Date of Award

May 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering and Science Education

Committee Member

Dylan Dittrich-Reed

Committee Member

Courtney J Faber

Committee Member

Eliza Gallagher


Science epistemology, what we know about science and how we know it, is an essential part of scientific literacy. Individuals’ science epistemology allows them to comprehend and ascertain the validity of scientific claims, helping biology majors to become better scientists and non-biology majors to influence how biology knowledge informs social policy. As biology education shifts toward active learning and practice-focused approaches, there will be increasing opportunities to discuss what we know in biology and how we know it. For example, Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) present students with the opportunity to engage in authentic practices that result in biological knowledge production. However, little is known about how students employ their epistemologies while participating in these new kinds of learning environments, specifically how students evaluate, build and justify knowledge.

Recent work on epistemology has revealed that student epistemologies are not coherent structures that can be accessed and examined independent of context. Rather, these developing epistemologies comprise disparate cognitive resources that are activated in response to particular contexts. As such, a phenomenographic approach was employed to investigate the qualitatively different epistemic practices that undergraduate biology majors used in the context of building arguments in a biology CURE.

In this study, twenty undergraduate students were interviewed about the arguments they constructed in a research proposal poster presentation. Analysis of participant poster presentations and interviews revealed that participants approached argument construction from local (classroom) and global (scientific) perspectives. Additionally, when engaging with scientific information, participants discussed the validity of the information (epistemic cognition) and the processes behind how the information was constructed (epistemic metacognition). Each participant constructed two research questions: one developed in collaboration with instructors, and another constructed solely by the participant. As participants moved between the context of the two research questions, their argument practices shifted between local and global perspectives as well as between epistemic cognition and metacognition. Three distinct practice composites emerged from analysis of participant argument construction across these contexts: Validating, Enculturing, and Transitioning. Validating practices were aimed at matching information and practices to what participants perceived as instructor expectations. Enculturing practices were built around information sharing within a knowledge culture. Transitioning practices were applied when participants perceived differences between instructor-sourced information and information gathered through literature searchers and experiments. As students moved from the periphery of the classroom culture toward the center of this community, they used Validating, Transitioning, and finally, Enculturing practices.

These findings inform instructional practice by outlining contexts in which students discuss scientific knowledge production. Biology educators can create similar contexts to stimulate discussion about what biologists know and how they know it, thereby enhancing student understanding of biology epistemology. Furthermore, these findings support and extend previous research describing epistemology as context-dependent. During their interviews, students also discussed dissonance between their classroom perspectives and their perspectives on how professional science constructs knowledge. These reflections led to student descriptions of their beliefs about biological knowledge. These insights invite future research into how student biology epistemologies develop, and how the culture of the classroom contributes to the development of these epistemologies.



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