of Technology
For the last three decades, the student learning literature has provided an impressive amount of research that supports the links between beliefs about learning and learning approaches and outcomes. This study is an investigation of a related but somewhat different set of beliefs related to learning, described as beliefs about knowing or epistemological beliefs. Using semi-structured interviews, 29 students were asked to reflect on their beliefs about knowing as they approached the end of their year-long Graduate Diploma in Teacher Education. Data were analysed using a descriptive-interpretative approach to data analysis, which means that although categories of beliefs emerged from the data, the descriptions of these categories were influenced by the epistemological beliefs literature. The interview analysis showed that, as a group, students' beliefs ranged from naevi beliefs in the reception of absolute truths to more sophisticated beliefs in the construction of reasoned truths. These categories were similar to those described in the epistemological schemes by Perry (1970), Belenky et al. (1986) and Baxter Magolda (1993).


Over the last thirty years, within the student learning literature, there has been considerable research focussed on how students go about learning. In particular, research related to students' beliefs about learning and the interrelationships between such beliefs and their approaches to learning and learning outcomes (see, for example, Entwistle & Marton, 1984) has helped teacher educators to understand the nature of learning in tertiary settings. There is also another body of research that indicates that effective learning may be influenced by a somewhat different set of beliefs. These are called epistemological beliefs and refer to beliefs individuals have about the nature and acquisition of knowledge (Bendixen, Dunkle & Schraw, 1994).

William Perry (1970) first described beliefs about knowing in a longitudinal study of male college students. He documented the progress of students through four main positions, which he described as Dualism, Multiplism, Relativism and Commitment. Dualism refers to a set of beliefs that knowledge is comprised of absolute truths (right/wrong) that can be transmitted from experts. In the next position, Multiplism, individuals still hold some beliefs in knowledge as absolute truths but also acknowledge that some things can not be known with any certainty. Therefore, knowledge comprises both personal opinions and absolute truths. The next position described as Relativism constitutes a major shift in epistemological thinking because individuals believe knowledge is personally constructed and reasoned. Absolute truths can no longer exist because truth is considered to be relative to individuals' personal interpretations of experiences. These interpretations, however, are always validated and supported with evidence unlike the personal opinions referred to in the position of Multiplism. In the final positions related to Commitment, relativistic thinking is still a feature, but particular beliefs are more valued than others and are committed to in a flexible manner.

Belenky et al. (1986) noted a sequence of epistemological development similar to that described by Perry (1970). One hundred and thirty-five females from academic and non-academic backgrounds were asked to respond to a number of open-ended questions, which were intended to reflect moral, cognitive and identity development. According to Belenky et al. (1986), there are five positions in the development of beliefs about knowing. These are Silence, Received (similar to Dualism), Subjective (similar to Multiplism), Procedural (similar to Relativism) and Constructed (similar to Commitment) ways of knowing.

Using a sample of both male and female college students, Baxter Magolda (1993) postulated stages of epistemological development similar to those described by Perry (1970) and Belenky et al. (1986). Each year, over a seven year period, more than 100 college students were interviewed and completed short answer responses to open-ended questions on the Measure of Epistemological Reflections (Baxter Magolda, 1994). The positions are described as Absolute (similar to Perry's Dualism), Transitional (similar to Perry's Multiplism), Independent (similar to Perry's Relativism) and Contextual (similar to Perry's Commitment positions) knowing. Within each of the positions, Baxter Magolda (1988) described ways of knowing that differed for both genders. Relational modes of knowing are open, flexible, connected, responsive, and considered more typical of women's ways of knowing. Conversely, the impersonal or objective mode of knowing is often characterised by the use of logical, algorithmic procedures that result in separateness and abstraction (Baxter Magolda, 1993).

There is debate within the epistemological beliefs literature regarding the appropriateness of developmental ideals such as relativistic (Perry, 1970), procedural (Belenky et al., 1986) and Independent (Baxter Magolda, 1994) ways of knowing (Goldberger, 1996a). It is possible that, in certain cultures, relativistic ways of knowing may not be appropriate (Goldberger, 1996a, 1996b). Goldberger, however, defended the superiority of such developmental ideals within the American context, which is characterised by multiple perspectives of knowing. Similarly, it could be argued that there is a need to be aware of, and reflect upon, multiple perspectives in an increasingly pluralistic Australian society.

The extent to which beliefs about knowing can be considered to be a unidimensional set of beliefs has also been questioned. For example, Schommer (1990, 1993a, 1993b) believes that beliefs about knowing are more likely to be characterised by a multidimensional set of more or less independent beliefs. This means that individuals may hold both sophisticated (more relativistic) and na•ve (more dualistic) views about the nature of knowing. Schommer (1989, 1990, 1993a, 1993b) described five dimensions of beliefs about knowing that included (a) "omniscient authority" (beliefs in the source of knowledge), (b) "certain knowledge" (beliefs in the certainty of knowledge), (c) "simple knowledge" (beliefs in structure of knowledge), (d) "quick learning" (beliefs in the speed of learning), and (e) "innate ability" (beliefs in the stability of knowledge) (Schommer, 1990). In a questionnaire developed by Schommer over a series of studies (1989, 1990, 1993a, 1993b), four of these five dimensions have emerged as factors. These are "certain knowledge", "simple knowledge", "quick learning", and "innate ability". More recently, Schommer (1994) has conceptualised such beliefs as a kind of frequency distribution where for example, sophisticated learners may believe a vast amount of knowledge is evolving, some knowledge is yet to be discovered, and a very small amount of knowledge is unchanging. . . On the other hand, na•ve learners may believe a vast amount of information is certain, some knowledge is yet to be discovered, and a very small amount of knowledge is changing." (Schommer, 1994, p.302). This multiplicity of dimensions suggests "that epistemological beliefs do not necessarily develop in synchrony" (Schommer, 1994, p.302) and that learning may in fact be determined by individual as well as a combination of beliefs.

Regardless of whether beliefs about knowing are characterised as a system of unidimensional or multidimensional beliefs, it appears that such beliefs are related to how individuals learn in tertiary settings. Schommer (1993a) and Ryan (1984) reported that the more students viewed knowledge as dualistic, the more likely they were to gauge their understanding based on factual standards. Students who believed that knowledge was constructed and reasoned were more likely to consider that understanding was based on developing meaning and application. Students who hold relativistic beliefs about the nature of knowledge are also more likely to be reflective about their own thinking rather than being focussed on acquiring content. This ability to compare different ways of thinking allows students to see other peoples' points of view (Perry, 1981). It also enables them to reflect on relationships between ideas so they can integrate information rather than maintaining unconnected pieces of information. The current study investigated students' beliefs about knowing with a view to further understanding the nature of learning in teacher education.

The study

The aim of this study was to investigate the nature of beliefs about knowing held by 29 teacher education students undertaking a year-long Graduate Diploma in Education. The course prepared individuals with undergraduate degrees to teach in primary schools in Queensland. As a group, students' undergraduate degrees related to Business, Social Science, Leisure Management, Psychology, Visual and Performing Arts, Science, Literature, and Nursing. There were 3 males and 26 females with a mean age of 27.65 years.

Students were interviewed about their beliefs about knowing at the end of the course using a semi-structured interview format. The interview questions related to beliefs about knowing were similar to those used by Belenky et al. (1986) in their study of women's epistemological beliefs. The students were also asked to describe their beliefs about learning and teaching. The responses to the questions about learning and teaching provided further information about how students viewed the nature of knowledge. See Attachment 1 for details of these questions. The interviews took between 30 and 70 minutes with an average of about 60 minutes in duration. They were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim.

Analysis of the qualitative data was conducted using a predominantly inductive approach, which drew on relevant literature to interpret responses. This descriptive-interpretative approach to analysis still made it possible to take account of many viewpoints before deriving theory (cf. Maykut & Morehouse, 1996). The categories that emerged were audited by a second inquirer to establish trustworthiness and credibility (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). QSR NUD*IST (Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching and Theorising) (Richards & Richards, 1994) was used to assist in the organisation of data emerging from the transcriptions of the audiotapes.

Discussion of results

The comments made by students regarding their beliefs about knowing could be divided into three main categories: receive absolute truths (REC) beliefs, construct reasoned truths and receive absolute truths (CONREC), and construct reasoned truths (CON). These categories are described, exemplified and compared with existing beliefs about knowing schemes in Table 1. In the context of this study, these beliefs about knowing refer to an individual's dominant or default beliefs within an academic context because students were asked to comment on their beliefs about knowing in general. Therefore, it was expected that responses that were not focussed on a specific domain of knowledge would be indicative of their default or dominant beliefs about knowing.

Table 1: A comparison of categories of beliefs about knowing with existing schemes

CategoryDescription ExampleSchemes
Receive absolute truths
How: individuals receive absolute (right/wrong and universal) truths from an external source; this means that individuals passively receive truths that are a direct representation of reality
What: individuals have truths that are absolute (right/wrong, universal) truths; the REC beliefs in this category represent a single structure
When I talk about truth I guess. . .things that are pretty much laid out as in I believe in absolute not relativistic truths. . . The best way I can give it is as an analogy - if you have a white board and you look at the white board it is white but if somebody else looks at the white board through rose coloured glasses they think it is rose where in fact it hasn't changed the fact that the white board is still white. (48) Dualism (Perry, 1970)
Received knowing (Belenky et al., 1986)
Absolute knowing (Baxter Magolda, 1993)
Construct reasoned truths and receive absolute truths
How: individuals construct personal truths that are supported with evidence and individuals receive absolute (right/wrong and universal) truths from an external source; this means that individuals actively create their own truths and passively receive truths that are a direct representation of reality
What: individuals have opinions that are reasoned and truths that are absolute (right/wrong and universal); CONREC beliefs represent separate structures in this category.
I still think that.. there are some things that are, you know obviously true, maybe like some of the maths, like some things are black and white but generally truth still for me comes from taking what is around you and putting your own interpretation on lots of things, so I guess listening to other people and making some judgements I suppose about what you believe about that. (32)
Construct reasoned truths
How: individuals construct personal truths that are supported with evidence; this means that individuals actively create their own truths rather than passively receive truths that are a direct representation of reality
What: individuals have opinions that are reasoned. Hence, some opinions are better than others because they are informed by current research and experience; the CON beliefs in this category represent an overarching, structure that integrates all of an individual's beliefs about the nature of truth
I think that is all tied in with my beliefs on not being an absolute right or an absolute wrong and people are entitled to their own opinions as long as their opinions are valid, are reasoned out, they are not just an opinion off the top of their head. They have actually reasoned out their opinions and said well I think it is because of such and such so I think knowledge is a very personal thing as well. (52) Relativism (Perry, 1970)
Procedural knowing (Belenky et al., 1986)
Independent knowing (Baxter Magolda, 1993)
Note: The numbers in brackets that follow quotes refer to student identification numbers.

The examples provided in Table 1 show that from the category of REC beliefs through to the category of CON beliefs, there is an increase in focus on beliefs that truth is constructed and reasoned and corresponding decrease in focus on truths as absolute and received. REC beliefs present the most na•ve perspective because individuals described truths as received and absolute only. In this category of beliefs, truths were considered to transferable to individuals. There was only one student who described such beliefs. As indicated in Table 1, Perry (1970) described similar beliefs as Dualism, Belenky et al. (1986) as Received knowing, and Baxter Magolda (1993) as Absolute knowing.

In the next category, CONREC beliefs, students (n=17) believed that some truths are constructed and reasoned, while other truths are absolute and received. However, the extent to which students focussed on the constructed nature of truth varied between individuals. When asked to describe their views on the nature of truth, some students (n=3) acknowledged that individuals constructed personal truths that are supported with evidence and also described truths as absolute and transferable. They then continued to explain their views of learning and teaching in terms of reproductive (receiving knowledge from a teacher) approaches. Another group of students (n=14) categorised as having CONREC beliefs seemed to have a far greater focus on truth as constructed and reasoned throughout their interview responses. These students, for example, responded to the question "What is truth?" by indicating that individuals construct personal truths that are supported with evidence and then indicated views of learning and teaching as sometimes reproductive and sometimes constructed. To summarise, students coded as having CONREC beliefs described mixed beliefs that individuals construct reasoned truths and receive absolute truths. However, some students demonstrated stronger beliefs that individuals construct reasoned truths throughout their interview responses. It can be seen in Table 1 that such mixed beliefs are not described in Perry's (1970), Belenky et al's. (1986), or Baxter Magolda's (1993) schemes. These schemes have been criticised for their stage-like, unidimensional characteristics (see for example Schommer, 1998a).

Finally, students (n=11) with CON beliefs were aware that truths are predominantly constructed and reasoned and in this analysis are considered to hold the most sophisticated set of beliefs about knowing. CON beliefs are also similar to the positions of Relativism (Perry, 1970, 1981), procedural knowing (Belenky et al., 1986) and independent knowing (Baxter Magolda, 1993) as shown in Table 1. Students acknowledged that truths were the product of their individual interpretations of the world.

Teacher educators may need to encourage students to reflect on their beliefs about knowing. Student teachers' epistemological beliefs are often not addressed within teacher education programs (Nespor, 1987). Griffith and Benson (1991) stated that education has been likened to a factory model in the past with specific content mastery a desired outcome of educational experiences. Such a positivistic perspective does not promote a view that knowledge needs to be personally constructed and relative to specific contexts. Evidence is mounting to suggest that it is important to consider preservice teachers' beliefs, in particular epistemological beliefs, in teacher education since such beliefs will influence performance in the classroom (Lawrence, 1992; Pajares, 1992; Renne, 1992). The area of epistemological intervention is still relatively unchartered (Kardash & Scholes, 1996) but it would seem that at least some explicit reflection on such beliefs may be useful in the change process.

All students, except for one, described at least some relativistic views about knowledge. Considering that these students were pursuing postgraduate qualifications, this sophistication of beliefs is not surprising. Many researchers have suggested that tertiary education influences epistemological development (Alexander & Dochy, 1995; Perry, 1981; Strange & King, 1981; King & Kitchener, 1994; Schommer, 1998b). An individual's progress through tertiary studies is likely to be strongly influenced by exposure to a variety of educational perspectives. Exposure to further education may cause cognitive conflict that results in the reconstruction of na•ve beliefs about knowing into more sophisticated ways of knowing. However, it is possible that, in addition to educational experiences, life experiences (Belenky et al., 1986) and physical development may facilitate epistemological development although it is not clear exactly how each of these factors influences beliefs about knowing (Schommer, 1998a). These are issues that need to be investigated in more detail.

Research suggests that teachers with more relativistic beliefs about knowing are more likely to be effective teachers. For example, Stuck (1984) claims that teachers with less sophisticated beliefs about knowing do not take students' learning needs into consideration and have a limited repertoire of teaching strategies. Maor and Taylor (1995) observed that the effectiveness of computerised instruction in two high school science classrooms in Western Australia was related to the teachers' beliefs about knowing rather than the programs themselves. That is, the teacher with relativistic beliefs was able to invoke more sophisticated thinking skills in students. Brody and Hill (1991) noted that teachers with more sophisticated beliefs about knowing used cooperative learning more effectively as a teaching strategy. Hence, apart from interventions that require student teachers to reflect explicitly on their beliefs about knowing, it may also be important to create a professional development climate in teaching, which is conducive to post-graduate study.


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Attachment 1: Interview Questions

  1. Beliefs about knowing.
    How do you know when you know something? Sometimes people talk about "searching for truth." I'm not sure what they're talking about. What are your views? In learning about something you really want to know, what is the role of an expert?

    How do you know someone is an expert? What do you feel and what do you do when experts disagree? What do you do if lecturers disagree?
    If experts disagree on something today, do you think that some day they will come to some agreement? Why or why not? How do you know what is right/true?
    Do you agree with this person who says that where there are no right answers anybody's opinion is as good as another's? Can you think of an opinion that you think is wrong?

  2. Beliefs about learning.

  3. Beliefs about teaching.
Author: Dr Joanne Brownlee, School of Learning and Development, Queensland University of Technology, Victoria Park Road, Kelvin Grove Qld 4059
Tel (07) 3864 3403 Fax (07) 3864 3987 Email

Please cite as: Brownlee, J. (2001). Beliefs about knowing in pre-service teacher education students. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 75-82. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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