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date: 01 October 2022

Epistemology and Learning in STEM Educationlocked

Epistemology and Learning in STEM Educationlocked

  • Andrew ElbyAndrew ElbyDepartment of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership, Univsersity of Maryland

Summary

STEM students’ personal epistemologies—their views about what counts as knowledge and knowing in mathematics, science, and engineering—influence how they approach learning and problem-solving. For example, if algebra students conceptualize “knowing algebra” as knowing how to manipulate symbols and numbers to solve particular kinds of problems, they are likely to approach learning as mastering procedures, not as making sense of why those procedures work. By contrast, consider a student who conceptualizes “knowing physics” as having a qualitative understanding that makes sense to her. When studying, she might practice and reflect on the relevant problem-solving approaches, not just to master procedures but also to understand how those problem-solving approaches make sense in terms of underlying concepts.

Although mathematics, engineering, and science differ, certain dimensions or aspects of students’ epistemologies are common across the STEM disciplines. These dimensions include to what extent students: (a) view knowledge as factual and procedural versus conceptual and heuristic, (b) view learning as acquiring separate pieces of knowledge versus linking those pieces into a coherent whole, and (c) think they can make sense of what they are learning by relating it to their own informal knowledge, experiences, and ways of thinking. Crucially, the epistemological views a student exhibits in a course are not necessarily a hardened personality trait or belief. A student might exhibit different epistemological views in different contexts, based in part on how the class is taught. Indeed, common STEM classroom cultures and structures can inadvertently invite students to adopt epistemological views that support superficial learning. Furthermore, broader cultural narratives, most notably the trope that mathematics and mathematical sciences can be understood only by people with innate talent, influence students’ epistemological views, again favoring those associated with superficial learning.

Additional epistemological issues arise in integrated STEM units and lessons. In such lessons, mathematics, science, and engineering are “de-siloed,” often in the context of understanding and/or addressing a local or societal problem. However, unless STEM lessons are carefully crafted, students can experience the “problem” as little more than a motivational hook to engage them in mathematics and science business as usual. In that case, students might adopt the same epistemological views as they do in a siloed mathematics or science course. By contrast, when students frame the STEM lesson as an authentic engineering design challenge or attempt to understand an issue in which they learn and/or apply mathematics and science as needed to understand and/or address the challenge, students are more likely to view their learning as sense-making, drawing on multiple streams of both formal and informal knowledge.

Subjects

  • Cognition, Emotion, and Learning
  • Curriculum and Pedagogy

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