How do we know what students know?

Learning is context dependent, yet we want students to transfer knowledge from one context to another. For this reason, we often try to include multiple contexts and examples in our instruction hoping students are more likely to transfer knowledge. Yet, if we don’t spend time helping kids construct abstract generalizations, this transfer is likely to be less than robust. However, that discussion is for another time.

Once we have engaged kids with particular ideas, how do we figure out the extent to which they have learned? Berland & Crucet (2016) explored student learning of the epistemology of science (nature of science) and wrestled with how to best determine student learning of ideas. Their main arguments centered on the highly contextualized nature of these very abstract ideas. Not only is the students’ learning of these ideas contextualized, but the ideas themselves will vary depending upon context (e.g. different science disciplines have subtly different epistemologies).

Based on my reading of the study, Berlan & Crucet (2016) first argue that enacted epistemologies provides a more accurate understanding of the students’ thinking than direct questions about their views.  Then, the authors argue that the level of students’ epistemological sophistication should be based on the extent to which the enacted views are productive. Their qualm with this approach is that the “productive” measure relies to heavily on the assessors view of “productive”.

Then, the researchers suggest that students’ awareness of the epistemological approaches may be a strong indicator of student learning of the epistemological ideas. That is, are students aware of the epistemological choices. Yet, gaining access to this awareness would be hard to do and would require more direct questions about their views rather than observing what students do.

Finally, the authors propose that students’ rationales for their epistemological decisions could be useful. That is, if teachers or researchers ask students why they chose various approaches, the students’ responses would provide contextualized and detailed information about the students’ epistemological views.

I’ve always been a fan of asking students why they are making particular decisions as I want students to be more reflective, but I’m not sure I completely agree that asking them more direct questions about their knowledge is always a bad idea. I suppose, as with all things, a little bit of both may be useful.


Berland, L. & Crucet, K. (2016). Epistemological Trade-Offs: Accounting for Context When Evaluating Epistemological Sophistication of Student Engagement in Scientific Practices. Science Education, 100(1), 5-29.

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