Faculty News

Jeff Greene, Dana Griffin, Steve Knotek receive Phillips Memorial Fund challenge grants

Jeff Greene, “Surveying the Landscape: A Qualitative Investigation into the Epistemic and Ontological Cognition of Experts and Students in Science and History”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has found that twelfth-grade student performance in science has dropped precipitously between 1996 and 2005 (Grigg, Lauko, & Brockway, 2006). These data also show that the problem is particularly concerning here in North Carolina, whose eighth graders scored below the national average. While similar national and state assessments for historical understanding are not available, research would suggest that K-12 students’ understanding of history falls far short of that expected by experts in the field (VanSledright, 2004). Why do students continue to struggle in these foundational domains? Research and interventions have often focused upon pedagogical methods for advancing student understanding, and these efforts should be applauded.

However, I propose that there may be other, less obvious, barriers to student understanding and performance in science and history classrooms. I believe that students often struggle to understand science and history because they have limited ontologies of these domains, i.e., they oversimplify the various kinds of knowledge recognized in a discipline, and the characteristics that differentiate them. A naïve ontology of an academic domain, such as science or history, greatly limits students’ ability to understand the nuance and complexity necessary for success in these areas. Likewise, students often have difficulty in science and history because they have maladaptive beliefs regarding the means of establishing knowledge qua knowledge, i.e. they have naïve epistemic cognition.

Science has an ontology that includes many different kinds of knowledge, including theories, models, processes and substances. Each kind of knowledge has its own characteristics that are important to understand if the knowledge is to be used appropriately (Slotta & Chi, 2006). Likewise, scientists engage in sophisticated epistemic cognition. They recognize that there are many kinds of evidence that can be used to warrant a knowledge claim, and that some are more convincing than others. They understand the fallibility of scientific investigation, and the means by which scientific theories are tested and revised. Many K-12 science students possess much more limited understanding, holding beliefs about knowledge and knowing in science that make it unlikely they will be able to engage in sophisticated scientific reasoning. For example, some K-12 students hold the belief that every scientific law is an immutable “fact” (Greene, Torney-Purta, Azevedo, & Robertson, in press).

Likewise, for some students informal observation and empirical evidence are equivalent warrants. Students holding these beliefs will have difficulty navigating complex scientific ideas, and sorting the strong scientific claims from the less warranted speculation. Thus, it may be that students struggle in science not because they lack the ability to understand, but rather because they are working under misconceptions regarding the fundamental aspects of science, such as oversimplifying every scientific claim and treating anecdotal and experimental evidence as equivalent.

Within the domain of history, students often believe that what they are taught in school is “factual” or “objective” and that there is little need for scrutinizing the sources of this information (VanSledright & Limon, 2007). On the other hand, historians and teachers hope that through their courses students develop historical understanding skills that include critical analysis and contextualization of information. Historical understanding includes recognizing the inherent subjectivity of history knowledge, critically evaluating the influence, perspective and context of historical documents, and using triangulation of sources to support historical claims (Levstik, 1996). Students who believe that history is a simple, factual domain are unlikely to even consider critically examining historical knowledge, or realize that such activities are essential to “understanding” history.

In the research proposed in this grant application, I hope to study students’ beliefs about the types of knowledge and knowing in science and history, i.e. their ontological and epistemic cognition, and how these beliefs differ from those of experts. The findings from this research will be used as evidence to support my requests for additional monies from federal and private sources to develop interventions designed to more accurate student ontological and epistemic cognition. A better understanding of the differences between the beliefs of students and experts will enable me to design empirically-informed interventions that can help students adopt more accurate beliefs, removing the subtle, but powerful, misconceptions that can hinder student understanding and success.