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Jeff Greene: Establishing connections between academic achievement, epistemic cognition

Editor's note: Jeff Greene, associate professor of educational psychology and learning sciences, and two School of Education doctoral students, Brian Cartiff and Rebekah Duke, authored a study, recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, that was the first systematic meta-analysis of literature exploring the connection between epistemic cognition and academic achievement.

Greene, J. A., Cartiff, B. M., & Duke, R. F. (2018). A meta-analytic review of the relationship between epistemic cognition and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(8), 1084-1111. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000263

Why was it important to do this study?

The digital age has brought with it a striking increase in information and information sources, requiring that people be effective, critical consumers of that information and those sources. Therefore, critical thinking – encompassing the skills people use to rationally analyze information to form judgments – has become a major focus of educational reform and instruction from elementary school through post-secondary education, and across many disciplines such as science, history, and literacy. This has led to a great deal of research into how people think critically, and how educators can help them do so more effectively.

Epistemic cognition – in which people actively determine what they know rather than what they think, believe, doubt, or don’t know – is a key aspect of critical thinking. But until now no one had synthesized the many empirical studies to determine the overall relationship between epistemic cognition and academic achievement. Likewise, there have been many different ways to measure and study epistemic cognition, and we wanted to determine whether the research could be used to identify the most promising ways of doing these things.

What were the main things you found?

Our meta-analysis revealed that epistemic cognition does meaningfully correlate with measures of academic achievement, demonstrating that educators should be spending time to help students improve this aspect of critical thinking. As we expected, epistemic cognition relates more strongly to higher-order academic achievement such as conceptual understanding and argumentation than it does to other aspects of academic achievement like recall.

So educators should expect that their efforts to bolster students’ epistemic cognition will be most noticeable in how students think and understand deeply, both individually and with others. In addition, we found that certain ways of measuring epistemic cognition seemed more productive than others, so when researchers and educators want to assess students’ epistemic cognition directly, they should use particular kinds of measures.

Why is this important for other educational researchers?

Our study helps to substantiate the importance of doing research on epistemic cognition, and provides recommendations regarding how do so more effectively. As with many relatively new areas of scholarship, researchers have been trying a number of different ways to conceptualize, measure, and study epistemic cognition, and our results suggest that some of the more common methods, such as using certain popular self-report measures, may not be as useful as focusing on different measures and methods.

We argued that self-report measures have a place in epistemic cognition research, but they must be used with care, and researchers should complement their use with other kinds of measures such as interviews, observations, and learning tasks.

What other research questions need to be examined as a result of your findings?

Our study showed that epistemic cognition correlates with academic achievement, so the next step is to study interventions designed to help students be more effective critical thinkers. Currently we are conducting another meta-analysis to determine the overall effectiveness of these interventions, as well as what kinds of interventions seem to be most influential. In addition, researchers need to focus more on how epistemic cognition can differ depending upon the topic or discipline. For example, someone could be a very effective critical thinker in history but less so in science.

We need to better understand what aspects of epistemic cognition, and critical thinking, work across topics and disciplines, and which aspects are unique and should be taught as such.