Understanding the role of epistemological beliefs in post-graduate studies: motivation and conceptions of learning in first-year law students
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The complexity of legal education provides an interesting backdrop for examining students’ conceptions about learning, including their epistemological beliefs about learning and instruction. Students typically are categorized as more or less sophisticated in their beliefs about the simplicity and certainty of knowledge, the control and speed of learning, and the source of knowledge. Research has described students’ epistemological development either as unidimensional and occurring in sequential stages or as multidimensional and represented as a system of dimensions. In the latter view, beliefs are independent, meaning students can be sophisticated in one belief and less sophisticated in another, and, because of the asynchronous nature of beliefs, can simultaneously hold opposing beliefs of the same dimension. Yet, epistemological beliefs researchers do not often consider how students’ asynchronous epistemological beliefs, even their less sophisticated ones, are used in productive ways. This study examined these issues with first-year law students, chosen because they represent learners who have demonstrated prior academic success and yet are now novices in a complex and highly competitive learning environment. Fifty-eight first-year law students completed surveys of epistemological beliefs (5 dimensions), motivations (intrinsic and extrinsic goal orientations, self-efficacy, and effort management), approaches to learning (surface, deep, and achievement orientations), and need for cognition (students’ preference for engaging in complex cognitive tasks). Results demonstrated that first-year law students varied within the upper half of the total epistemological beliefs scale and ranged from less relativistic to more relativistic. A cluster analysis was performed and resulted in a three-cluster solution with significant multivariate differences between cluster groups broadly described as less, moderate, and more relativistic. Significant differences between cluster groups in their ratings of extrinsic motivation, surface approaches to learning, achievement motivation, and need for cognition were found. A more detailed understanding of law students’ conceptions of their learning experiences was obtained by interviewing three students, one from each of the cluster groups, near the completion of their final year of law school. Interviews supported the idea that while students varied in their epistemological beliefs, they had all successfully made use of their more and less sophisticated beliefs to accomplish their learning goals.