The Development of Epistemological Beliefs

This purpose of this section is to present research pertaining to the development of epistemological beliefs. How does age and education influence one’s development of knowledge theories? By answering this question, educational psychologists are able to better influence learners’ beliefs about the nature of knowledge and learning, and thus, contribute to more positive student outcomes. The theoretical models described below are summaries provided in Hofer and Pintrick’s (1997) literature review.

Perry categorized the development of young adults’ epistemological beliefs based on interviews and questionnaires with Harvard University undergraduates. He theorized that students first come to college regarding knowledge as simple, certain, and transmitted by authority figures. These students were deemed as dualists. As the students progress through their undergraduate experiences, students transition to believe knowledge is more complex, tentative, and formulated through critical reasoning. This progression is captured in Perry’s model, containing nine positions across four categorizations. Perry’s model is presented in the table below:

Category Position Reality Knowledge

Critical Thinking


Positions 1 and 2 The truth of the world is known my authority figures. Knowledge is transmitted from authority to learner.

Critical thinking is unnecessary, as authority knows the truth.


Positions 3 and 4 Begins to recognize uncertainties and diversity in the world, as generated by humans minds There may be more than one solution to a problem.

Critical thinking is a process used to compare opinions to determine truth or falsehood.


Position 5 One’s reality is contextual and unique to individual perspective. The individual creates knowledge in the process of meaning making.

Critical thinking is used to choose and affirm one’s opinions. Viewpoints are evaluated based on credibility of source and evidence.

Commitment within Relativism

Positions 7, 8, and 9 Reality is not directly knowable. Knowing is an ongoing process and activity. It is important to take responsibility for committed beliefs.

Critical thinking is valued as a means of integrating knowledge from other sources with personal experience and beliefs.

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Ryan (1984) used seven items from Perry’s (1968) questionnaire to classify students into two separate categories: dualists or relativists. Dualists perceived the world in terms of black-and-white, right or wrong. Relativist students regarded knowledge as contextual and subjective.

Originally, Magolda used Perry’s model to classify students using the Measure of Epistemological Reflection (MER) questionnaire in undergraduate and graduate student samples. In her work, she discovered that some of the obtained student responses failed to fit neatly into Perry’s categories. Motivated to investigate further, she proposed the epistemological reflection model from open-ended interviews and questionnaire responses. Her model contained for different epistemological ways of knowing, each operating under a specific assumption. These assumptions contribute to expectations held by both teachers and learners. The assumptions align with the Perry’s developmental categories. Magolda’s assumptions from her epistemological reflection model as outlined in the table below:

Perry’s Category

Baxter’s Assumption

Description of Assumptions in Ways of Knowing


Absolute Knowledge is certain and authorities have all the answers.



Authorities are not all knowing. Knowledge contains some uncertainties.



Authority is questioned as the sole source of knowledge. Individuals can hold their own, equally valid opinions on knowledge.

Commitment within Relativism


Knowledge is constructible. Learners hold their own perspective used in the judgment of knowledge. Knowing is an ongoing activity.


King and Kitchener built upon the previous research presented above and constructed the reflective judgment model from 15 years of interviews with high school students. The reflective judgment model consists of seven stages described by the way in which people perceive and reason through poorly structured problems. The seven stages are included in three levels presented in the table below:



Perception of Problem


Stages 1, 2, and 3

Every problem has a correct solution or answer.


Stages 4 and 5

Growing realization that one cannot know all with complete certainty. Knowledge is contextual and relative.

Reflective Stages 6 and 7

The problem solver and “knower” is active in the construction of meaning. An individual is capable of manipulating knowledge to draw new conclusions. Critical thinking and probabilistic justification techniques are used.


Kuhn’s argumentative reasoning theory relates thinking to individuals’ response to solving everyday problems lacking clear-cut solutions. Kuhn conducted interviews with participants of varied age cohorts. He asked each participant to provide justification towards an established position and a rebuttal. Kuhn’s findings resemble past results of Perry and Kitchner and colleagues. She presented three categories of epistemological views, as described in the table below:

Category Perception of Knowledge

Perception of Expertise


Knowledge is definite and absolute. Facts are emphasized. Expertise is the key to knowledge. Experts are certain in their beliefs.


Individuals are entitled to form their own notions of knowledge. Knowledge is regarded as an individual’s self-processions.

Experts are inconsistent. All views have equal legitimacy.

Evaluative Theories are modifiable. Multiple viewpoints can be contrasted and evaluated to assess relative merits.

Expertise is relative and must be evaluated against other perspectives.



Hall, M. (2013, December 13). Perry’s Scheme: Understanding the Intellectual Development of College-Aged Students. Retrieved from

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, 88-140.

Schommer, M. (1998). The influence of age and education on epistemological beliefs. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 68,551-562.


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