Epistemic Beliefs

In the following scenario, how would you describe Leslie’s and Roy’s view in relation to knowledge?

Setting: Two Form 6 students in a chemistry laboratory are discussing the experiment and lab report they are working on.

Leslie: How about we run through the steps from the instruction manual, and record down the figures? It’s just a routine that we need to go through.

Roy: It can be more than a routine. How about we vary different parameters and see what the differences are? It is possible that we come up with different results and we can challenge the theory! How exciting!!

Leslie: Why do we need to do that? We are not scientists, and at the end our teacher will give us the correct answer and that will be what we need to know about this topic.

Roy: But I think both teacher and textbook can be wrong sometimes. Don’t you think? They need to give me good reason to explain the different set of results.

Leslie: Don’t be silly, Roy, how can teacher and textbook be wrong…

Q: What are epistemic beliefs?

Students have different beliefs about learning, and they also have different beliefs about the 'object' to be learnt -- knowledge.

Epistemic beliefs are students' beliefs in relation to the nature of knowledge (what is knowledge and does it evolve?) and the nature of knowing (where does knowledge come from?).

For instance, according to Leslie knowledge comes from teacher and textbook and they cannot be wrong, whereas Roy believes that one has an active participatory role in constructing knowledge, and what is deemed right requires good justification and reasoning. These two contrasting examples illustrate a naive and a sophisticated set of epistemic beliefs respectively.


Q: What are the key theories of epistemic beliefs?

With the advancement of this strand of research, different scholars have proposed slightly different models to encapsulate the meaning of epistemic beliefs and their development.

Developmental Approaches

  • Perry (1970) investigated the development of male Harvard students' ideas about knowledge during the college years. Four grand clusters (further sub-divided into 9 stages) were found to chart the full trajectory of intellectual and ethical development.
  • Kuhn (1990) examined students argumentation skills and found that there can be three levels of epistemological understanding. The lowest level is an absolutist epistemological understanding, a black-white worldview. At the next level is multiplist epistemological understanding, a worldview in which everyone is entitled his/her opinion and therefore there is no right or wrong. The final level is an evaluativist epistemological understanding, which asserts opinions can be evaluated by weighing the quality of arguments and evidence.

Dimensional Approach

Some researchers believe that epistemic beliefs develop in independent dimensions instead of a uniform stage.

  • Schommer (1990) identified 5 dimensions of epistemic beliefs which include Fixed Ability, Quick Learning, Simple Knowledge, Certain Knowledge, and Source of Knowledge with the use of a 63-item questionnaire.
  • Hofer (2000) later proposed a theoretical model that revolves only around the 4 key areas that discuss the nature of knowledge and knowing. She tested the model with questionnaire and in-depth interviews.

The four distinctive aspects of epistemic beliefs of Hofer’s are represented in the figure below:


Figure 1.


Q: How does the understanding of epistemic beliefs relate to learning?

When students think that knowledge is fixed, certain and can be neatly handed down by authority, it is logical to them to be passive and wait for the teacher to transfer knowledge to them. There is no point for them to challenge and inquire further, for that knowledge to be learnt is definite and does not require further justification, just as demonstrated by Leslie in the hypothetical scenario.

When students think that knowledge is evolving, that it can be actively constructed by oneself and requires proper justification, it is likely that the learner will make an effort to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and its understanding, as demonstrated in Roy’s enthusiasm in the situation.

Empirical research has therefore found that students’ epistemic beliefs are associated with higher-ordering thinking, reasoning skills, approaches to studying, and the quality of learning outcomes.

Epistemic beliefs among Chinese learners:

With the influence of Confucian teaching, Chinese learners are thought to be less likely to question or challenge authority and seek justification for beliefs (absolute respect to authority figure is a virtue); and more likely to consider knowledge is fixed than their Westerner counterparts.

However, research findings do not fully support this assertion, and show that many students do not consider knowledge as certain, and many do not think that knowledge should be handed down by authority.

As the cross-cultural understanding in this area is still developing, it is unclear whether Hong Kong’s Chinese learners are equally influenced by Confucian traditions and Western liberal ideologies. In recent years, Hong Kong’s students have had considerable exposure to constructivism, and this may be changing their epistemic beliefs.




Epistemic Beliefs Inventory (Schraw, Bendixen & Dunkle, 2002)

  1. Most things worth knowing are easy to understand.
  2. What is true is a matter of opinion.
  3. Students who learn things quickly are the most successful.
  4. People should always obey the law.
  5. People's intellectual potential is fixed at birth.
  6. Absolute moral truth does not exist.
  7. Parents should teach their children all there is to know about life.
  8. Really smart students don't have to work as hard to do well in school.
  9. If a person tries too hard to understand a problem, they will most likely end up being confused.
  10. Too many theories just complicate things.
  11. The best ideas are often the most simple.
  12. Instructors should focus on facts instead of theories.
  13. Some people are born with special gifts and talents.
  14. How well you do in school depends on how smart you are.
  15. If you don't learn something quickly, you won't ever learn it.
  16. some people just have a knack for learning and others don't.
  17. Things are simpler than most professors would have you believe.
  18. If two people are arguing about something, at least one of them must be wrong.
  19. Children should be allow to question their parents' authority.
  20. If you haven't understood a chapter the first time through, going back over it won't help.
  21. Science is easy to understand because it contains so many facts.
  22. The more you know about a topic, the more there is to know.
  23. What is true today will be true tomorrow.
  24. Smart people are born that way.
  25. When someone in authority tells me what to do, I usually do it.
  26. People shouldn't question authority.
  27. Working on a problem with no quick solution is a waste of time.
  28. Sometimes there are no right answers to life's big problems.


Measurement of Epistemological Beliefs (Colney, Pintrich, Vekiri &Harrison, 2004)

  1. Everybody has to believe what scientists say.
  2. In science, you have to believe what the science books say about stuff.
  3. Whatever the teacher says in science class is true.
  4. If you read something in a science book, you can be sure it's true.
  5. Only scientists know for sure what is true in science.
  6. All questions in science have one right answer.
  7. The most important part of doing science is coming up with the right answer.
  8. Scientists pretty much know everything about science; there is not much more to


  1. Scientific knowledge is always true.
  2. Once scientists have a result from an experiment, that is the only answer.
  3. Scientists always agree about what is true in science.
  4. Some ideas in science today are different than what scientists used to think.
  5. The ideas in science books sometimes change.
  6. There are some questions that even scientists cannot answer.
  7. Ideas in science sometimes change.
  8. New discoveries can change what scientists think is true.
  9. Sometimes scientists change their minds about what is true in science.
  10. Ideas about science experiments come from being curious and thinking about

how things work.

  1. In science, there can be more than one way for scientists to test their ideas.
  2. One important part of science is doing experiments to come up with new ideas

about how things work.

  1. It is good to try experiments more than once to make sure of your findings.
  2. Good ideas in science can come from anybody, not just from scientists.
  3. A good way to know if something is true is to do an experiment.
  4. Good answers are based on evidence from many different experiments.
  5. Ideas in science can come from your own questions and experiments.
  6. It is good to have an idea before you start an experiment.


Further Reading

  • Chinn,C. A., Buckland, L. A. & Samarapungavan, A. (2011). Expanding the dimensions of epistemic cognition: Arguments from philosophy and psychology. Educational Psychologist, 46(3), 141-167. 
  • 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.
  • Hofer, B. K. & Bendixen, L. D. (2012).Personal epistemology: Theory, research, and future directions. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham & T. Urdan (Eds.), APA Educational Psychology Handbook (Vol. 1: Theories, constructs, and critical issues, pp. 227-256). Washington, DC: American Psychological Assoc.
  • Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (Eds.). (2002). Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing.Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
  • Louca, L., Elby, A., Hammer, D. & Kagey, T. (2004). Epistemological resources: Applying a new epistemological framework to science instruction. Educational Psychologist39(1), 57-68.
  • Sandoval, W.A. (2012). Situating epistemological development. In J. van Aalst, K. Thompson, M. J. Jacobson & P. Reimann (Eds.), The future of learning: Proceedings of the 10th international conference of the learning sciences (Vol. 1, pp. 347-354). Sydney: International Society of the Learning Sciences.
    • Schommer, M. (1998). The influence of age and education on epistemological beliefs. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 68,551-562.
    • Schraw, G., Bendixen, L. D., & Dunkle, M. (2002). Development and validation of the epistemic belief inventory. In B. K. Hofer & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing (pp. 261-275). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers