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  • 2021isaacPhD

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Epistemic Practices: A framework for characterising engineering students’ epistemic cognition

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Siara Isaac
Publication date28/07/2021
Number of pages195
Awarding Institution
Award date28/07/2021
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Solving complex, open-ended problems is frequently characterised as the central activity of engineering. Such problem solving requires a high level of epistemic sophistication, however, few studies have investigated the relationship between epistemic cognition and engineering students’ problem solving strategies. While there are several models of epistemic cognition, they consistently characterise approaching knowledge as though there is a single, absolute correct answer as naïve. Higher epistemic sophistication is taken to involve more nuanced beliefs such as perceiving knowledge as relative, contingent, and contextual. However, decades of active research have failed to produce robust quantitative instruments. This thesis exploits a recent conceptual development which posits that selecting an effective epistemic approach for a specific knowledge claim is a better measure of sophistication.

By focusing on observable, fine-grained actions to characterise how engineering students approach, justify, and evaluate contexualised scientific knowledge, this study eschews overarching epistemic beliefs in favour of epistemic practices to develop a rich portrait of engineering problem solving. The grounded theory analysis of the think-aloud problem solving protocols and interviews with 30 undergraduate engineering students produced a set of eight epistemic practices, each of which are described at four levels of sophistication.

While the strict separation between epistemic beliefs and actions is distinctive of
this project, five of the epistemic practices are coherent with prior models and
three are novel and engineering-specific: equations as imperfect models of reality, precision and estimates, and answer‐checking strategies. Finally, this study proposes the diversity of students’ epistemic practices as a measure of epistemic sophistication, rather than effectiveness. Diversity has the dual benefits of being reflective of expert problem solving and attenuating the effects of students’ prior knowledge, disciplinary background, and the specific activity. The epistemic practices are presented as a coherent framework that is accessible to engineering teachers and facilitates application in other contexts.