Investigating Conceptual Change and Its Association with Secondary School Students' Epistemological Beliefs

Project Number
OER 40/08 RS

Project Duration
May 2009 - September 2013


In the past two decades, a plethora of studies have been conducted to investigate students' conceptions with regard to myriad topics in science, particularly those that differ from established scientific knowledge�these conceptions are commonly termed as alternative conceptions (ACs). As there has been a wealth of information generated by the abundant supply of studies about the description and identification of ACs in the science education literature, some experts highlighted the need for investigations that focus on the translation of this wealth of information to practical instructional strategies that can be utilized in the classroom (Wandersee, Mintzes and Novak, 1993). Wandersee, Mintzes and Novak (1993) further suggested a new research agenda that shifts from understanding of ACs to understanding and promoting conceptual change. Experts in the field have not reached a consensus as to which model to adopt to accurately describe the mechanism of conceptual change. Some regard conceptual change as slow and gradual (e.g., Chinn & Brewer, 1983; Liu & Tang, 2004; Vosniadou, 1999) while others consider conceptual change as a radical process (e.g., Posner, Strike, Hewson & Gertzog, 1982; Strike & Posner, 1985). The emerging trend in research now seems to lean towards the adoption of the former model, commonly termed as the evolutionary model, as more researchers recognize that shifts from one conception to another is more a ''process of conceptual development'' from an individual's existing conceptions to new conceptions that are more fruitful than the former, and less as a process of replacing the former by the latter conceptions (Duit, 1999, p. 265). Further research is needed before a consensual model of conceptual change is accepted by major players in the field of science education. An aspect of conceptual change that has been minimally explored is its association with students' epistemological beliefs. Epistemological belief is a construct that has been receiving more attention lately. It refers to beliefs on ''how knowledge is constructed and evaluated and how knowing occurs'' (May & Etkina, 2002, p. 1249). Epistemology can be used as an interpretive lens that can be used in understanding the development and modification of students' conceptions. The possible link between epistemological beliefs and conceptual change can be traced to the reports of some researchers. Based on May and Etkina's (2002) review of studies, epistemological beliefs tend to influence students' learning orientations, in the form of motivation, and students' ability to organize their understanding of science concepts. They also reported that college students who are more sophisticated and articulate epistemologically (in terms of self-reflection) tend to have greater learning gains after instruction. A case study done by Lising and Elby (2005), which featured observations and interviews of a university physics student, underscored the fact that students' difficulties in some physics concepts (electric field and light and shadow) have epistemological origins. Some components of epistemological beliefs are related to students' predilection to abandon their ACs: Those who believe in the stability of science knowledge may find it difficult to abandon their na�ve ideas (Qian & Alvermann, 1995) and to integrate their understanding of a topic (Songer & Linn, 1991). As only one study has been located delving directly into the association between EBs and conceptual change, further work is needed to be done before this association can be recognized as more than just a spurious one. A novel approach that will be used in this study of conceptual change is the consideration of the change in the strength of the students' ACs. The strength of the students' ACs will be determined using a three-tier test, which is an extension of the standard two-tier test. A three-tier test has never been used before for studying conceptual change.

Funding Source

Related Projects